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10.05 The Promised Land

Medgar Evers, a Mississippi native and World War II veteran, became a civil rights leader to end the racism he had experienced his entire life including when the University of Mississippi Law School denied him admission. He became field director of the Mississippi NAACP in 1954, organizing voter registration campaigns, demonstrations, and boycotts to end Jim Crow in Jackson, Mississippi. A constant target of death threats, Evers was murdered by a white supremacist on June 12, 1963, leaving others to carry on his mission.

Voting rights would play a central role in Mississippi in 1964 during Freedom Summer, when the Council of Federated Organizations and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which included leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, organized young northern college students to register black voters, form freedom schools, and investigate civil rights violations. Black Mississippians played a crucial role that summer working with and housing the students.

The nation was shocked when three Freedom Summer volunteers in Philadelphia, Mississippi - Michael Schwerner, a graduate student at Columbia University, James Chaney, a young Mississippi activist, and Andrew Goodman, a student at Queens College, CUNY - were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. A spotlight was focused on injustice in Mississippi, increasing pressure for a federal law guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote.

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the1964 Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Behind him are posters of murdered Freedom Summer workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.

The final push for a Voting Rights Act culminated in March 1965, in the Selma to Montgomery marches. Lawmen violently stopped the first march using tear gas and nightsticks. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a second march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, but turned around to prevent a confrontation. On March 25, over 32,000 marchers safely crossed the bridge under a court order of protection. King's strategy of non-violent civil disobedience worked. A week later, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress in support of voting rights legislation. On August 6, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, effectively ending Jim Crow barriers to voting in the United States. King was assassinated in April 1968, his dream of equality unrealized, but the Voting Rights Act and the expansion of democracy it allowed are a legacy of the movement that he, Evers, Schwerner, Chaney, Goodman, and many others fought and died for.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 1964.

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