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

by Bruce Watson

17 Aug 2010


Excerpted from Chapter One: “There is a Moral Wave Building”, reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Freedom Summer by Bruce Watson. Copyright © 2010 by Bruce Watson.  No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

School was out and summer was making promises across America when three hundred people descended on a leafy campus in Oxford, Ohio, not far from the Indiana border. All were Americans, most were under twenty-five, and all felt their country changing in ways they could not ignore. Beyond these traits, they had little in common.

They came in two distinct groups. The first – mostly white – had just finished another year at Harvard, Yale, Oberlin, Berkeley… Guitars slung over shoulders, idealism lifting their strides, they piled out of cars sporting a Rand McNally of license plates. California. Massachusetts. “Land of Lincoln.” They wore the American Bandstand fashions of 1964 – polo shirts and slacks for men, capris and sleeveless blouses for women. Talking of LBJ, Bob Dylan, the civil rights bill struggling in the Senate, they found their way to dorms, met roommates, and settled in to learn about the daring summer they had chosen.

The second group – mostly black – brought no guitars and had little idealism left to pack. They did not wear slacks and polo shirts but denim overalls and white T-shirts. Many sported buttons depicting hands, black and white, clasped above the letters SNCC. And although most were the same age as the students, instead of sharing college stories, they arrived with stories of being beaten, targeted, tortured. Like the students, they sometimes spoke of recent reading – of Kant and Camus, James Baldwin and The Wretched of the Earth. But they did not read for grades; they read to arm themselves against the world. And their world was not sunny California, quaint Massachusetts, or the Land of Lincoln. This second group had come less from a state than from a state of war. They had come from Mississippi.

cover art

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

Bruce Watson

US: Jun 2010

On Sunday afternoon, June 14, when the two groups met on the campus of the Western College for Women, the Mississippi Summer Project began. But the scene suggested the end of the summer rather than the beginning. As if it were September, boxy Corvairs and humpbacked VWs braked in front of the Gothic, ivied dorms. From them stepped two, three, or four people, stretching legs and casting glances. Across courtyards strewn with students, an occasional transistor radio blared a hit – “My Guy” or “She Loves You” – yet many students, goateed men or women with long, ironed hair, sat beneath trees strumming guitars, making their own music. Within a few hours, they would learn stirring hymns of freedom, but most only knew one such song now, and now seemed too soon to boast of overcoming someday.

Over dinner in the dining hall, where the food was surprisingly good, students talked about their hopes for the summer. Few harbored even postcard images of the South. Most had been in grade school during the Montgomery bus boycott, slightly older when the federal troops desegregated Central High in Little Rock, in high school when spontaneous sit-ins desegregated lunch counters across the South and Freedom Rides made deadline violence. The previous year, they had seen the appalling images on TV – attack dogs and fire hoses tearing into blacks in Birmingham, dead children, their dark legs dangling, carried from the rubble of the First Baptist Church. And now they were headed to the South, the Deep South. Most could conjure up only fleeting imagery. “At Oxford, my mental picture of Mississippi contained nothing but an unending series of swamps, bayous, and dark, lonely roads,” one student later wrote. Some thought they knew the South. It was the fabled land of Faulkner’s doomed families, the bittersweet nostalgia of Gone with the Wind, the hokum of TV’s top show, The Beverly Hillbillies. Few had ever seen a spreading live oak dripping in Spanish moss or sweated in the steam-bath of a Mississippi summer. Even fewer had set foot in a sharecropper’s shack, seen a pickup with a gun rack, used an outhouse, been in jail, heard a shotgun blast echo and die in the darkness. They had six days to prepare.

To help them, the denim-clad group from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) arrived in Oxford with a simple plan – tell the truth. The Mississippi Summer Project was a death-defying role of the dice. In a state where a sassy comment could get a Negro killed or a white battered, it was one thing to risk your own safety; it was another to ask hundreds of strangers to risk theirs. And so, like sergeants in boot camp, SNCC trainers felt duty bound to turn innocent idealists into anxious, even terrified realists. But only after singing.

The Freedom Songs began after dinner. Standing in the cool twilight beside a circle of trees, volunteers were introduced to songs fired in the crucible of “the Movement.” On beyond “We Shall Overcome,” they learned “Wade in the Water,” “Oh Freedom,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Early that evening, a stocky black woman in a floral dress, her arms thick from a life in the cotton fields, limped to the stage, threw her head back, and belted out song after song, lifting the entire ensemble.

Ohh – ohhhhhhh
  This little light of miii-iiine,
  I’m gonna let it shiii-iiine

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