Activism depends on more than just idealism. It is not enough that people be attitudinally inclined toward activism. There must also exist formal organizations or informal social networks that structure and sustain collective action. The volunteers were not appreciably more committed to Freedom Summer than the no-shows. Their close ties to the project, however, left them in a better position to act on their commitment. Those volunteers who remain active today are distinguished from those who are not by virtue of their stronger organizational affiliations and continued ties to other activists. Attitudes dispose people to action; social structures enable them to act on these dispositions. Thus by sustaining political organizations and maintaining links to others, the volunteers are preserving the social contexts out of which movements have typically emerged.

McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. Oxford University Press; Oxford. 1988. p. 237

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First, to a remarkable extent, they have remained faithful to the political vision that drew them to Mississippi nearly a quarter century ago. Second, they have paid for this lifetime commitment with a degree of alienation and social isolation that has only increased with time. The political and cultural wave that once carried them forward so prominently continues to recede, putting more and more distance between them and mainstream society with each passing day. In a sense, the volunteers are anachronisms. They have remained idealists in a cynical age. They continue to tout community in a society seemingly antagonistic to the idea. They are, for the most part, unrepentant leftists in an era dominated by the right. If, however, these qualities make the volunteers anachronistic, it is more a comment on contemporary America than on the volunteers themselves. In their view, it is they who have kept the faith while America has lost it.

McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. Oxford University Press; Oxford. 1988. p. 232

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As radical an organization as SNCC had always been, its modus operandi had remained but an aggressive variation on the “petition the masters” strategy. Its approach depended upon the federal government’s willingness to respond to “moral suasion,” albeit of a forceful sort. Events in Mississippi had undermined SNCC’s confidence in such a strategy. But it was the convention challenge that foreclosed this strategic option once and for all. In the eyes of the SNCC leadership, the Northern liberal elite had finally shown its true colors; moral force had proven no match for raw political power.

It was one thing to come to this conclusion, quite another to know how to act on it. Having based their entire operation on a politics of personal witness, the SNCC leadership faced enormous obstacles in trying to devise a new tactical agenda. If moral suasion had not worked, what would? Stokely Carmichael’s call for “black power” some two years later was as much a rhetorical symbol of the organization’s failure to resolve this dilemma as it was a real solution to the problem. In the face of impotence, one boasts of potency.

Ironically, then, it was Freedom Summer and the MFDP challenge—the crowning glory of SNCC’s existential style—that exposed the limits of the approach and left the organization in a quandary as to how to proceed. Efforts to resolve the dilemma would embroil the organization in almost continuous controversy for the remainder of its short life.

McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. Oxford University Press; Oxford. 1988. p. 121–2

Obviously this has huge relevance to the contemporary climate change activist movement, which is similarly confronted with ineffectiveness and riven by disagreement on how to proceed in response.

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Using credentials borrowed from sympathetic delegates from other states,a contingent of MFDP [Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party] members gained access to the [1964 Democratic National] convention floor and staged a sit-in in the Mississippi section. The sight of black Mississipians being carried from the convention floor by uniformed, white security officers was but the ultimate ironic denouement to Freedom Summer.

The convention challenge represented the high-water mark for SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. The challenge capped what had been an exhilerating but enormously draining and ultimately debilitating summer for the organization. It was not just that the staff was exhausted from months of nonstop effort, or that the challenge itself had failed. From the outset, James Forman and others in SNCC’s inner circle had cautioned that the chances of the challenge succeeding were slim. Instead the effects of the summer cut to the very heart of the organization, calling into question its raison d’être and undermining the very philosophy on which it had been based. The principal components of this philosophy were nonviolence, integration, and an existential politics of moral suasion. There had always been opposition to each of these tenets within SNCC. But consensus within the organization continued to favor all three up to and during the Summer Project. The effect of the project, however, was to destroy this consensus once and for all. All three of these fundamental organizing principles came under increasing attack.

McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. Oxford University Press; Oxford. 1988. p. 120–1

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The fact that about 17,000 blacks traveled to the courthouse attests to the persistence of the volunteers and the extraordinary courage of those attempting to register. Although only 1,600 of the completed applications were accepted by state registrars, the lonely trips to the courthouse proved to be a major step toward the democratization of voting in Mississippi and throughout the South. The many instances of delay, obstruction, and harassment of the applicants were duly recorded by the volunteers, thus providing the evidence for several important voter discrimination suits. In addition, the inequalities uncovered over the course of the summer helped to generate momentum on behalf of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Just as important as these formal political consequences was the effect this activity had on the black community. For its part, the white community observed the registration attempts with something more than benign indifference. In many communities, newspaper editors did their share for the old order by printing daily lists of those attempting to register, thereby making the names of the registrants available to anyone who might by inclined to take offencse at such a brazen act of defiance. Historically, the publication of such lists had been enough to deter all but the most courageous, or craziest, blacks from trying to register to vote. But as more and more people donned their Sunday best for the trip to the courthouse, a curious thing happened: the daily newspaper lists of those registering to vote were transformed from an effective means of social control into a vehicle for gaining prestige in the black community. As one volunteer proudly noted in a letter home, “in Panola County now the Negro citizens look with pride at their names in the Panolian; they point out the names of friends and neighbours and hurry to the courthouse to be enlisted on the honour roll.”

McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. Oxford University Press; Oxford. 1988. p. 81

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Therein lies their significance. For historical currents do not irresistibly propel themselves and everyone in their path. No matter what their broader structural or ideological roots, they both carry along and are carried along by people, who are not merely the passengers of history, but its pilots as well. In the end, social history is little more than the sum of countless individual choices aggregated over time. That is appears otherwise may owe to the fact that although we can do as we choose, we can seldom choose as we please. Ordinarily, people’s choices have the effect of reconfirming and reinforcing the “normal order of things.” What was remarkable about the Sixties was that large numbers of people began, through their choices, to challenge all manner of longstanding social, political and cultural arrangements. This process did not proceed in random fashion, however. Instead, as in all diffusion processes, the objects of change—attitudes about the war, styles of dress, tastes in music, etc.—spread outward in ever-widening circles from an initial core of innovators. The broader societal significance of Freedom Summer lies in the stimulus it afforded this process. Through its radicalization of many of the volunteers, the project created a nucleus of political and (counter) cultural pioneers who returned to their respective colleges and communities outside the South intent on “bringing the message of Mississippi to the rest of the nation.” Though it differed from volunteer to volunteer, that message variously embraced conceptions of the United States, politics, community, human relationships, and sexuality clearly at odds with mainstream values. In short order, these conceptions would attract a wide following, especially among those of the baby-boom generation. That these conceptions would, in turn, be supplanted by even more radical ones many times before the “Sixties wave” began to recede is of little importance. What is important is the role the volunteers played in the formative stages of this process.

McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. Oxford University Press; Oxford. 1988. p. 12–13

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The Atlantic has an interesting article by Kurt Anderson about why so many Americans believe the crazy things they do. He argues that it’s both rooted in history and particular to the ideologies and self-understanding of the United States:

America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful—but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump. In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.

It also talks at length about the Esalen Institute in California.

It’s not clear if there is any route back from the aggravation of these relativist, paranoid, post-truth phenomena, as technology enables everyone with an outlandish view to find others who agree and consensus breaks down about which sources of information are credible and who can validate knowledge:

Before the web, cockamamy ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or as widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail. Before the web, institutionalizing any one alternate reality required the long, hard work of hundreds of full-time militants. In the digital age, however, every tribe and fiefdom and principality and region of Fantasyland—every screwball with a computer and an internet connection—suddenly had an unprecedented way to instruct and rile up and mobilize believers, and to recruit more. False beliefs were rendered both more real-seeming and more contagious, creating a kind of fantasy cascade in which millions of bedoozled Americans surfed and swam.

Any development which we might optimistically hope would drive us collectively back toward an objective and empirical view of reality grounded in evidence might just as well fuel the social and psychological forces supporting post-truth thinking.

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