Young civil rights activists braved violence to register black voters in Mississippi.

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(USA TODAY) -- For many young civil rights workers in 1964, there was no better place than Mississippi to challenge a system that kept blacks voiceless and disenfranchised.

The state had one of the largest black populations in the South, yet fewer than 5% of blacks there were registered to vote, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. In some counties, not a single black person was registered.

"Mississippi was the last bastion of apartheid," recalled Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, who as a young man was the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). "Mississippi was famous for the exploitation and the destruction of black people."

"If you wanted to change the face of the nation, you started where the problems were the worst," said Barry, 77, now a city councilman in Washington. "You crack that, you can crack anything. That was our philosophy. We were fearless. We were the revolutionary storm troopers."

This year marks the 50th anniversary of "Freedom Summer" in Mississippi, when Barry and other civil rights workers took shelter with sympathetic residents in small towns and rural counties while helping blacks register to vote.

It was a dangerous mission, in a state where whites vehemently and violently opposed change. Murders, lynchings and beatings were used to intimidate blacks and keep in place segregation in schools and other public places. Student activists, led by SNCC, the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality, were determined to challenge voter registration requirements — such as poll taxes and literacy tests — intended to prevent blacks from voting.

"It's a moment in history where all these people came from all across the country: lawyers, doctors, teachers, students, activists, historians," said Robert Moses, 79, who headed SNCC's Mississippi operation and now runs the Algebra Project, a non-profit education program in Massachusetts. "They just converge for a brief moment in time and make something happen that nobody thought could happen."

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