The first time Howard Kirschenbaum registered voters in Mississippi was during the summer of 1964, when he was arrested and thrown in jail. The second time was on Tuesday, after returning to the Southern state more than a half-century later to support a new generation of voting rights activists. In the quiet of a rainy morning, Mr. Kirschenbaum helped to register students on the campus of the University of Mississippi, and before long, he was in tears. Memories of Freedom Summer 1964, the historic campaign to register African-American voters in Mississippi, came rushing back. “In that moment, there must have been five or six students, all waiting patiently to fill out the registration form,” said Mr. Kirschenbaum, 73, recalling the summer he spent in Moss Point, Miss., 54 years ago. “I am witnessing this moment. They want to vote. They are able to vote. The connection between then and now was so palpable. This is what we worked for all those years ago.”
Four veteran volunteers of Freedom Summer, now in their 70s and mostly retired, returned to the state this week to join a nonpartisan youth group, Mississippi Votes, for a voter registration campaign called Up2Us. Young and old, two full generations apart, gathered at a Jackson church, in nearby neighborhoods, on the balcony of an Oxford bookstore to talk about the perils and stakes of voter activism, then and now.
More than 50 years after Freedom Summer, with voting rights across the nation being whittled away by stricter requirements — requirements challenged in two Mississippi lawsuits as discriminatory — a new generation of youth are taking up the cause to increase voter registration and civic engagement, especially among young citizens and marginalized communities.