The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) was a coalition of national and regional organizations engaged in civil rights activities in Mississippi. Established in 1962 with the goal of maximizing the efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the organization focused on voter registration and education. Under the leadership of SNCC activist Robert Moses, and staffed primarily by SNCC activists, COFO launched the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project in 1964. In describing the difficulties faced by COFO and Freedom Summer workers, Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “Our nation sent out Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the under-developed nations of the world and none of them experienced the kind of brutality and savagery that these voter registration workers have suffered here in Mississippi” (King, 22 July 1964).
One of COFO’s first efforts in Mississippi was the fall 1963 Freedom Vote, a mock election for Mississippi governor and lieutenant governor held to protest the mass disenfranchisement of black citizens in the state. COFO sought to demonstrate that without discriminatory registration procedures and fear of white reprisals, blacks would vote in large numbers. With the help of northern students, more than 80,000 ballots were cast for COFO president and NAACP state president Aaron Henry, and minister Edwin King. This success led to COFO’s organization of the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, which brought hundreds of northern white college students to the state to assist COFO. The project opened on a tragic note when three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, disappeared in late June 1964. When they were found murdered in early August, King called the killings “an attack on the very concept of a democratic society” (King, 4 August 1964). Confronting ongoing violence and harassment, Freedom Summer volunteers canvassed neighborhoods, registered voters, developed public health programs, and taught literacy and civics in “Freedom Schools.”
Freedom Summer included the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), an interracial political party that challenged the all-white official state delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. COFO hoped to generate national party pressure to change state election practices, but garnered little support from national officials of the Democratic Party. President Lyndon B. Johnson approved offering the MFDP a compromise of two seats as at-large delegates, which MFDP rejected.
Conflicts over the rejection of Johnson’s compromise increased existing tensions among COFO’s member organizations. Most of the summer’s volunteers returned to college in the fall, and COFO Director Moses resigned at the end of 1964. Weakened by substantial losses in its leadership, workforce, and funding, COFO disbanded in 1965.