Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Another seminal 50 year anniversary was celebrated last night in a documentary on PBS's "American Experience" by Stanley Nelson called FREEDOM SUMMER, about the voter registration drive that took place in Mississippi fifty years ago led by SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) which recruited over seven hundred mostly white college students from the North to come to what was then one of the most violently white supremacist states in the Union.

A lot of the footage I've either seen before in other documentaries about the Civil Rights movement, or on TV news at the time it was happening. But Nelson's concentration is on just the summer months of this one specific campaign to register African-American voters in a place that made black adults take literacy tests in which they had to write answers that analyzed sections of The Constitution in ways most college graduates couldn't do, and even before potential voters faced that challenge the white power figures would intimidate any black citizens who tried to register to vote by threatening loss of jobs or property or life.

It's an incredible story and an incredible film. It not only brought me to tears many times, but made me wish every teenager were forced to sit and watch this film and then hear speakers who were there explain the sacrifices that were made to make this country, not just Mississippi, more fair and just. Maybe they wouldn't take so much for granted and be inspired by the ways so many privileged teenagers fifty years ago gave up their comforts and their safety and in some cases their lives to insure that poor black Mississippians who few knew or cared about got at least the same right to vote that white people had.

(I was in the military at the time and from 1962 to '63—before Freedom Summer—I was stationed in the equally brutally racist and legally segregated white supremacist state of South Carolina where I challenged the racist laws and traditions as an individual, not part of any movement, and realized in retrospect I was lucky to get out alive—the local authorities in Greenville demanded the service ship me out of their state—and lucky my actions didn't cause anyone else to lose their lives.)

Whites were so outnumbered throughout Mississippi, they knew if black citizens got the vote they'd vote out the white supremacist system of not just segregation but of intimidation and deliberate impoverishment and control and disenfranchisement that had been in existence since after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Or what white Southerners called their "way of life." The summer began with three young workers in this campaign—two white young men from New York and a black colleague from Mississippi—disappearing and foul play suspected.

I know the story well, but FREEDOM SUMMER pulls it together in a way that convincingly demonstrates that this was the pivotal period and event of the Civil Rights movement. Everything changed after that summer, not just the spirits of beaten down Mississippi black folks, led by one of my favorite historic figures and heroes and inspirations, Fannie Lou Hamer, who when she tried to register to vote before that summer not only wasn't allowed to by the white racist power structure but was fired from her job on a plantation and yet led the effort to turn Mississippi from a racist gulag to a place where black citizens had the power to elect their own representatives and dismantle the white supremacist system.
Another of my heroes, ever since the first time I heard him speak, calmly and briefly, back in that era, is featured in FREEDOM SUMMER, Bob Moses, a man whose impact was marginalized in the years that followed that summer of 1964 by those who pushed for black nationalism and called for a violent revolution. But Moses was the bravest, most articulate, and for me most charismatic of all the young leaders in The Civil Rights movement then because of his quiet integrity and humble courage.

I always think of the summer of 1964 and what was begun in Mississippi as "the summer of heroes"—like Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Shwerner, Chaney and Goodman and many more, including every one of those Northern College students—"white" and "black"—who risked their lives, or lost them, to for the right of disenfranchised poor black adults to vote in elections.

If you watch FREEDOM SUMMER and aren't moved to tears by the courage of almost everyone in this documentary, well, there's something wrong with your tear ducts.

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