Freedom Summer: Beyond the Murders

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Forty-six years ago last month, more than 700 college students from around the country arrived in Mississippi. Their goal? To register African-Americans to vote and set up schools to teach the black population skills the state's segregated school system had failed to impart. The project soon caught the nation's attention when three participants—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer—went missing and were later found to have been murdered by a group of angry white supremacists.

But there was more to the Freedom Summer than the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwermer. Author Bruce Watson set out to describe what else went on in those heady months in his book Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy. Here, Watson discusses what Obama's election says about the legacy of Civil Rights and why we are still so fascinated by the 1960s.


Why do you think it's important to tell the story of Freedom Summer now, more than four decades after it happened?

When I started the book, a lot of people asked me that, and it was a good question because in 2007 we didn't really have any reason. Then as I was writing it of course the whole Obama campaign came along, and it became very relevant. In fact, I end the book with Obama's inauguration as seen through the eyes of the volunteers I spoke with, and as seen through the eyes of Mississippi. If you look at it that way, it's a remarkable journey because it starts with a murder in 1961, three years before Freedom Summer, a murder of a man named Herbert Lee that went virtually unreported. That kind of thing was not uncommon in Mississippi, especially in 1961. And something like 7 percent of African-Americans could vote in Mississippi, that was all. And then you come to the end, really just a little more than a generation later, and you have an African-American president.

Do you think the Obama's election is proof that the fight for Civil Rights is over?

Everyone has different opinions about the degree to which the fight is over, so to speak. It's not over. All sorts of surprisingly retrograde events do turn up in the comments you see—especially on some media channels. The comments about race suggest not very much progress at all. And yet I think the book shows there's been tremendous progress, especially in Mississippi. I think the state of Mississippi hasn't gotten much credit for its changes.

I think people have forgotten how bad things were in the state of Mississippi in the 1960s. I was familiar with Freedom Summer, I knew certainly about the murders of Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner, but when I began looking at it I was surprised about the level of violence that summer. That has largely been forgotten.

And I also think what's been forgotten is the tremendous accomplishment of Freedom Summer. The freedom houses, the raw spirit of volunteers working with rural African-Americans and living in their homes. It was an amazing social experiment, and that aspect has been completely overshadowed.

It is easy to think, "Well, maybe not much has changed." Certainly you see economic segregation [in Mississippi], and churches are completely segregated as I understand it, and there's great disparity in wealth. So I turned instead to people with a track record. I spoke with Mississippians and used their quotes and their opinions. I felt that carried more weight. Hodding Carter's was my favorite, and he said we still have a great disparity in terms of black and white, but in that respect we're not that much different from the rest of America. And that is what's different. Because Mississippi stood out so much in 1964, both in terms of wealth disparity but also in the racial rage that permeated all of society. It was a caste system. And that, really, is gone.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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