David Levering Lewis
June 27, 2010
The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy
By Bruce Watson
(Viking; 369 pages; $27.95)
On a sweltering August day in 1980, Ronald Reagan gave the first
speech of his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss.,
population 13,000 whites and an equal number of blacks. The Neshoba
County Fair where the candidate deplored big government and extolled
"states rights" before a boisterously receptive crowd was a short
ride by pickup to the earthen dam where, 16 years earlier, FBI agents
had retrieved the bodies of the martyred civil rights volunteers
Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
Reagan's barely coded message, wrapped in the obscenely appropriate
symbolism of place, promised white Southerners a long holiday from
judicial and federal advancement of racial equality.
Bruce Watson's remarkable "Freedom Summer," a well-researched, vivid
retelling of the 1964 civil rights crusade to put Mississippi's
200,000 disfranchised blacks on the voting rolls, makes no mention of
Reagan's Philadelphia visit as its story unreels kaleidoscopically
from the nighttime abduction of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner on June
21 to the high noon exhumation of their remains on Aug. 4 as a
horrified world looked on.
This reader was struck, as others of his generation may be, by
Philadelphia, Miss., as a contrast in racial tropes: the Philadelphia
of racial equality cynically traduced and long deferred in the name
of laissez faire; the Philadelphia of abducted democratic ideals
ultimately to be exhumed by the American people in the
quarter-century since the Reagan presidency in a place where the past
once invariably trumped the future and the stasis of the races evoked
one regional historian's memorable description of Mississippi as "the
most southern place on earth."
Civil rights historians still debate whether primary credit for the
Freedom Summer idea belongs to brilliant liberal activist Allard
Lowenstein (with a share owed Barney Frank) or to Robert Parris
Moses, 25, the magnetic Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
leader who was key to the success of the 3-year-old Mississippi voter
registration campaign of the Confederated Civil Rights Organizations.
Unquestionably, Bob Moses was the indispensable implementer of a plan
whose audacity troubled Martin Luther King Jr., exasperated NAACP
officials and initially angered even seasoned SNCC and Congress of
Racial Equality student leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Ivanhoe
Donaldson after Moses and Lowenstein announced plans to enroll
hundreds of callow Northern white college students in an invasion in
which CORE and SNCC cadres, toiling unsung in deadly Mississippi
backwater towns since the beginning of the decade, might find
themselves upstaged even as they wet-nursed clueless sojourners.
Unsentimental and calculating, Moses knew that putting the flower of
white youth in harm's way guaranteed the national establishment's attention.
Not all the 700 students who came to the Oxford, Ohio, campus of
Western College for Women in mid-June were white. White or black, all
volunteers were interviewed to weed out the hopelessly naive, the
missionaries, the sexual adventurers. A sense of rendezvousing with
history suffused the Ohio campus and registered portentously in
letters home. One volunteer writes, "There is a moral wave building
among today's youth and I intend to catch it!"
Nor could game idealists like Goodman and Schwerner, gifted sons of
the New York left, and Chaney, a defiant young black Mississippian,
have avoided a sense of elation in the presence of instructors who,
though but a few years older, were already on their way to becoming
tomorrow's civil society icons: James Forman, John Lewis, Julian
Bond, Victoria Gray, Stokely Carmichael. Mississippi's Fannie Lou
Hamer mesmerized the volunteers.
No matter the cool, unvarnished depiction of firsthand dangers by
Moses, Hamer and white Alabamian Bob Zeller or careful explication of
what little legal protection William Kunstler and assistant attorney
general for civil rights John Doar vouchsafed them, when students
from Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan and elsewhere like Tom Hayden
of SDS, Mario Savio of future Free Speech Movement fame, and Casey
Hayden and Anne Moody of future feminist eminence, boarded buses for
Mississippi on June 20, almost none of them could have measured the
full meaning of a sign this reviewer recalls hanging in SNCC's
Atlanta headquarters: "There's a town in Mississippi called Liberty.
There's a Department in Washington called Justice."
Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner would die at the hands of their Klan
torturers the following evening. Only later, after J. Edgar Hoover's
FBI confined itself to note-taking as churches burned and Freedom
Schools were dynamited, and only after Klan intimidations and
whippings of scores of voting applicants did the volunteers'
Mississippi reality sink in. "For the rest of the 1960s," writes
Watson, "Mississippi would remain their benchmark of injustice."
"Freedom Summer" does have its upside. Eighty thousand African
Americans voted in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's
alternate primary organized by SNCC and COFO. Buoyed by the passage
of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that July, Moses, together with the
redoubtable Fannie Lou Hamer and others, brought an all-or-nothing
demand to Lyndon Johnson's Democratic convention in Atlantic City
calling for replacement of Mississippi's all-white delegation by the MFDP.
"Freedom Summer" evokes the heartbreak drama of these young civil
rights soldiers as they encounter realpolitik at Atlantic City with a
narrative detail that still leaves one squeamish even after four
decades: Johnson commandeering the national networks to block Hamer's
wrenching televised testimony before the convention's credentials
committee; Hamer reproaching an almost tearful Vice President Hubert
Humphrey about the convention's niggardly two-seat compromise, "Mr.
Humphrey, if you take this job, you won't be worth anything."
Three years after Mississippi officials refused to indict anyone for
the murder of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, Assistant Attorney
General John Doar wrung a 1967 federal conviction of Philadelphia
Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and six others for civil rights
violations. In a surprising professional turnaround 25 years after
Reagan's Neshoba County Fair speech, Mississippi's attorney general
won a manslaughter conviction of Neshoba County's Klan Imperial Klan
Wizard, Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, mastermind of the Freedom Summer
martyrdom of the three civil rights volunteers.
No statues to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner are likely to be erected
on the Philadelphia courthouse lawn anytime soon, but Mississippi's
racial adjustments five years shy of the Freedom Summer's 50th
anniversary would astonish William Faulkner. That neither Faulkner
nor Reagan could ever have imagined an Obama presidency underscores
the reasonable optimism of Bruce Watson's important book.
David Levering Lewis is Julius Silver University professor at New
York University. He has written biographies of Martin Luther King Jr.
and W.E.B. Du Bois. E-mail him at email@example.com.