By Dick J. Reavis / The Rag Blog / July 16, 2010
[Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy, by Bruce Watson (Viking, 2010, 384 pp, $27.95.]
New York publisher Viking-Penguin in June released Freedom Summer, a book by Massachusetts writer Bruce Watson, previously the author of a volume about the anarchist martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti. Thanks chiefly to his use of telephone logs, Watson gives readers a nearly minute-by-minute account of the violence which native blacks and a thousand mostly-white college students faced as civil rights agitators in Mississippi during the summer of 1964.
Watson’s account is the second volume published under the title Freedom Summer. Its 1988 predecessor, by Doug McAdam, an Arizona professor, was a sociological study. Both works concentrate on the experiences of the summer volunteers, many of whom were forerunners of, and prophets for the Vietnam anti-war movement. Berkeley firebrand Mario Savio, feminist pioneer Casey Hayden, and Congressman Barney Frank were among them. The chief difference in the two books is that Watson’s volume is a page-turner.
He structures more than half of his tale around the disappearance of volunteers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, and the rest of it, around the Mississipi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to a lily-white Mississippi delegation at the August 1964 national Democratic convention.
While building the drama of these two events, he intersperses reports of church burnings, beatings, arrests, and murders. The result is an accurate picture of the civil rights movement, or CRM, as a war, one in which, to the misgiving of many of its foot soldiers, one side was unarmed. Nonviolence, in Watson’s account, was not an overarching philosophy, but a promising, if largely untested strategy.
From time to time Watson’s story dips into the internal politics of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which, he admits, was brought low by the defeats and conflicts of the summer project. Within a year, SNCC stopped accepting whites into its ranks. But on the whole, Watson’s account is romantic: SNCC regulars are daring warriors, summer volunteers are noble and brave.
Freedom Summer is a biographical volume for several contributors to the original Rag, the late Charlie Smith, Bob Speck, Robert Pardun, and Judy Schieffer, among them. I read it because I believed that it would help me assess my life, two summers of which I spent with summer projects in Alabama. Watson’s account convinced me that Mississippi was more perilous than Alabama, though he does not delve into the chief reason why. Because it was more industrialized, Alabama had during the 30’s — in the Scottsboro, Sharecropper’s Union, and CIO campaigns — had developed a tradition of struggle.
If Watson fails at any task, it is because of his optimism. Not only does he downplay conflicts inside SNCC, but he also comes close to endorsing a teaser line on his book’s cover: “The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy.” Mississippi has elected more black officials than any other jurisdiction, and though it didn’t fall into the Obama column in 2008, Watson apparently believes that Freedom Summer wrought a decisive victory. That, after all, is the received wisdom about the CRM as a whole.
That view is untenable if, like many of the movement’s veterans, one takes the view that what the CRM accomplished was a triumph for civil liberties, which is something less than the triumph of racial equality. It’s mere equality before the law. If, as I believe, the circumstances of African-Americans in the Twentieth Century are essentially those of the Irish in nineteenth-century Britain, they are then the markers and victims of the status that moneyed “democracy” accords its most exploited workers.
By this yardstick, the accomplishments of the CRM must be measured by health, educational, and living standards. None of these show anything nearing a state of equality between the races. Not only do the statistics show wide disparities, but, as any reader of history — or student of Social Security! — must realize, all political changes are reversible.
Freedom Summer was not the decisive battle, as Watson suggests, of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, nor did it produce permanent change. The Movement was a victory in a protracted war in which hostilities have temporarily ceased.
[Dick J. Reavis, who contributed to The Rag in Sixties Austin, is a professor in the English Department at North Carolina State University. His latest book is Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Find Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy by Bruce Watson, on Amazon.com.