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But if Freedom Summer didn't achieve what some hoped it would, it did help to break open the South's closed political system. (Mississippi now has more African Americans in elective office than any other state.) The Summer Project proved to be a training ground for activists who went on to lead the campus Free Speech, antiwar, and women's movements of the 1960s and '70s.

Many who took part find much to celebrate in the summer of '64.

"I think that every time we got someone to register to vote—to attempt to register to vote, whether they were successful or not; every time we got someone white allowed to stay in their home; every time we got someone to stand up and say, 'Yes, I'm going to the mass meeting,' we had changed them. You don't do that and then undo it two weeks later, and go back to what you were before that act," says Mississippi native Lawrence Guyot.

"We were not the only people affected by the Summer Project," argues Dorrie Ladner. "It helped to free many white people who were there, who may have had good intentions but were oppressed and were as frightened as we were."

"But Mississippi transformed us more than we transformed Mississippi—much more profoundly," says white volunteer Lester Galt.

"People came out of the Mississippi Summer Project and looked at the questions that affected our lives ever after—questions about gender, questions about sexuality, questions about war and peace—and we had real knowledge of a way to function," says Robbie Osman.

The Summer Project is "the only thing that could have happened"—the only way finally to shock the nation into dismantling Jim Crow, says former SNCC staff member Casey Hayden. "Given who we were, and what we were doing, and what was available as resources, that was the only thing to do. The fact that we could do it, as young as we were, was a truly incredible historical event. Amazing historical event. And it was a great thing, it was a great thing that we did. It was a grand thing that we did."

Many Freedom Summer veterans never stopped working for social justice. To take just one example: Bob Moses, the leading architect of Freedom Summer, is the creator of the Algebra Project, an innovative and highly-regarded program that teaches math to underprivileged children.

The year after Freedom Summer, John Lewis and hundreds of others marched for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, and were clubbed by riot police. That year, Congress banned the mechanisms Southern states had used to disenfranchise African Americans.

"The Mississippi summer project laid the foundation, created the climate, for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, to make it possible for hundreds and thousands and millions of blacks to become registered voters," Lewis says.

In the end, trying to pin down the legacy of Freedom Summer is as complicated as summarizing the meaning of race in America. But the Mississippi summer does stand as a startling expression of hope. And of a willingness by young black and white Americans to throw themselves into the grinding gears of a racist culture. It's a story that's especially striking from the perspective of our more jaded times.

Alabama native Bob Zellner, the son of one-time Klan members, worked for SNCC for six years. He was beaten and jailed in five states alongside black civil rights workers. He insists he did it all out of self-interest.

"People always said, 'What made you go South to help the black people?'" Zellner says. "And I always said, 'Well, first of all, I didn't go South, I was already South. And I never set out to help the black people. I was looking for my own redemption and my own freedom.'"

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