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FREEDOM SUMMER, The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy

FREEDOM SUMMER, The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy

By Dwight Garner

FREEDOM SUMMER, The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy. Bruce Watson (369 pages. Viking. $27.95.)

The comedian Dick Gregory used to joke bitterly during the civil rights era, that you could always spot a white moderate in Mississippi. He was the “cat who wants to lynch you from a low tree.”

Few in Mississippi got to hear Gregory’s crack. When it came to race issues the state operated under a virtual media lockdown in the early 1960s. When James Baldwin was a guest on “Today,” NBC stations in Mississippi cut to an old movie. When Thurgood Marshall, then an N.A.A.C.P. lawyer, appeared on TV, a notice flashed: “Cable Difficulty.” Mississippi’s ABC affiliates didn’t want to air “Bewitched,” a new sitcom. Marriage between man and witch? Surely that was code for interracial sex, for the coming mongrelization.

Mississippi pretended its race problems didn’t exist. But as Bruce Watson makes plain in his taut and involving new book, “Freedom Summer,” the rest of America in 1964 was beginning to have trouble looking away from Mississippi. Ten years after Brown v. Board of Education and nine years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, the state hadn’t budged. Nina Simone was recording a new single most people in the state wouldn’t get to hear either: “Mississippi Goddam.”

Blacks in Mississippi were almost entirely disenfranchised. Poll taxes, literacy tests and other sorts of “legalistic voodoo,” Mr. Watson writes, kept them out of voting booths. Counties in which blacks outnumbered whites had not a single black registered voter. The words of a United States senator from Mississippi, Theodore G. Bilbo, spoken in 1946, still hung heavily in the air: “I am calling upon every red-blooded American who believes in the superiority and integrity of the white race to get out and see” that no blacks vote. “The best time to do it,” he added ominously, “is the night before.”

Mr. Watson’s book derives its power — at its best, it is the literary equivalent of a hot light bulb dangling from a low ceiling — from its narrow focus. “Freedom Summer” is about the more than 700 college students who, in the summer of 1964, under the supervision of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, risked their lives to travel to Mississippi to register black voters and open schools. It was a summer, Mr. Watson writes, that “brought out the best in America” but “the worst in Mississippi.”

The story of these months has been told before, but rarely this viscerally. “Freedom Summer” opens with these students, many if not most from places like Yale and Oberlin and Harvard and Berkeley, arriving in Ohio in June 1964 to study with coordinating-committee members before heading south. What they learned made some flee. They were taught how to take a beating. A security handbook read, “No one should go anywhere alone, but certainly not in an automobile and certainly not at night.”

Organizers cherry-picked the students they wanted. Any student with a “John Brown complex” was out. So was anyone who expressed an interest in interracial sex. Those who made the cut, the author writes, made up “a group portrait of American idealism.”

Many Americans remember the names Andrew Goodman, James Cheney and Michael Schwerner, the three young volunteers who vanished that summer, their bodies later found buried under a dam. What many forget is that these three men disappeared on the very first day of the Mississippi Summer Project, what Mr. Watson calls Freedom Summer. Their abduction, examined in detail by Mr. Watson, terrified the other volunteers.

Much more was to come. Some 35 black churches were burned in Mississippi that summer, and five dozen homes and safe houses were bombed. Volunteers were beaten, harassed by the police, arrested on fraudulent charges. Shotguns were fired into the houses where they slept. Pickup trucks filled with armed men followed volunteers around.

“Freedom Summer” bristles with fine details. One volunteer’s father told his son, “If the Klan gets a hold of you, yell ‘My father is a Mason!’ ” (Masonic code prevented one member from harming another’s family.) Mr. Watson writes about the celebrities who made brave appearances in Mississippi that summer — Sidney Poitier, Shirley MacLaine, Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger among them — but also notes those who were no-shows: the Staples Singers, Tom Paxton and Peter, Paul and Mary. Among the young volunteers that summer were Barney Frank, Susan Brownmiller and Harold Ickes.

Mr. Watson, whose previous books include “Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind,” writes well about Mississippi’s culture in the 1960s and puts its residents’ racial views in careful historical context. It was a state “driven to its knees” during the Civil War and still wary of the North. He notes the “fears instilled by grandparents, fears of Yankees, carpetbaggers, and a war that had never really ended.” And he considers how impossibly far the state has come in terms of racial issues in the decades since.

“Freedom Summer” occasionally loses its footing. Clichés, like kudzu, crawl in. (Mississippi was a “powder keg,” and so on.) The prose sometimes overheats and boils over into movie trailer hyperbole. Mr. Watson mistakenly refers to Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, who fought for civil rights and was in Mississippi that summer, as Joseph Lelyveld. (Arthur Lelyveld’s son, Joseph Lelyveld, is a former executive editor of The New York Times.) But Mr. Watson’s narrative aim is mostly vinegary and true.

The summer of 1964 in Mississippi was in some ways a failure for the volunteers. They didn’t register as many voters as they had hoped. Their plans to unseat Mississippi’s all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City came to naught. But their actions had permanent resonance, bringing the nation’s full attention to Mississippi’s second-class citizens. “If it hadn’t been for the veterans of Freedom Summer,” Representative John Lewis of Georgia says in this book, “there would be no Barack Obama.”

It’s hard to finish “Freedom Summer” without a comment by the historian Howard Zinn ringing in your ears. To be with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members during the civil rights era — “walking a picket line in the rain in Hattiesburg, Miss. … to see them jabbed by electric prod poles and flung into paddy wagons in Selma, Ala., or link arms and sing at the close of a church meeting in the Delta” — was, Mr. Zinn wrote, “to feel the presence of greatness.”

View the original article at Veterans Today

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