Friday, November 12, 2010

What We're Reading

Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy
By Bruce Watson

“Freedom Summer” is the name that has been given to a group of important Civil Rights programs that took place in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. It was the brainchild of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) Mississippi organizer Bob Moses and was conducted with the assistance of C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality). Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council were only peripherally involved. This was primarily a Mississippi home based initiative. Freedom Summer consisted of three major components: registering black voters, running summer “Freedom Schools,” and preparing a challenge to the all white Mississippi delegation that was being sent by the state party to the Democratic National Convention scheduled to be held in Atlantic City in August of 1964.

Obstacles to getting blacks registered to vote had been in place for the better part of a century: poll taxes, literacy and citizenship tests, economic and violent reprisals against blacks who tried to register, and a host of other Jim Crow regulations. Several Mississippi counties were under temporary federal court injunctions to stop these practices, and the drive in Mississippi was designed in part to take advantage of this window of opportunity. The “Freedom Schools” were established in abandoned buildings and rural outposts and were intended to remediate in part the poor education that black children were receiving in segregated public institutions. They also had important “consciousness raising” goals, teaching black children to have pride in their history and heritage, and making them aware of the rights and privileges they were entitled to as American citizens. The goal was to raise expectations about these issues among children, expectations that so many of their parents no longer had. The program for challenging the seating of the Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention involved creating a “parallel” slate of delegates to the convention at an alternative state delegate nominating convention. Organizers created the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party by conducting a “vote” among blacks and others excluded from the official Democratic Party, gathering hundreds of thousands of signed petitions in the state. These programs were to be conducted by local Mississippi organizers and by a cadre of college students and young people recruited from all over the country who would come and spend their summer working in Mississippi.

Bruce Watson’s book gives us a fine overview of what Freedom Summer was all about, as well as intimate portraits of those involved. It is an important addition to the history of the Civil Rights Movement during a period that for most of us, if we know anything about this time at all, has been defined by the disappearance and presumed murder of three young civil rights workers in June and the search by the FBI for their bodies that lasted through most of the following summer. The murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner certainly shadow Watson’s narrative, but Watson has made us understand as well what an extraordinarily well conceived and organized program Freedom Summer was, and he helps us understand both the exceptional courage that was required of blacks who lived in Mississippi (who worked in and participated in the program in the face of a continuing violence and intimidation) and the courage and idealism of those that came to help them.

Watson’s authorial pose is not one of the objective reporter. Clearly he admires the movement and wishes to present the strongest case he can for the historical importance of the events that occurred in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. Perhaps he overstates the case. The sad truth is that, as more cynical authors have noted, the nation took notice only when white boys were murdered. Medgar Evers and countless other blacks in Mississippi had been murdered in the fight for racial justice in Mississippi before the summer of 1964, and their deaths made hardly a ripple in national consciousness. And the conclusion of too many people in the nation was, more often than not, the distanced and complacent notion that yes indeed there were some nasty bigoted white folks in Mississippi and other regions of the south. The racial divide in their own neighborhoods and cities was something that they hid from their consciousness and it has continued to take decades to deal with. We live in an America that is still widely segregated.

I am also a bit skeptical of Watson’s account of the challenge that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party mounted to the Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention. The suggestion that Lyndon Johnson would have simply refused the inevitable nomination of his party and not run if the problems with the Mississippi delegation could not have been resolved in a way that he thought was politically expedient, seems to me to credit too much what was only political posturing and self-conscious historical dramatization on Johnson’s part. The convention fight was, however, certainly symptomatic of the concerns in the Democratic Party about the great electoral shift that was underway in the country as the Democratic Party began to lose the solid Democratic south it had held since not long after the Civil War.

What is most moving about the book for this reader is that it chronicles one episode in the slow march to disillusionment with their country that was experienced by a whole generation of young people. For some of us this occurred over the Vietnam war, or at the assassination of Robert Kennedy or the murder of Martin Luther King, at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, or at Kent State. I sometimes think all of us have a date and time when the world changed for us, when an idealism, or as some have said, a naiveté, was lost for us about the character of our country. While Watson’s account gives primary and rightful credit to the courage of the black people of Mississippi, his story is also one of the crisis faced by a large group of young people who went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 and could not believe that this was America. They looked upon the poverty and injustice faced by a large group of their fellow citizens and came to fear for their own lives, threatened by those who they somehow expected might be brought to share their ideals by virtue of their presence and the force and rightness of their convictions.

A certain idealism died in America in these years, but Watson’s account includes stories of how for many their experiences deepened their commitment to changing America. Some continued to be involved throughout their lives in the political life of the nation, and others in quiet ways went about dedicating themselves to careers where they made contributions to redressing the terrible costs of injustice and discrimination. Freedom Summer has chronicled events that brought a share of victories in Mississippi and contributed to other victories in the Civil Rights Movement. It tells us too about the disillusionment, ambiguities and defeats associated with the Mississippi summer of 1964. It also shows us, however, what for many in the postwar generation was saved from the ashes of a burning Mississippi, a commitment to making their country a better place that has endured.

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