Civil Rights Activists Gather for Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary

Luminaries take the stage to discuss where the struggle for rights in America has been and where it's headed.

From left: CBS Sports broadcaster James Brown, Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg, attorney Evan Wolfson, and 'Face the Nation' moderator Bob Schieffer discuss the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. (Photo: Heather Wines/CBS Broadcasting Inc.)

Jul 25, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Hugh Ryan's work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast.

As the lights dimmed in New York City’s historic Ed Sullivan Theater, the faces of three young men—two white, one black—faded into view on the monitors. Fifty years ago this June, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were working in Neshoba County, Miss., as part of the Freedom Summer campaign to register African American voters. On the night of June 21, a lynch mob followed the three civil rights activists out of town, and members of the Ku Klux Klan shot them at close range.

These murders were the tipping point for the 1960s civil rights movement, and they helped precipitate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On June 24, CBS News hosted "50 Years Later: Civil Rights," a livestreaming interactive panel discussion with historians, activists, and civil rights luminaries such as Evan Wolfson, Jason Collins, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie Perez, and Harry Belafonte to commemorate the tragedy. Monitors onstage chronicled the many important civil rights moments that CBS had captured on film over the years, including the 44-day search for the bodies of the three murdered Freedom Summer campaigners.

“These three young men must be looked upon as the founding fathers of a new America,” rumbled Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a 13-term congressman. He is the only surviving member of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement.

No stranger to violence in the pursuit of justice, Lewis spoke eloquently about being beaten by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., just a year after Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were murdered.

Lewis’ idea of a new America—what it is, what it could be, how we got here, and how far we have to go—dominated the evening’s discussion. With prompts from the night's moderator, Face the Nation anchor Bob Schieffer, the panelists discussed the importance of education, the devastating effect of the prison-industrial complex, and new civil rights battles, such as the pursuit of marriage equality.

Lewis extolled the great strides the United States has already made. “I hear people say nothing has changed, and I say come and walk in my shoes,” he told the rapt audience.

The goal was to reflect on the movement's victories while looking forward to future civil rights gains. “We are not done until we all have full civil rights,” Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a leader in the campaign for marriage equality, told me backstage.

Panelists insisted that the struggle against racism was not over. In a raspy voice, Belafonte decried the injustices of the U.S. judicial system. Angry whispers of assent rose from the crowd as he declared, “We’re building more prison cells than schools.”

“If you are poor and live in a poor area in America, you will have a poor education,” added Perez.

Educator Pearl Lewis had been to the anniversary of the March on Washington and came to continue her “participation in these historic events.” She brought her niece Alexandria Albright because young people “have to know about civil rights so they can be strong people and give back to those who have given, and to this country.”

This ripple effect, furthering the conversation through the live audience and by streaming online, is exactly what David Goodman, president of CBS Live Experiences, hoped to foster. Thanks to CBS News’ archive of footage, “we have a real opportunity to create not just a very lively discussion but something that’s visually compelling” for younger generations, Goodman said.

“I’m only 21,” Albright said, and she is still learning about the history of civil rights in America. She hopes to bring the struggle for social justice to her study of media and communications at Pace University. “It’s interesting to find out what people actually went through.”