A blog about non-fiction books that address societal issues and problems
Book Review: Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (Penguin Books, 2010) by Bruce Watson
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. In his book Freedom Summer, Bruce Watson describes the experiences of college-aged volunteers who spent the summer of 1964 working in Mississippi after being recruited and trained by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In the early 1960s, the number of registered African American voters in Mississippi was far below that of other states, so the primary goal of the volunteers was to help African Americans register to vote. The volunteers also started Freedom schools and Freedom libraries where African Americans could have access to books and where they could study subjects such as African American history and literature. They also attempted to establish an alternate political party known as the Freedom Democrats. I noticed this book on The Root’s Summer Reading List, so I decided to read it. It was more than worth my time — I am glad that I now feel more intimately acquainted with the Freedom Summer volunteers and other civil rights activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses.
The book opens with a discussion of Mississippi history and provides a brief account of how the days of Reconstruction were ultimately replaced with the days of Jim Crow. Watson says:
Blacks who dared register to vote, who joined the NAACP, who signed petitions demanding school integration, quickly had their credit cut off, their taxes audited, their insurance canceled (p. 47).
The book evokes a sense of terror in the reader. So often, U.S. history is recounted by mentioning only the poll taxes and literacy tests that were designed to prevent African Americans from voting. However, this book illustrates that poll taxes and literacy tests were the least of it. Terroristic acts (e.g., arson, molotov cocktails, beatings, and gun shots fired into homes) prevented African Americans from being able to even summon up the courage to go to the courthouse in order to pay poll taxes or pass tests. Whites who murdered African Americans were never found guilty. These crimes were not really even deemed newsworthy. In the 1960s, various television shows in Mississippi were censored in order to prevent ideas about integration from being heard. By 1964, the civil rights movement had been underway for nearly a decade, yet “Whites Only” signs were still common throughout the South, and the rest of the country did not seem to care. Among other things, the efforts of the Freedom Summer volunteers were intended to get the nation’s attention and ignite a civil rights movement that had been making little progress.
In one of the more compelling excerpts from the book, Watson describes the poverty that greeted the volunteers when they arrived in Mississippi and met their African American host families:
But despite the heat, the bugs, the swarm of sounds, nothing startled the volunteers as much as the destitution all around them. Raised in “the affluent society,” where poverty had supposedly been conquered, they walked that day into its shadows. Most were appalled; some were enraged. Where was the pavement? The plumbing? The streetlights? Their hosts, with their modest two-bedroom homes, were rich compared to those living in the shacks just down the gravel road and around the corner. “There are people here without food and clothing,” one volunteer wrote home. “Kids that eat a bit of bread for breakfast, chicken necks for dinner. Kids that don’t have clothes to go to school in. Old old people, and young people chop cotton from sun up till sundown for $3 a day. They come home exhausted, it’s not enough to feed their family on. It’s gone before they earn it.” Many children running to greet volunteers had open sores on their limbs. In doorways of the more desperate shacks, some infants were too weak, too bloated, to run at all. Ancient black hands reaching out to shake a white hand — for the first time — were callused or crippled. On the newcomers walked, past homes “I could kick down with my feet and a small hammer.” Some shacks had raw sewage out back. Others, propped up on cinder blocks, seemed sunken in their own stench. This was America, many had to remind themselves. This was “the most appalling example of deprivation ever seen.” Against these odds, what could one volunteer — or a thousand — hope to accomplish? And yet they were in Mississippi now; they had nothing else to do but try (p. 61).
Similar to the African American residents of Mississippi, the volunteers were subjected to threats and brutality. On the first day of Freedom Summer, three of the volunteers were murdered, and their bodies were not found until late that summer. Just as the three missing men and lack of information about their whereabouts hung over volunteers all summer, it also hangs over the book. Waston does not delve into a detailed discussion of these murders until late in the book. Two of the men were white, and the other was African American. Although murdered African American bodies turned up on a regular basis in Mississippi, the fact that two whites were murdered drew national attention to Mississippi.
For me, one of the most valuable aspects of the book is that it provides the reader with a close look at why people who came of age in the 1960s tend to have so little respect for authority. It’s easy to laugh off these aging hippies — the hilarious scene in Meet the Fockers in which Dustin Hoffman (who plays an aging hippie) tells an infant to “always question authority” comes to mind. However, Watson’s book helps to shape a compassionate understanding of the cynicism that resulted from the 1960s. He reminds the reader that President Johnson never responded to multiple requests to provide federal protection for the volunteers. Watson also says that after the summer of 1964 ended:
student protests soon broke out across America — against the war, the draft, the patriarchy. And in the forefront of each were veterans of Freedom Summer: who had seen democracy denied, who had watched “the law” subjugate an entire people, and who had come home angry and disillusioned. For the rest of the 1960s, Mississippi would remain their benchmark of injustice, the place where one generation’s American dream went to die. Time and again, 1960s spokesmen…..would refer to Mississippi as the school where they had learned to question America (p. 266).
Another memorable insight that I gained from the book is that the volunteers and residents of Mississippi thought that the movie Mississippi Burning, which came out in 1988, provided an inaccurate and offensive depiction of the events that took place in 1964. Among other things, the movie stereotyped Mississippi and portrayed the FBI agents as heroic rather than as the reluctant individuals that they had actually been when they came to investigate the disappearance of the three missing volunteers.
The book left me wondering why the lives of the volunteers ultimately turned out in the manner that they did. Are idealists always searching for something more? Waston says:
During the Reagan era, sociologist Doug McAdam found ex-volunteers increasingly restless. Many remained searchers, moving from job to job or relationship to relationship, looking for what one called ‘the ultimate Mississippi.’ McAdams also found volunteers, when compared to the national average, more likely to be loners, unmarried, or divorced.
I wish the book would have ended with a stronger sense that there is still work to be done with regard to race issues in the U.S. Instead, the book ends with the inauguration of President Obama in 2009. Watson points out that Freedom Summer paved the way for the election of a black president. Although this is a poignant way to end the book, it may leave the reader with the mistaken assumption the the U.S. is now “post-racial” because we have elected a black president. However, we’re not a post-racial or color blind society, nor is this quite what Watson is trying to say.
Overall, the book is written beautifully, and it provides a very absorbing account of a pivotal moment in U.S. history.