A New Must-Read Book About Mississippi '64
The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and
Made America a Democracy
By Bruce Watson
Illustrated. 369 pages. Viking. $27.95.
[Books of the Times review, posting to SNCC-List]
Books of The Times
Mississippi Invaded by Idealism
By Dwight Garner
New York Times
July 19, 2010
The comedian Dick Gregory used to joke bitterly during the
civil rights era, that you could always spot a white
moderate in Mississippi. He was the "cat who wants to lynch
you from a low tree."
Few in Mississippi got to hear Gregory's crack. When it came
to race issues the state operated under a virtual media
lockdown in the early 1960s. When James Baldwin was a guest
on "Today," NBC stations in Mississippi cut to an old movie.
When Thurgood Marshall, then an N.A.A.C.P. lawyer, appeared
on TV, a notice flashed: "Cable Difficulty." Mississippi's
ABC affiliates didn't want to air "Bewitched," a new sitcom.
Marriage between man and witch? Surely that was code for
interracial sex, for the coming mongrelization.
Mississippi pretended its race problems didn't exist. But as
Bruce Watson makes plain in his taut and involving new book,
"Freedom Summer," the rest of America in 1964 was beginning
to have trouble looking away from Mississippi. Ten years
after Brown v. Board of Education and nine years after Rosa
Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, the state
hadn't budged. Nina Simone was recording a new single most
people in the state wouldn't get to hear either:
Blacks in Mississippi were almost entirely disenfranchised.
Poll taxes, literacy tests and other sorts of "legalistic
voodoo," Mr. Watson writes, kept them out of voting booths.
Counties in which blacks outnumbered whites had not a single
black registered voter...
Mr. Watson's book derives its power - at its best, it is the
literary equivalent of a hot light bulb dangling from a low
ceiling - from its narrow focus. "Freedom Summer" is about
the more than 700 college students who, in the summer of
1964, under the supervision of the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee, risked their lives to travel to
Mississippi to register black voters and open schools. It
was a summer, Mr. Watson writes, that "brought out the best
in America" but "the worst in Mississippi."...
It's hard to finish "Freedom Summer" without a comment by
the historian Howard Zinn ringing in your ears. To be with
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members during the
civil rights era - "walking a picket line in the rain in
Hattiesburg, Miss. ... to see them jabbed by electric prod
poles and flung into paddy wagons in Selma, Ala., or link
arms and sing at the close of a church meeting in the Delta"
- was, Mr. Zinn wrote, "to feel the presence of greatness."
A version of this review appeared in print on July 19, 2010,
on page C1 of the New York edition.
Full review at:
[posted to the SNCC-List July 14, 2010}
Dear Former SNCCs:
As a veteran of the Mississippi civil rights campaign of
'64, I want to recommend a book I just read about that
hellish summer. Full disclosure: I'm in the book, though
SNCC folk have long been sensitive, and with good reason, at
their treatment in history. Despite all the sufferings, all
the beatings, all the cutting edge strategy, SNCC has been
forced to take a back seat to the MLK-Rosa Parks school of
Civil Rights history. But not anymore. "Freedom Summer:
The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made
America a Democracy" gives SNCC its full due. It's also a
great book, even if you weren't in McComb, Mississippi, as I
was in 1964.
The book isn't like other Freedom Summer books because it
goes far deeper than the three murders and the FBI
investigation. This fresh new look draws on volunteers'
letters, journals, and the hourly WATS line reports phoned
into COFO. The author, Bruce Watson, also interviewed many
of us (full disclosure II -- he interviewed me as well.)
So instead of headline stories, you get behind-the-scenes
stuff that you may never have known, even if you were there.
Did you know that Pete Seeger was singing in Meridian when
the three bodies were discovered? I didn't. Did you know
that phone threats were made to SNCC during the Ohio
training? They never told us. Ever read any of the Freedom
School newspapers the students put out? That's the kind of
detail this book has. It puts you on the ground, in the
heat, under the constant threats, in Mississippi, in 1964.
It's about time someone told this forgotten story and
"Freedom Summer" tells it well. Check it out.
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