'Freedom Summer': The Real Mississippi Burning

The explosive Mississippi summer of 1964 might have made for a good movie, but it makes for an even better book. Bruce Watson retells one of the most famous periods of the Civil Rights Movement which ought to be fiction, but sadly is not.

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

Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0-670-02170-3
Author: Bruce Watson
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Length: 384 pages
Publication Date: 2010-06-10

The day after winning the Republican nomination for senate, Kentuckian Rand Paul, son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul, made headlines by suggesting that he wasn’t a big fan of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In particular, he was concerned that it violated the rights and freedoms of businessmen and private property owners.

My hunch is that he has not read Freedom Summer by Bruce Watson.

Freedom Summer focuses on the summer of 1964 when hundreds of volunteers, most of them college students, traveled to Mississippi to help African Americans get the right to vote. One of Watson’s greatest strengths is his ability to dramatize the events. Beginning with the murder of Herbert Lee in 1961, one of the countless murders of African Americans in Mississippi prior to Freedom Summer, Watson weaves a story that yearns to be fiction, but sadly is not. He introduces his readers to a cast of memorable characters like Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses, nicknamed the “Jesus” of the movement.

However, the central character of the book is Mississippi itself. In his second chapter, Watson explains how Mississippi became a “Closed Society”, and he implies that its journey from being one of the wealthiest antebellum slave states to the poorest state in America was largely self imposed: “By the 1930s, textile mills dotted the upper South. Atlanta was a bustling city, Birmingham a steel town. But Mississippi remained a state of rural hamlets, zoned by race and railroad tracks, surrounded by snarled backwoods and linked by dirt roads”. In other words, Jim Crow helped make Mississippi poor. The combination of spite and willful cultural stagnancy effectively closed off the state from the rest of the country, making it one of the last major battlefields of the Civil Rights Movement and one of the places where many of the leaders of the movement were not willing to go—at least, not until the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) launched Freedom Summer.

Armed with idealism and courage, the volunteers essentially reversed the path of the Underground Railroad, traveling from a training ground in Ohio to the heart of segregated Mississippi. Watson presents a harrowing image of bullying, illegal intimidation, and murder, all of which were designed to keep African Americans from voting and to keep anyone else from doing anything about it.

Inevitably the focus lands on the infamous murders of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Those murders, which provided the inspiration for Alan Parker’s film, Mississippi Burning, are among the most notorious events of the entire Civil Rights Movement, and as Watson clearly demonstrates, they became the “Rubicon” for the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Council, and the rest of the otherwise unaffiliated bigots. While any hint of justice remained decades away, the publicity surrounding those three murders helped focus the nation’s attention on Freedom Summer and effectively obliterated the outhouse walls that had surrounded Mississippi for a century.

However, in Watson’s vision, the events in Mississippi are merely a microcosm for larger cultural shifts throughout America. With one eye on Mississippi trouble spots like Greenwood and Philadelphia, he uses the other eye to scan the horizon for cultural context. The reaction to the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner comes in the wake of an increasingly violent America, and Watson reminds his readers of the murders of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, the four girls in the Birmingham church bombing, the Kitty Genovese incident, and the rise of the Boston Strangler.

Watson also notes uncanny ironies. The day the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were discovered was also the day of the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin that inspired the escalation of the war in Viet Nam. Watson sees Freedom Summer as the crucial turning point in American culture—the true beginning of the '60s.

Nowhere does this vision crystallize better than in the Interlude, his final chapter of the first half of the book. In his most fanciful moment, Watson covers the events of one day, 16 June, with a close up look at a “Freedom Day” celebration in troubled Greenwood. However, he expands his scope to encompass events throughout the country, even interspersing anecdotes with the ultimate post-modern banality of an hour-by-hour listing of the television schedule. In this moment, he underscores the absurdity of a world where one person is held at gunpoint while someone else watches Captain Kangaroo. It’s the sort of fancy that might make some academics and historians shudder, but it shakes off the “broccoli and carrots” stigma of the book and turns it into a five-course meal. With such dramatic and ironic flourishes, Freedom Summer ceases to be “good for you” and simply becomes good.

Watson’s only real weakness is a tendency towards overstatement. Some of these are minor distractions, such as his strained description of Philadelphia on the morning of the three murders: “When it awoke on the last morning of its past, Philadelphia (pop. 5,017) looked much like any other Mississippi hamlet”. However, in another instance, Watson gives the reader a potentially misleading impression. Perhaps in a desire to give the story a sense of completeness and symmetry, he boasts of the final results of Freedom Summer: “Modern Mississippi, having achieved a racial reconciliation to rival South Africa’s, has more black elected officials than any other state”. True enough and, given the atmosphere in 1964, that fact seems nearly miraculous. Yet the boast, which appears in the Prologue and is repeated by the editors in a caption from the photo insert, risks simplifying the ongoing struggles in the state.

While Mississippi has been remarkably successful in electing African Americans since Freedom Summer, a quick perusal of the 14 white men who comprise the executive branch of the government leaves little doubt of who still runs Mississippi. Likewise, the past two years have featured news stories about federal courts forcing one Mississippi county to stop segregating its schools, Ku Klux Klan rallies on the campus of Ole Miss, and even Mississippi resident Morgan Freeman personally funding an integrated school prom because the official prom was still segregated. In fact, only eight years ago, Mississippi’s most powerful politician, Trent Lott, was forced to resign his leadership position in the United States Senate after boasting that his state had backed a presidential candidate with a segregationist platform in 1948.

Watson certainly seems aware of the ongoing nature of the struggle in Mississippi and even mentions that Chaney’s gravesite has been a target for vandals. Yet, the comparisons to South Africa risk glossing over the realities of today. While it makes a good melodrama to reward the hard work of the volunteers and Mississippi citizens with a nearly total victory, the overstatement, placed so prominently in the book, risks cheapening the enormity of the struggles by implying that the obstacles in Mississippi have washed away.

However, these are minor quibbles in a terrifically relevant book. Freedom Summer provides a clear reminder that much of modern American politics was shaped by the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Viet Nam, and many of the political battle lines drawn back then still shape the politics of today. Whenever current or trendy American political movements define themselves by demonizing the federal government, advocating states rights, and pushing for de-regulation, while simultaneously crying out against perennial boogeyman threats like socialism and “alien” invaders (of the non-spacefaring kind), those same movements are aligning themselves, lock, stock, and flaming cross, with the arguments for the “Closed Society” of Mississippi in 1964.


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