Thursday, February 17, 2011

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

The Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi is one of the great stories of the 20th century in America. Drawing from interviews, documents, personal accounts published and unpublished, and published scholarship, Bruce Watson in Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (Viking Adult, 2010) tells the story of these volunteers who move to Mississippi for ten weeks in the summer of 1964 to register voters, teach in freedom schools, and otherwise develop a movement for civil rights. The murder of the three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, serves as a framing device for the narrative. The workers disappear on the first day most of the Freedom Summer volunteers arrived in Mississippi, and their bodies were recovered as the summer began to wind down. He also focuses on a number of volunteers in the project, beginning with Robert Moses, and continuing on through a teacher, two college students, an organizer, and Fanny Lou Hamer, who became famous for the speech she gave at the 1964 Democratic Convention in an attempt to get the Mississippi Freedom Delegation seated in place of the all-white delegation Mississippi democrats had chosen.

As a fourteen-year-old during the year of the Freedom Summer Project, I was far removed from what was going on. I followed with dismay the disappearance of the three volunteer workers, who were brutally killed by Klansmen and buried in a dam, all with the collusion of local law enforcement. But many of the details of the project I didn’t learn until I read this book. An amazing list of prominent names from the 1960s and 1970s forward had a role as organizers and volunteers in the project: Stokeley Carmichael, Moses, Abbie Hoffman, Susan Brownmiller, William Kunstler, Mario Savio, John Lewis, Barney Frank, are among them. With the exception of Moses, regarded as a kind of saint by many in the project, and resented by some, the figures on whom Watson focuses were rank-and-file participants.

The brutality with which African Americans in Mississippi were refused basic rights, including the right to vote, and the right to equal treatment under the law, during the 1960s and earlier is sobering. The experience of the Freedom Summer volunteers—young and old, black and white, from all over the nation—was brutal.

Despite the hyperbole, some minor instances of repetitiveness, and less analysis than I would like, this book is a good introduction to the Freedom Summer Project and is the product of a daunting amount of research, reading, and work. It’s exciting, filled with tension and human interest, and a compelling story of courage, moral fortitude, and heroism.

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