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In June of 1964, about 500 students from colleges in the North met on a college campus in Oxford, Ohio, for weeklong training sessions sponsored by the National Council of Churches.

"We had to tell these young people exactly what they were getting ready to get involved in," says Mississippi native and then-SNCC staff member Hollis Watkins. "They had to be prepared to go to jail, they had to be prepared to be beaten, and they had to be prepared to be killed. And if they were not prepared for either one or all three of those, then they probably should reconsider coming to Mississippi."

SNCC and CORE staff lectured the volunteers on the dismal status of blacks in Mississippi; they taught them voter-registration techniques and non-violent philosophy. They also gave the Northerners rules for survival in the segregated South. "No interracial groups travelling, day or night, unless absolutely necessary," recalls Bob Zellner, the white SNCC staff member from Alabama. "And if that happened ... whoever was in the minority would be hidden, covered with blankets, laying on the floor boards, whatever."

The mostly-black Mississippi staff members of the civil rights groups, SNCC and CORE, were shell-shocked and bitter after several years of trying to register black voters. Some had been jailed and beaten repeatedly. Most of the white volunteers were used to privilege—or, at least, safety. The chasm between the two groups showed up early at the training sessions in Ohio. SNCC staff showed film of a fat, drawling Mississippi county registrar turning away would-be black voters, recalls white volunteer Robbie Osman, then a 19-year-old from New York City.

"Someone had tried to register and he was sending them back and being vaguely threatening," Osman says, "and it seemed to us, the young white college students, that this guy was as ridiculous, as pathetic, as caricature a racist as we ever expected to see. And we laughed. And to our complete surprise—I speak for myself, I really didn't expect it—this horrified the SNCC veterans. Folks stood up and said, 'How can we go to Mississippi with you? How can we put our lives on the line with you guys? You really don't have a clue as to what's going on, do you? You really don't know what this guy represents in the context in which he really lives.' And I think it was a moment in which we all had to stop and realize the gap between us. If we were to reach across it, it was gonna take a lot of reaching."

But if the volunteers had any doubt about the gravity of their mission, those doubts could not last. On June 21, the day after the first Freedom Summer volunteers arrived in Mississippi, three young civil rights workers disappeared. They'd been pulled over by a sheriff's deputy near the small town of Philadelphia.

One of the missing was James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian and a staff member with the Congress of Racial Equality. With him were two young white men from New York: fellow CORE staff member Michael Schwerner, and summer volunteer Andrew Goodman. The disappearance made national headlines and drew a high-profile response from the federal government; President Johnson ordered 200 Marines and eight helicopters to join in the search for the three.

The earlier murders of Herbert Lee, Louis Allen, and other blacks had gone virtually unnoticed outside Mississippi. The country's strikingly different response to the loss of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner drove home a central point of Freedom Summer.

"The very reason that we were there as white college students," says Robbie Osman, "was that unless the country's attention was focused by the presence of those people that this country was accustomed to caring about, namely white college students, nothing would happen. And if it was only people who this country was not accustomed to caring about, namely black Mississippians, then nothing would happen."

The bodies of the three young men were found six weeks later, buried under an earthen dam. Mississippi authorities failed to charge anyone for the killings. In 1967 the federal government convicted seven whites, including a Neshoba County sheriff's deputy, Cecil Price.


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