Freedom Summer: Beyond the Murders



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.

The Help, a book that's also set in Mississippi in the 1960s, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year. Why do you think this period of history has such a hold on people?

It's a remarkable time because it's not that long ago. It's within my lifetime, it's within people's parents' lifetime if it's not within theirs, and yet we can see in it a different America. We can see in Mississippi for example an America that hadn't changed much since the Civil War. Certainly slavery was over, but the sharecropping system, which I think a lot of people have forgotten about, replicated slavery to a large extent. It's fascinating for us to see how long that Civil War lasted in a way, how recently its legacy gradually began to fade away.

I think Civil Rights will always be an inspiration to anyone who studies it because of the courage people displayed in facing down this brutal intimidation. It was truly remarkable, and it has very few parallels in world history. Gandhi, and maybe South Africa more recently. But in America, that type of movement, for people across the South to stand up against what their parents and grandparents had been struggling with for years, that was a tremendous inspiration.

One of the things you discuss in the book is how the 1988 film Mississippi Burning misrepresented the Freedom Summer.

I think the misrepresentation was with the role of the FBI. The movie represents the FBI as heroes who came roaring in and solved the crime. They did come in, and they did solve the crime—they found the people who killed the three men. But everybody in SNCC in 1964 knew if you had any problems you didn't call the FBI. You couldn't expect them to do much because J. Edgar Hoover had said, we don't go down to "wet-nurse" those who are down in the South, and the FBI was notorious for dragging its heels. They usually didn't show up for hours after they were called, if they showed up at all. Often they were out watching people being beaten as they took notes. They were not, as they said, a police force. They didn't really rush into it. So, they did a good job when they got there, but prior to that you just didn't bother with them.

And I don't think the other aspects were misrepresented so much as ignored. The story has always been about the three murders: they way they happened, the way it was solved. I think the day to day aspects: the life of a Freedom Summer volunteer, what it was like to go to this very hot, and very distant cultural state, that was very hard.

That, and how they coped with that, and how they continued with their work and reached out to black people, that was the real story for me.