story | selected interviews | slideshow

Listen Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
How to listen

To see the music list from the audio click here.

Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

The summer of 1964 would become famous for three murders, but three earlier killings led the Mississippi civil rights movement to launch Freedom Summer.

Herbert Lee, a black dairy farmer and NAACP member near the south Mississippi town of Liberty, was one of the first to join SNCC's voter registration efforts. Lee lived across the road from his state representative, E.H. Hurst. "In 1961, you know you're talking about a white state legislator," says Michael Sayer, a white New Yorker who was on the SNCC staff in the early 1960's.

Hurst and Lee "had grown up across the road from each other ... and they were friends," Sayer stresses. "They broke bread together ... their children played together."

The friendship illustrates that segregation was not an expression of racial hatred, Sayer argues. It was a strictly enforced division of power.

"When Herbert Lee got involved in the voter registration in 1961, he stepped across this cultural divide. And E.H. Hurst invited Herbert Lee to see him down at the cotton gin, and he assassinated Herbert Lee," Sayer says.

Hurst claimed he'd shot Lee in self-defense. An all-white jury acquitted him—a typical verdict when white Southerners killed black ones.

"Really, it's the brutalizing of a people, and these deaths are sort of the ultimate forms of that," says Bob Moses, who was the cerebral and morally forceful leader of SNCC's Mississippi campaign in the early 1960s. He was in his mid-20s; that made him an elder in the movement. After growing up in Harlem, Moses had completed his master's degree in philosophy at Harvard, and taught high school mathematics for a couple of years before joining SNCC. Besides numerous beatings and jailings for his civil rights efforts, Moses survived a drive-by murder attempt in early 1963.

A few months later, in June of 1963, avowed white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith fired a single bullet through the back of Medgar Evers, Mississippi leader of the NAACP.

"When Medgar was assassinated it focused a lot of national attention on Mississippi and various individuals and groups were considering doing something," Moses says.

Later that fall, the assassination of President Kennedy shook the nation to its core. The Mississippi movement was traumatized, but also hopeful that the national turmoil might create an opening, a chance to "turn a corner," as Moses puts it.


©2018 American Public Media