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They called it Freedom Summer - 10 weeks in 1964 when more than 700 student volunteers from around the country joined organizers and local activists in a historic effort to end the vestiges of racial oppression across the South, including what PBS described as "one of the nation's most viciously racist, segregated states."
That state was Mississippi. And before it was over, three men - James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner - were viciously beaten and killed by the Ku Klux Klan. During this 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, as these three men are being hailed as heroes, the civil rights work to maintain the freedoms won during the 1950s and '60s continues every day through volunteer activists who may never be awarded for their dedication, except with the personal knowledge that they did their part for justice.
This summer alone, thousands of volunteers are again going door to door, visiting churches, community centers and events, registering people to vote. The NAACP and other national organizations are leading the charge with a goal to exceed the number of voters reached just before the last election: more than 350,000 new registrants and at least 1.2 million people mobilized to the polls, according to NAACP on Facebook.
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Those who do this legwork are respectfully called "foot soldiers." Others, like NAACP National Board Chairman Roslyn Brock, work in volunteer positions throughout the year. Many - like Brock, the fourth woman and youngest person to assume that volunteer position - are driven by nothing more than a call to service and the compassion to make a difference.
"I spend at least 20 to 25 hours a week on NAACP Board-related matters," says Brock, who is also a minister and a full-time vice president for Bon Secours Health System. "It is a labor of love that requires tremendous patience, commitment to advancing the mission and much prayer."
Some volunteer activists, such as Rosemary Harris Lytle, president of the NAACP conference comprising Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, belong to families of activists. As a child growing up in Gary, Ind., she watched her grandmother Mary Elizabeth Banks do volunteer door-to-door voter registration in the political campaign of Richard Gordon Hatcher, Gary's first black mayor.
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"It was modeled for me," she says, "the responsibility to community and this responsibility that we talk about - giving back." She is married to retired U.S. Army Capt. Frank Lytle, an engineer and also a community activist whom she got to know while they both were doing "movement work." Her 26-year-old daughter, now working in the labor movement, has also been a committed NAACP volunteer through the Youth Council and the ACT-SO program, and she even received an NAACP scholarship. Rosemary says passing the torch to ensure that our ancestors' labor was not in vain seems to be a natural occurrence in our communities.
"It happens because someone established a model, somehow it's in our DNA to want to make sure that our communities are better," she says. "It is tempting in today's world with so many things that need to be fixed all over again to say we can't make any difference: I thought that they fixed voting rights. I thought that the workplace was already equitable. I thought that we had a fair and just criminal justice system. I thought that all these things were in place.
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"And so people might say, 'What different can I make?' And I think that we can make a tremendous difference if we allow it. Our presence is not only needed, it's required. And if enough of us continue to say that, this drumbeat of activism that some feel will resonate with more people and we'll all be able to attack these things again."
Photo: Courtesy of National NAACP
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