Fifty years later, voting rights and education remain their causes, activists say.
JACKSON, Miss. -- Veterans of the civil rights movement reunited this week at Tougaloo College here in what might be their final gathering, 50 years after the combat that defined them.
During "Freedom Summer" in 1964, Mississippi became their battlefield and Tougaloo their safe haven. Voting rights and education became their causes.
Bob Moses, just 29 then, led them. "Perhaps because of our youth, we took on the strategy of soldiers in a war," recalled Joyce Ladner, an activist and educator.
The danger they faced had been made real by the 1963 assassination of her friend, Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers. "If there was a wake-up call, that was it," she said. "We couldn't give up. We had to fight."
Nearly 1,000 volunteers, most of them college students, trained for Freedom Summer in Ohio before joining those already working in the civil rights movement in Mississippi.
With the first days of Freedom Summer came the awful news of the June 21 disappearances of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who had gone to investigate the Ku Klux Klan's burning of a Neshoba County church and the beatings of members. Their bodies were recovered on Aug. 4 that year.
Although there was some fear, civil rights workers moved beyond that fear and made Freedom Summer a success, Ladner said.
Today, the FBI building in Jackson is named after the trio and the former FBI agent in charge, Roy Moore, who headed that investigation.
On Wednesday, Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber welcomed the veterans attending the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference this week. "Because you took a stand, I have the right to sit anywhere I want," he said.
Tougaloo President Beverly Hogan reminded those gathered of the history of the institution, which served as a staging area for many civil rights protests. "The reason you're here today is Tougaloo was here 50 years ago," she said.
At the time, Mississippi lawmakers tried — and failed — to revoke Tougaloo's charter.
Freedom Summer "changed Mississippi and the nation," said civil rights leader Hollis Watkins. "The struggle is not over yet. There is work that still needs to be done."
Derrick Johnson, president of the state NAACP, said the movement began far before the 1960s, citing the work of many pioneers, including crusader Ida B. Wells, who exposed the lynchings of African-Americans.
The work "continues today," he said. "We are the civil rights movement."
For too long, Mississippi has been sold as a "cheap labor state," he said. "If you increase the quality of education, you increase the pay of those jobs."
He questioned the privatization of education. "It might be better for 10 percent of kids, but what about the other 90 percent?" he asked.
Some civil rights leaders, including Chuck McDew, say they support a constitutional amendment that would guarantee a right to a quality education.
Such an amendment, he said, needs to become a reality now "because it will take a half century to get that job done."