While the history of America’s civil rights movement contains many glittering tales of triumph, there were also several episodes filled with tragedy and sacrifice. Bruce Watson’s fine, valuable new volume Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy focuses on one key period in 1964. This was a time when progress had been slowed and there were serious doubts about whether the effort to eradicate legal segregation in the South and secure genuine citizenship for its black residents could be won. Against that backdrop, Watson’s book eschews romanticism and outlines in exacting detail the opposition and hatred civil rights workers faced in Mississippi, the state that historically had both the largest black population and the ugliest record of oppression.
Freedom Summer focuses on the contributions of the 700 college students who came from the North, the West and the Midwest over that key three-month period to assist in voter registration and education. They were idealistic, committed to progressive ideals of social justice and freedom, and determined to make a difference. Yet on the first night they arrived, three of their members—Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney—disappeared and were later found murdered. Their deaths brought international attention to the state, finally got the FBI seriously involved in fighting the campaign of violence and terror that had been waged against both black and white civil rights workers for years, and steeled the resolve of such famous types as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer.
But the book also depicts the contributions of lesser-known names—courageous figures such as newspaper publisher and editorial writer Hazel Brannon Smith of the Lexington Advertiser, whose anti-lynching and pro-civil rights commentary made her the first woman to win a Pulitzer for editorial writing, and eager volunteers like Amherst student Chris Williams, who would have preferred to spend his summer surfing, but instead risked his life alerting black Mississippians about their rights to vote.
Watson’s work documents the Freedom Summer structure from the registration stations and Freedom Schools established in sharecropper shacks to the tactical debates, political struggles and the eventual victory the students and workers helped achieve. It was a period when citizens of good will put aside differences in color and background and came together on a quest for justice. But the civil rights victory, and its impact on every other human rights movement of the late 20th century, did not come easily. Freedom Summer reveals the costs and losses as well as the inspirational wins, and it offers a moving and unforgettable testament to human courage and conviction.