BY DENNIS HEALY
September 26, 2010
One of the promises I made to myself when I retired was to read more
-- not texts that I taught, but books of my choosing.
Shortly after we relocated and settled in California, my wife and I
walked to the San Rafael Public Library and got library cards.
We perused the children's section for books for our granddaughter,
then headed for the adult section.
In the non-fiction section, I selected "Freedom Summer," by Bruce
Watson, published in June, 2010. As I scanned the pictorial section,
the images brought back memories of that time.
I was 13, and through the visual medium of television, I had seen the
coverage of the assassination of JFK in November of 1963 and The
Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964.
Now, the pictures of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James
Chaney -- three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in June
of 1964; and the menacing faces of Lawrence Rainey and Cecil Price --
sheriff and deputy sheriff of Neshoba County, the setting of the
murders; took me back to a time when my emerging consciousness began
to question the ways of the world.
I needed to move beyond the impressions of those visual images.
I checked out the book and began reading it that evening.
Watson frames his narrative with the two critical events that defined
that summer: the murders of the three civil rights workers on June 21
and the attempt of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be
seated at the Democratic Convention at the end of August.
In the chapters that fall between, Watson focuses on the smaller, yet
no less dramatic stories of individual Freedom Riders, Student
Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members and ordinary
citizens who complete the portrait of the incendiary events of that
summer, from church bombings to shootings, beatings and mass arrests.
Through the leadership of SNCC, the Freedom Riders settled in
Mississippi to open freedom schools and register voters, despite
almost constant harassment from their nemesis, the Ku Klux Klan.
At times, the narrative is graphic.
A group of Klansmen kidnaps devout Catholic Fran O'Brien, takes her
to a remote place and whips her with a rubber hose. As they prepare
for the beating, one of them says to her, "That's a good little girl.
Stay nice and still now, so we can whup you." After the beating, they
dump her in the driveway from which they abducted her.
In his Epilogue, Watson speculates whether the tumult of Freedom
Summer was worth it for those who participated in it -- many who
suffered physical and psychic scars -- and for the state of
Mississippi, which came under close scrutiny from a nation that could
not believe such segregation existed in the United States.
Watson also chronicles the long trail of justice that followed the
murderers and conspirators who took the lives of Schwerner, Chaney,
Many were ultimately convicted, but some not until 30 or 40 years
after the crimes.
At the end of the Epilogue, when Watson notes the election of
President Obama, I experienced a closing emotional connection with
the book. It was not a political Epiphany. It was a social one.
As the president-elect strode to the podium in Grant Park that night,
I saw Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Andrew Goodman,
Michael Schwerner and James Chaney walking with him.
Watson concludes with praise for the advances Mississippi has made
since that fateful summer.
In the final statement of his Acknowledgments, Watson says, "... more
Americans should go to the Magnolia State. It's a wonderful place, to
which I hope to return again and again."
Healy retired after 35 years of teaching English at Dubuque Senior
High School and two years at the University of Dubuque. He is the
author of "Becoming a Master Teacher: A Guide to a Successful Career
in the Classroom."