The book Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy was written by Bruce Watson in the year 2011. It accounts what happened in 1964 during a long hot summer. What happened in Mississippi this year is a transformative episode which will be forever be remembered in American History. The book narrates how the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to fight for Africa-Americans equal rights without fear or favor. The SNCC was tired with how African-Americans were treated, and it reached a point where they decided to take a direct action and challenge the southern power structure. The SNCC went to the quasi-medieval state of Mississippi where segregation was at its peak. The aim of the book is to show all the events that occurred during the Freedom Summer.
The experienced organizers of the group trained seven hundred volunteers who were to help the blacks in Mississippi register to vote (Watson 1). The seven hundred volunteers were mostly white college students. They also helped in setting up freedom schools to intensify the poor education that was provided to the blacks in Mississippi. Old sharecropper shacks and Church social halls were the places where freedom schools were held. The group also wanted to help the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the Democratic National Convention in their plan to continue having all-white state delegation.
This summer was a simultaneously terrifying and joyous for the seven hundred volunteer students who were working and living with the local Africa-Americans dwellers. The students faced the consequences of choosing to help Africa-Americans, and whenever they attempted to visit the town, they were faced by full rejection from their antagonists. In fact, three volunteers died in their first night in the state and black churches were burnt as well. And this was the beginning of a new definition of the word freedom in America.
Volunteers and those who wished to register as voters were shot, harassed by the police, arrested on fraudulent charges, beaten and threatened at voter registration offices (Watson 6). Volunteers were also followed around by pickups which were filled with armed men. Shotguns were normally fired into the houses where the volunteers were spending their nights. Thirty black homes and/or businesses and thirty seven black churches were burnt. In short Mississippi was burning. Over a thousand people were arrested. This struggle did not even spare the civil rights workers as three of them were kidnapped on June 21 and later found dead on August 4 where their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam. The names of the volunteers who were kidnapped were James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (Watson 27). Their abduction terrified other volunteers, but the struggle continued. Most likely, their abduction was meant to scare other volunteer because it happened on the first day of Mississippi summer project which is being referred by the author as freedom summer. The disappearance and the murder of the three civil rights workers will forever be remembered in Mississippi and America at large.
The author is emphasizing on how the common people struggled to eliminate the racist Mississippi power structure. Watson is portraying how people fought tirelessly irrespective of the torture they were going through. Some of them died in the process, but this could not stop them and they were willing to show humankind at its worst and best. Mississippi State used to pretend that its race problem did not exist, but Bruce Watson has made it open and clear how the blacks were suffering in hands of whites. For instance, the author has shown it clearly that the blacks had not voting rights because even the counties where blacks outnumbered the whites, not a single black were registered as a voter. According to Bruce Watson the freedom summer “brought out the best in America, but the worst in Mississippi”. The stories of this summer have been told before, but not in a better manner than what Bruce has presented it. The book has presented fine details of what happened in that dreaded summer. For instance, there is an issue of how one volunteer’s father told his son. The father told the son that if he got caught by the Klans, he should tell them his father is a Mason (This will prevent him from been harmed as Masonic code did not allow members to harm another’s family). Such fine details are not presented in other books of the same topic.
Watson takes a reader into every cranny and nook of Mississippi with an abundance of all the events that transpired during this summer that contributed to a new definition of the word democracy or rather American democracy. He narrates the story very well that you would he was one of the volunteers. On what Watson has accounted concerning the on goings within Mississippi, he keeps the reader abreast of how the nation was responding to what it was seeing and hearing. He also explores how the federal government was struggling to cope with what was happening. This combinational analysis gives the book a good taste of historical perspective.
The author gives his story lucent particularity by dealing with the experiences of four specific volunteers. Three of the volunteers who Watson focuses on were white and there were Fred Winn from California, Chris Williams from Massachusetts and Fran O’Brien who was also from California. The fourth volunteer was older than the three, and his name was Muriel Tillinghast who was a recent graduate of Howard University and a native of the District of Columbia. Through his story, readers are able to understand why the volunteers went to Mississippi, why they thought and felt when they were either canvassing door-to-door for voter registrants or teaching in a freedom school. Readers are also able to understand how the experience of freedom summer impacted the lives of volunteers thereafter.
History of civil rights movement in America contains many good tales of triumph, but there were some episodes which were filled with sacrifice and tragedy. The period Bruce Watson is writing about is one that showed signs that legal segregation in the south would have taken the time to end if it were not for that intervention. Black residents were completely unable to secure genuine citizenship and their efforts were proving to be fruitless. According to Watson’s book Mississippi had the largest black population yet the state had the ugliest record of oppression.
The book focuses on the contribution which was made by the volunteer students who came from the West, the North and the Midwest to assist in education and voter registration. These volunteers were idealistic, determined to make a crucial difference as well as committed to progressive ideals of social justice. The death of their three members got international attention, and this forced the FBI to be involved in defending the black and white civil workers.
The book has also done a good job because it has depicted the contributions of lesser known names such as Hazel Brannon Smith who was a courageous newspaper publisher and editorial writer of the Lexington Advertiser. She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer for editorial writing due to her commentary on anti-lynching and pro-civil rights. Another lesser unknown figure who has been brought out by Watson is a volunteer student by the name Chris Williams. Chris used to spend his summer surfing decided to risk his life and help the black Mississippians understand their rights to vote.
Watson’s book documents the Mississippi summer operation in a very good structure. Everything that happened during the three month period is well documented right from the voters’ registration stations, freedom schools that were established in old shacks and the tactical debates that followed. It clearly documents the political struggles and the eventual victory that the workers and volunteers’ students helped achieve. This can be described as a period whereby the citizens of good will did not consider their differences in the background and color, but came together to fight for justice.
The victory of the freedom summer did not come easily as shown by the fine details in this book. The book has intelligibly revealed the costs and losses that were incurred during that period. It also reveals the inspirational wins and offers an unforgettable and a moving testament to human conviction and courage. The episode presented in this book is a crucial one in the American civil rights movement. Readers are taken into the heart of those three remarkable months, and this sends a new light on a critical moment of emergent change in America.
This book is a fascinating account of a murder that captured the attention of the nation, youth leadership, the beginning of the end of the solid Democratic south and an FBI investigation. The author refabricates the texture of that awful yet worthwhile summer with impressive credibility. The book is painful to read as the author has gone into details of how Mississippi was in those days. However, the book is recommended to all students with strong ideals and wishes to know the black history of America.