‘Freedom Summer’ and What Remains

This critical film underscores both differences and connections between then and now -- now as when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is being dismantled.

“They’re caught in a circle. If there are people who want to break out, they don’t know how, they don’t have a chance,” says Bob Moses. “White people are probably more oppressed in terms of their ability to speak than Negroes.” The camera is close on Moses as he speaks, the footage black and white. The time is summer, 50 years ago, when he and some 1,000 volunteers have arrived in Mississippi, determined to register black voters for elections to come that fall.

This moment, one of many archival grace notes assembled by Stanley Nelson for his documentary, Freedom Summer, reveals not only Moses’ vibrant generosity and wisdom, but also, his insight into the problem stretching before the organizers of that historic project, the COFO (the Council of Federated Organizations), working with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), among others.

It wasn’t only that reasonably frightened black victims of Jim Crow needed to be educated and encouraged. Another formidable concern had — and arguably, has — to do with white people, also frightened, and for a whole other set of reasons.

This insight propels and complicates Nelson’s splendid film, which screened at AFI Docs and premieres on American Experience on 24 June. Freedom Summer does what you might expect. It commemorates a movement that was shrewdly planned and brilliantly executed, including the recruitment and mobilization of black and white college students all over the state, working in Freedom Schools and registration drives, riding buses and establishing the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party (MFDP) to attend to Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

The movement “invaded” Mississippi, sending workers to live in communities and with families. As Julian Bond reminds you, it was the “genius of the Freedom Summer to have volunteers spread all over the state,” so that they were at once anonymous and pervasive, protected and advancing the cause.

Many black students from the North and local workers in the state had to realize what they were bringing and also where they were going. “I don’t want anybody to think that we were a bunch of brave Negroes running around Mississippi, we were young and foolish, “says Eleanor Holmes Norton, “We didn’t have the very complete understanding of what that risk was.” They were lucky, she goes on to meet older community workers — including the great Fannie Lou Hamer — who had experience, who modeled particularly savvy sorts of courage.

Moreover, as Moses reminds you, the enterprise was premised on individuals and populations helping each other to see their worlds differently, to feel compassion and embrace nuance. Thus the white volunteers, the film points out, were selected especially carefully, as organizers had a notion of how risky and also how delicate the dynamics might be. One of these volunteers, thankfully, was Tracy Sugarman, a World War II veteran and illustrator who joined in part because he thought the movement should be recorded in drawings.

Their letters needed to demonstrate, recalls Dorothy Zellner, that the applicants weren’t “divas” or people who might be “going down to show the world how great they were,” but instead could understand or at least acknowledge their essential privilege. Thus, they could embrace a “majority black organization with black people telling white people what to do.”

Alongside clips of training sessions in which pert white folks insist they’ll do whatever they can to help, the film includes an application written by Rita Schwerner Bender, which she reads, explaining that she wanted to be “an active participant, no longer a passive observer.” She was hoping that she and her husband Mickey Schwerner might help to create a better world for the children they might have.

As Schwerner Bender reads, you’re acutely aware that she and Mickey would have no children, as he was one of three volunteers — with James Chaney and Andy Goodman — who were murdered that summer in Philadelphia, Mississippi. While her look back is resonant in multiple ways, its reaffirmation and expansion of Moses’ vital observation, that white folks had trouble speaking and seeing, speaks to the film’s thematic and political coherence, its celebration of the courage and sacrifice of 1964, and its equally vigorous insistence on the work still to be done.

The film goes on to underscore both differences and connections between then and now — now being a time when the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an immediately consequence of Freedom Summer, is in the process of being dismantled. If it’s easy to see the monstrosity of wholly self-assured white men in archival footage (“I could call ’em a white colored rat,” says one fellow, of white girls staying with black families, “They stay and sleep in the same damn house as the niggers at… then not tell me there’s not sexual relations there.”

Freedom Summer also makes visible the world sustaining such fearful bigotry, the political machinery that exploited it (including the Citizens Council, the subject of Dawn Porter’s Spies of Mississippi) and also its wide-ranging, enduring effects. White people in the South, says Jane Nave Barnes, a onetime Miss Mississippi, “were expected to live a certain way, you just didn’t step out of the bubble.”

Sometimes, stepping outside might mean rejection by neighbors, loss of jobs, and other abuses. Anthony Harris remembers his grandfather teaching him to bow his head and look away, to show fear in order to reduce risk. “They taught young kids like myself how to play the role of that second class citizen.” Stepping outside might mean beatings and death.

At other times, it might mean realizing what it meant to be inside that bubble, to be able to see and speak with a sense of freedom, purpose, and value. In this, Dave Dennis’ eulogy for James Chaney is exemplary, as he urges listeners not to grieve but instead to stand up. “Don’t bow down anymore, hold your heads up,” he asserts. “I’m tired of funerals, we got to stand up.”

Like so many of the breathtaking moments preserved in Freedom Summer, this one reaches across time and reminds you how crucial it is to break out.

RATING 9 / 10