The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) was an umbrella organization formed in 1962 to unite civil rights groups throughout Mississippi. Its members included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). COFO constituted one of the first attempts to unify civic groups in a statewide coalition. The NAACP’s Aaron Henry, CORE’s David Dennis, and SNCC’s Bob Moses founded and led COFO.
COFO became a major proponent of black voting. In 1963 the group organized the Freedom Ballot for Governor, a mock election intended to give blacks experience at the ballot box and to communicate to all levels of government that African Americans desired to vote and would exercise that right if given the opportunity. The campaign’s platform demanded school desegregation and the protection of voting rights. The group chose Henry as candidate for governor and Ed King, a white minister, as Henry’s running mate. COFO held rallies across the state and employed one hundred white college students to assist the campaign. Blacks cast more than eighty-three thousand ballots despite white intimidation, debunking the contention that African Americans did not desire suffrage. While the vote had no legal standing, the campaign further united black Mississippians in their quest for civil rights.
COFO subsequently expanded its operations and organized the massive 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration project. Building on the success of using white student-activists during the Freedom Vote, Moses and Dennis invited hundreds of northern white college students to participate in Freedom Summer, a strategy that created considerable controversy but also generated media coverage. The students and thousands of local blacks attended freedom schools, where they received training in voter registration techniques and nonviolence. COFO experienced a major setback when volunteers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman disappeared just before Freedom Summer began and were later found murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. White and black COFO volunteers nevertheless canvassed the state to register blacks to vote, participating in rallies, attending freedom schools, and living in black communities. The murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman as well as other violent reprisals by Mississippi whites hampered the project, and only a small number of blacks registered.
COFO also founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964 in hopes of allowing African Americans to participate in the state’s party system, which excluded them. MFDP members attempted to attend state political functions but were barred by whites. The group also endeavored to join forces with the national Democratic Party but found efforts there stymied as well. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Pres. Lyndon Johnson feared alienating white southerners and proposed allowing only two of the MFDP’s forty-four delegates to be seated. The MFDP refused the compromise, which demonstrated to many observers the superficiality of Democratic support for civil rights. Four years later the MFDP group combined forces with other organizations to form the Mississippi Loyal Democrats, and all of the delegates were seated at the party’s national convention.
COFO’s most important accomplishments, Freedom Summer and the MFDP, helped highlight voting issues in Mississippi and in the South. The federal government took an increased interest in black voting, and Johnson confirmed COFO’s success by signing the Voting Rights Act into law in August 1965. COFO ultimately proved short-lived. In July 1965 the group dissolved after deciding that the MFDP had assumed many of COFO’s responsibilities.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (1988)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- “Mississippi: Is This America?,” Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (PBS Video, 1986)