Freedom Summer—Bruce Watson


I don't know how I happened upon this article, but at the beginning of the summer, the LA Times had a list of "60 books for 92 days," basically books that might be interesting and keep you occupied for the summer. I decided to be ambitious and attempt to read all of them...well, that was a bit too much, especially since I don't have the money to buy them all (obviously) so I have to wait to get them from the public library. I haven't gotten very far in the list, but one book that I have read so far from the list is called Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy by Bruce Watson. (Here's a link to that LA Times article, in case any of you are interested. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-summer-books-20100606-56,0,4987720,full.story)

At a time when there are many contentious debates occurring in the country surrounding issues that I believe to be fundamentally related to civil rights, this book is a ray of hope. This book is about the struggle in Mississippi for the rights of African-Americans, rights that were allegedly guaranteed to them by various laws and acts and constitutional amendments, yet were still denied to them. This is not to say that the book is a ray of hope because everyone got what they wanted and we all lived happily ever after, and there were rainbows and singing forest animals, because that's not what happened. But Watson clearly outlines how the actions of a single summer created a ripple effect that helped contribute to the changes that we see in our country today. The book shows that with regular people standing up for what they believe is right, we can make a difference, we can change the way that our country operates.

I really enjoyed that Watson focused on people who are often forgotten by the civil rights movement; at least they are not names that I ever heard in all of my courses on American history and civil rights. It's understandable to not have heard the names of any number of the 700 volunteers who were part of Freedom Summer, but I also had never really heard the names of many of the leaders who were involved in the movement. For example, Bob Moses, who basically had the idea of Freedom Summer and was instrumental in the planning and implementation stages. I feel as though I had heard his name before, but not any information further than that. Watson covers that, including a bit of his background and his involvement in SNCC and the summer. He talks about several of the "big" leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and some celebrities who were involved in the movement, but he doesn't focus on them, which is nice. He alternates viewpoints, from the volunteers to the leaders to the president to the FBI, without becoming convoluted and confusing.

Additionally, Watson talks about several of the volunteers and their reasons for becoming involved and, later, their lives after the summer. One of those volunteers is Fran O'Brien. Her reason for becoming involved is one of the most poignant. She had been considering it and wasn't sure what to do, but the deciding factor was when she was watching a scene from a movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, in which a German woman is asked what she did while Hitler was in power, and the woman responded, "Nothing." O'Brien didn't want the same situation to be true for her; for someone to ask her what she had been doing during the fight for civil rights, and have to reply, "Nothing."

Watson also discusses the viewpoint of those Mississippi residents who didn't necessarily agree with the treatment of blacks, but still saw the volunteers coming in as an invasion of Mississippi that was unwanted. This has been a question throughout history, I feel, that is still present today. When is it okay to attempt to "help" other states or countries when they have not asked for our help? And why is it that we often do so while ignoring the pleas of other countries who desperately want our assistance? It is easy in retrospect to say that these volunteers going into Mississippi changed the course of United States history, and to interpret that to mean that it was right for them to go there. For every person who didn't want the volunteers there, who felt it was an invasion, I'm sure there was another who felt that it was essential for them to be there. I'm not saying that either position is right or wrong, but it was an interested point that Watson brought up.

The aftermath of the summer is a fairly significant part of the book. It would be easy to just say, "Here's what happened, and then it was over and people went back to their lives, or didn't," and be done with it. But he discusses the impact of the summer on Mississippi in the long run, on several volunteers who we follow throughout the book, on the United States, on the families.

At the beginning of each chapter, and between the two parts of the book, Watson had empowering quotes that would set the mood for the chapter. They were not essential to the content of the book but it could have been a completely different book without them. One stood out to me, at the beginning of "Book Two" by William Faulkner.

It was a bit of a slow start for me, but once I got into it, I could barely put it down, reading into the early hours of the morning. Overall, a fantastic book that is inspiring and informative, and on a topic that I haven't heard much about.

P.S. I just watched the new episode of Mad Men and the girl that Don goes on a date with talks about "one of those boys who was killed in Mississippi, Andrew Goodman." I can't believe that in all of my history courses I never learned about this aspect of the civil rights movement, especially since it was (and is, in many ways) such a large part of our history, especially in the year 1964. Anyway, the thread of what happened to those men is constant throughout the book, beginning with the initial panic that they had not checked in on time, and ending with the finding of their bodies and the prosecution (which took far too long) of most of the men who were involved.

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