Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy
is journalist Bruce Watson’s 2010 account of the summer of 1964 when volunteers from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) attempted to register black voters in Mississippi. The book uses first-person accounts gathered either from Watson’s in-depth interviews or from collections, such Elizabeth Martinez’s Letters from Mississippi
, to contextualize the aftermath of Jim Crow in the Mississippi, bring attention to the work of black citizens and Northern volunteers who refused to give up their struggle for justice, and to highlight the importance of lesser-known figures, such as Chris Williams, Muriel Tilinghast, Fran O'Brien, and Fred Bright Winn in the movement.
In the first section of the book, “Crossroads,” Watson describes the formation of the SNCC, describing Mississippi’s deeply segregated “closed society” – a series of unwritten rules which created impenetrable obstacles to black voting. After recruiting white and black college students, the SNCC spent a little time training them in Ohio to prepare them for what they would encounter in the South. Although they were well prepared for harassment and violence from the police and the KKK, many were shocked by the poverty they saw in the sharecropper shacks where they intended to live while working.
Moreover, no one could have predicted that on the very first night of the students’ arrival, three of them would be murdered: Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. The investigation into the men’s disappearances lasted all summer long, as local authorities dragged their feet as much as possible until the FBI became involved in the matter. Despite the government’s inaction in the face of clearly broken federal laws, the SNCC went on to spend the summer teaching black residents about their legal and civil rights in Freedom Schools, convincing them that they could and should participate in the democratic process, and registering them to vote.
In the book’s second section, “A Bloody Peace Written in the Sky,” we learn that after trying to find reliable informants, the FBI discovered the remains of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney in early August. After being killed by a large group of Klansmen and sympathizers, the men’s bodies were buried under a dam with a backhoe. Despite a lot of evidence, Mississippi shockingly declined to prosecute anyone for the crime – and the country saw firsthand just how far the state would go to fight against equality, and how much those in power wanted to punish blacks and the “uppity Northerners, Jews and Communists” who wanted to help them.
Nevertheless, the summer was having an effect. Freedom Schools were full of enthusiastic learners, and many new voters were put on the rolls. By living in integrated households and by speaking to the black people around them with respect, the SNCC volunteers did their best to show Mississippians that their voices and votes mattered. Black voters formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) with the goal of unseating some of the unfairly elected officials in the state. Sixty-seven representatives of this new political block started making their way towards Atlantic City, New Jersey, to participate in the Democratic National Convention.
Nevertheless, this progress wasn’t without setbacks, as Watson describes in the section’s conclusion. When the MFDP tried to be heard at the Democratic Convention, their demand to be seated either in place of or at least in addition to the white Democrats elected under Mississippi’s illegal “closed society” system, was unsuccessful. In order to prevent the election of the conservative Barry Goldwater, President Lyndon Johnson made a terrible compromise with the Southern Democratic delegation, which otherwise threatened to defect. In exchange for their allegiance, the MFDP was denied access to the convention.
The “Epilogue” rounds out the narrative with a description of what followed this momentous summer. After being reelected, Johnson pushed for and signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which finally forced Mississippi to change. As enforcement of the Act was strengthened, the majority-black state started to elect officials that reflected the racial makeup of its citizenry. At the same time, it was now possible for Mississippi residents, who had been afraid, to voice their opposition to the racial bias that the state was run under. Leaders of the KKK were arrested and convicted, and those who had lived through the Freedom Summer were left with a sense that even in the hardest, most obdurate situations, it is possible to make a difference when guided by unshakeable ideals.