Book Review: Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn And Made America A Democracy
by Bruce Watson
Publication Date: Jun 10, 2010
List Price: $27.95 (store prices may vary)
Page Count: 384
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Parent Company: Bertelsmann and Pearson PLC
Book Reviewed by Thumper
I decided to be ambitions this summer and read a number of non-fiction
titles. I blame Troy for this because he's read more fiction titles than I
have non-fiction (see note). In my effort not be
outdone, I chose to read Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made
Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy by Bruce Watson. The book is
an account of the summer of 1964, also known as "Freedom Summer". Close to
1000 college students went into the belly of the beast of America's most
segregated state: Mississippi. The students were part of "Freedom Summer".
In their quest to bring literacy, the right to vote and education to the
black folks in Mississippi in order to break the back of the racism that
enslaved them, the students' efforts would forever change the fabric of
America. I do not believe that I have ever been so informed and emotionally
moved as I have been reading Freedom Summer. Freedom Summer is nothing short
In our not that distant past, Mississippi was known as one of the harshest, racist, most violent state in the union when it came to the treatment of its black population, the poorest in the nation. The black folks in Mississippi "knew their place". Less than 2 percent of its black population was registered to vote. This devastating number was due to the poll tax and literacy test that the states black citizens had to face before registering to vote. They also faced certain death by the KKK because voting was for white people. And Mississippi made sure that the black folks knew it. Mississippi had the national spotlight on it due to the murder of Emmett Till. Till, a 14 years old black boy from Chicago was killed for whistling at a white woman. The murderers were found not guilty, naturally, by an all white jury. White men could not go to jail for killing a black person. Why that was a sin against nature.
In 1963, Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, under the leadership of Bob Moses, devised a program to bring voter registration for the black population in the state of Mississippi, The Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer. In order to bring full citizenship to the black population of Mississippi, the SNCC would send college students to Mississippi. The students would organize and open up schools (Freedom Schools), community centers, teach black adults how to pass Mississippi's literacy test in order to register to vote. The end game was to enter the 1964 Democratic Convention and expose the horrors black people endured in Mississippi and be given a seat, a voice, to be represented in Congress like any United States citizen.
The first day of Freedom Summer, three of the SNCC workers, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney came up missing. The disappearances and ultimate murders would shine another extremely bright national light on Mississippi and Freedom Summer. Freedom Summer went on to have many outcomes on the college students that went to Mississippi, the people that were helped and educated, and the country as a whole, such as the 1965 Voting Act. Freedom Summer covers the whole summer, beginning with the first volunteer training class in Oxford, Ohio and ending with the aftermath of the 1964 Democratic Convention.
I was moved, emotionally shaken by Freedom Summer. I have not felt this way about a book, especially a history book, in a long time, if ever. Watson does such a phenomenal job in bringing the summer of 1964 to life. Watson did not forget that he was telling a story, a small notion that some historians fail to remember. From the beginning to the end, the book had the flow of a well crafted HBO miniseries. I did not read the book as much as I watched it with my mind's eye. Watson covered all of the angles: the white volunteers, the black volunteers, the black and white citizens of Mississippi, the country's reaction as well as the White House and President Lyndon Johnson. Watson brought the back yard deals, the political maneuvering and manipulations, as well as the stories from the front line to life. The multiple perspectives exhaustive research gave the book a rich, bold, complete feel.
As the account unfolded, I did not realize that Watson had placed me on an arousing rollercoaster ride through this historical event. There were sections of the book that had me mad as all hell, such as J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and their investigation of the Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney murders. There were other sections where, and I ought to be ashamed to admit but I aint, I cried like I was burying my grandmother. For instance, when the families of the slain activists were notified that their sons and husband bodies had been found and how they were killed, I broke down. It was heart wrenching. Why I was affected by this, especially since it's historically well known, I can't tell you. Watson blew the dust off of the episode and showed me the human side of the story.
Watson elaborated on several points of interest that I had not considered. One point was that a lot of the white volunteers, after that summer, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I had to ponder that one for a minute. If the white volunteers became afflicted with this illness after living in Mississippi, under the same conditions as black folks, for one summer, what psychological affects did this treatment, long term, have on black folks and their descendants? It's a wonder we all aren't completely bat-shit insane!
I finished the book with a certainty that I had experienced the definitive narrative of one of the most important episodes in American history. I finished the book being proud and in awe of the volunteers who undertook such a feat and did good work, and yet many don't publicly acknowledge their role or participation. I am proud of the black folks who knowing that they faced physical harm and death, not just to themselves but their families were at risk as well, stood up and demanded the rights that they were entitled. My heart was so full of pride; I thought it would burst in my chest. It is highly unusual that I would feel this way after reading a history book, but Freedom Summer is an ass wiper. I highly recommend it.