Bruce Watson's "Freedom Summer," reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 4, 2010; B08


The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy

By Bruce Watson

Viking. 369 pp. $27.95

It was known as the "long, hot summer," the place being Mississippi and the time being 1964. That the phrase came from the work of the state's most famous and distinguished native son, William Faulkner, was not without irony since Faulkner, who had died two years earlier, had urged his fellow Mississippians to be calm and decent in the face of the bigotry, discrimination and violence that were tearing them apart. The summer was long and hot not merely because summer in Mississippi is always long and hot but because the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had chosen to subject the state to what Bruce Watson calls "a racial firestorm."

It came in the form of the Mississippi Summer Project, better known as Freedom Summer. For the most part outrages committed by whites against blacks in Mississippi went unnoticed elsewhere, but SNCC was determined to change that. Watson, whose useful, thorough chronicle of this unjustly forgotten time is marred by an occasional lapse into overheated prose, describes SNCC's strategy as follows:

"What if, instead of Mississippi's black folk struggling in isolation, hundreds of college students from all across the country poured into the state? Wouldn't America pay attention then? And what if, along with [voter] registration drives, these volunteers staffed Freedom Schools, teaching black kids subjects their 'separate but equal' schools would never teach? Black history. Black literature. The root causes of poverty. What if, in the spirit of America's new Peace Corps, this 'domestic Peace Corps' set up Freedom Houses all over Mississippi, with libraries, day cares, and evening classes in literacy and voting rights? And what if, at the culmination of the summer, delegates from a new Freedom Party went to the Democratic National Convention to claim, beneath the spotlight of network news, that they, not Mississippi's all-white delegation, were the rightful representatives from the Magnolia State?"

John Lewis, who then was 24 years old and chairman of SNCC, put it this way: "Before the Negro people get the right to vote, there will have to be a massive confrontation, and it will probably come this summer. . . . We are going to Mississippi full force." Actually, the "force" was rather small -- a few hundred college students and other young people -- but so far as white Mississippi was concerned it was an invading army. Mississippi in the 1960s "was a mean and snarling state, run by tight-lipped politicians, bigoted sheriffs, and cops 'not playing with' anyone who crossed them." One notable Mississippian, Walker Percy, wrote: "During the past ten years, Mississippi as a society reached a condition which can only be described, in an analogous but exact sense of the word, as insane."

White-on-black violence was pandemic. The case that caught the world's attention had occurred in 1955, when a black teenager from Chicago named Emmett Till "flirted with a white woman" and was brutally murdered; his killers were let off with an official wink. Faulkner wrote in despair: "If we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don't deserve to survive, and probably won't." But if anything, the violence ramped up, Watson writes: "Within four years, ten more Mississippi blacks were murdered by whites; no guilty verdicts were rendered. The reign of terror also revived lynching. In the tiny town of Poplarville, Mack Parker, accused of rape, was dragged from jail and later found in chains, drifting in a logjam on the Pearl River."

In the year of Freedom Summer, a book called "Mississippi: The Closed Society" was published by an uncommonly forthright and courageous professor of history at the University of Mississippi named James Silver. In it he said, among many other things, that the state was "as near to approximating a police state as anything we have yet seen in America," and the police were both solely and wholly there to uphold the racial status quo. Black Mississippians were vilified, denied the most fundamental rights of American citizens, clubbed and shot, disfigured and murdered. A place of at times heart-breaking natural beauty, Mississippi was in reality a hell hole.

This was what the young people from California and New England and other such places found when they began to arrive in June 1964. Watson focuses on four of them, three of whom are white: Chris Williams from Massachusetts, Fred Winn from California, and Fran O'Brien, also a Californian. The fourth, Muriel Tillinghast, was a bit older, a native of the District of Columbia and a recent graduate of Howard University. All were put to the test in various ways -- O'Brien's was the most violent and debasing -- but all came away with their convictions reinforced and deepened. All also were profoundly and lastingly impressed by the quiet courage and innate decency of even the poorest and most desperate black Mississippians whom they met and with whom they lived. It was a learning experience on both sides: The whites discovered the humanity and individuality of people who previously had been little more than a vague blur, while the blacks for the first time were in the company of whites who treated them with respect and admiration.

Whites -- not just in Mississippi but throughout the South -- referred to those who came from other places to work for civil rights as "outside agitators." Watson has found a lovely comment on this by a confident, outspoken Mississippi African American named Robert Miles, who welcomed a group of young volunteers as follows: "Y'all gonna hear a lot of different stories from white folks about what these people are and why they're down here. White folks are gonna tell you they're agitators. You know what an agitator is? An agitator is the piece in the center of a washing machine to get dirt out. Well, that's what these people are here for. They're here to get dirt out."

Things never got dirtier than on the night of June 21, when three young men -- two white outsiders and a native black Mississippian -- were arrested in Neshoba County, then released and not seen again until August, when their bodies were found buried under a dam in the same county. Their names were Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. It took years for the full truth to come out -- they were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, with the complicity and approval of Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and his deputy, Cecil Price -- but the case immediately woke the nation to the brutal facts about the closed society in Mississippi. Like the murders of four schoolgirls in Birmingham the previous year, this case created martyrs whose deaths awakened a complacent nation.

Though Watson's penchant for overripe prose, as in the passage quoted at length in the third paragraph of this review, is matched by his occasional ventures into hagiography -- his portrait of Bob Moses, the SNCC leader, borders on hero worship -- he recreates the texture of that terrible yet rewarding summer with impressive verisimilitude. This means that at times the book is painful reading because Mississippi was a painful place in those days, and Watson does not shrink from even the worst details. As one who at the time was only a few years older than the student volunteers, I watched the summer unfold from afar, in horror and macabre fascination. I have never been able to forget it and am perpetually astonished at how few of my contemporaries remember it and how little younger people seem to know about it. It is a wild exaggeration to say, as Watson's melodramatic subtitle does, that Freedom Summer "Made America a Democracy," but it certainly was important, and it deserves to be honored.

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