5 things to know about Freedom Summer veteran Dr. Marshall Ganz

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Project, the Museum is hosting the National Youth Summit on Freedom Summer, a webcast on February 5, 2014, for high school students to learn about that crucial moment in the civil rights movement and to inspire young people to be active and engaged citizens. Harry Clarke, Joy Lyman, and Nick Nchamukong, the three interns working on the Freedom Summer Summit, had the chance to interview Dr. Marshall Ganz, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a veteran of the Freedom Summer project and other social movements, who will also be a panelist for the Summit. In this blog post, they share five things to know about Ganz.

Dr.Marshall Ganz. Image courtesy of marshallganz.com
Dr.Marshall Ganz. Image courtesy of marshallganz.com

1. It took Ganz about 30 years to graduate from college. Though he started at Harvard College in 1960, he didn't complete his undergraduate degree until 1992, after years of working in labor organizing. Ganz noted that he learned more living and working with Mississippi sharecroppers and victims of Jim Crow discrimination than he did during his first year of college. The everyday lives of Southern African Americans and the wisdom of veteran civil rights fighters were an inspirational force in his life.

2. Ganz was present in 1964 when a 104-year-old man, who was born a slave, became the third registered voter in Amite County, Mississippi, since Reconstruction. Like many places in the South, African Americans in Amite County were systematically denied the right to vote; only two African Americans had successfully registered to vote in county in the 100 years since Reconstruction. Ganz and other participants in the Mississippi Summer Project were heavily focused on registering black people to vote in such places.

He recalled a meeting called to plan the trip to the courthouse to attempt to register voters where there was a question of who the first new voter should be. The question came down to Herbert Lee, Jr., the son of Herbert Lee, Sr., a civil rights activist who had been murdered in cold blood for his work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and whose killer went unpunished. The other candidate was the aforementioned elderly man. It was this man, stooped by age and a lifetime of hard work, who was the first in line to register in the county that summer.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee brochure. Freedom Summer Project Director Robert “Bob” Moses, a panelist for the National Youth Summit, is featured in the bottom right corner.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee brochure. Freedom Summer Project Director Robert "Bob" Moses, a panelist for the National Youth Summit, is featured in the bottom right corner.

3. Ganz needed "Mississippi Eyes" to see the problems of discrimination in California, his home state. Despite his roots in a socially-conscious family, it wasn't until he returned home from Mississippi that Ganz remembers being aware of the problems of discrimination and inequality in California. He described the experience as seeing his home with "Mississippi" eyes, and it made him realize that Mississippi wasn't the exception in terms of discrimination; it was an example of an over-arching national problem. Ganz began working with the United Farm Workers movement headed by Cesar Chavez, where he applied the lessons of grassroots organizing he learned in the African American civil rights movement.

1970s United Farm Workers poster
1970s United Farm Workers poster

4. During the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, he helped build the grassroots elements. The decision to join President Obama's campaign was obvious for him. Ganz recalled how, during the Freedom Summer, the idea of an African American president was unthinkable—but he had the opportunity to help make it a reality. He also noted that President Obama was the first president to come out of an actual grassroots movement, but that the transition from being part of a movement to actually being president was a complex one.

5. Ganz has two big lessons about social movements: narratives and relationships.

  • He considers the entire civil rights movement as really a confluence of different narratives. He uses Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech as an example of this, because the speech combined biblical, religious language and images with a narrative of what America represented and what it should be. But the situation in Mississippi was different and required its own narrative. Freedom Summer organizer Bob Moses called Mississippi the "hard core" of racism in America exemplified by the unpunished murder of civil rights activist and local farmer Herbert Lee. It was these narratives that helped translate the movement into stories that people could connect with and understand.
  • In his lectures at the Kennedy School, Ganz emphasizes the importance of relationships in grassroots organizing and social movements. When talking about the Freedom Summer, Ganz was adamant that it was the Freedom Summer volunteers who actually learned more that summer than the residents of Mississippi. The point of the summer project wasn’t to teach the unregistered African Americans in the South how to vote, the true goal of the project was to inspire in them the leadership to continue the struggle for freedom and find the strength to do so inside them.

Ultimately, Ganz's advice on making real change is to keep pushing. This advice—derived from a lifetime of work in social, labor, and political movements—is that if change is to happen you have to keep pushing. He argued that the founding fathers designed America’s political system to be deliberate and slow to change. When discussing the Obama presidency, Ganz said that the president could not be a "king and prophet at the same time," meaning that as president he can't both be the impetus for major social change and reform and be the agent as well. That duty falls upon us. Ganz used the example how the force of the civil rights movement drove President Lyndon Johnson to pass the civil rights and voting rights acts of 1964 and 1965. Change, Ganz argued, has to come from the people.

To continue the conversation on these important topics and to learn more about Ganz, register and join us on February 5 at 12 PM EST. This blog post was coordinated by Christopher Wilson, Director of Experience and Program Design at the National Museum of American History, and Harry Clarke, Nicholas Nchamukong, and Joy Lyman.