This past June, the State of Mississippi successfully prosecuted and convicted Edgar Ray Killen for his involvement in the murder of three civil rights workers during the summer of 1964. Judging by the national attention paid to this forty year old case, the psychic wounds from America's civil rights battles refuse to scar over.
The murdered youths - Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner - were part of The Summer Project, which was a desperate call for help from SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. SNCC leaders understood that few Americans cared enough about the routine beating and jailing of blacks to force Mississippi to change its lawless ways. But if white college students were treated like Mississippi's blacks, outrage, and perhaps federal intervention, would follow. SNCC (working through COFO, an umbrella civil rights group) put out a call for white volunteers who would plug into education and voter registration projects throughout the state and about a thousand volunteers responded. These young men and women, most of them students from elite colleges, were in many ways the best of their generation: compassionate, accomplished, idealistic. One of the volunteers, Sally Belfrage, wrote this beautifully observed account of her two turbulent months in Mississippi.
Belfrage was assigned to Greenwood, a Delta town mired in the old-time cotton economy and the racial exploitation required to run it. Greenwood also happened to be SNCC's state headquarters and to have Stokely Carmichael as its local SNCC project director. Greenwood, SNCC,and the Summer Project made for a volatile mix. The white volunteers boarded in black homes, and both they and their hosts were continually harassed, beaten and jailed for minor or imaginary infractions of local laws. (Belfrage herself spent several days in the local jail after being arrested at a protest march.) She is especially good at analyzing and describing her own emotional states, honestly portraying the fear, exhaustion and exhilaration of fighting on the front lines during the active combat phase of America's race wars. The prose in which she paints Greenwood and the daily struggles of its African-American residents is detailed, insightful and often poetic. The last part of the book, which describes the rifts in the black community between the non-violent and direct action advocates is particularly riveting, and foreshadows the subsequent struggles in the civil rights movement.
Freedom Summer provides a vivid snapshot of one Mississippi town during that long, hot summer, and one white woman's acute observations about what occurred there. What's missing is any effort to place the summer's struggles within the historical context of the civil rights movement. In particular, black SNCC field workers displayed almost unimaginable courage during the two years prior to the Summer Project as they ventured alone and unarmed in into brutal racist enclaves. The physical and psychological toll from those years must be understood to make sense of SNCC's tactics in 1964 and the organization's subsequent rejection of the white helping hand. Belfrage could have provided this context because she had travelled in the South during 1963 to write articles about the Civil Rights movement.
She doesn't mention this fact, or much else about why she went to Mississippi, or what she did before she got there. A little research reveals that Belfrage was born in America to British parents and had been living in England and Russia before returing to American in the early sixties. She was 28 in 1964, older than the typical volunteer and had already published a book about her experiences living and working in Moscow. Freedom Summer was published in 1965, and in 1968 she moved to London which remained her lifelong base while she pursued her career as a journalist/social activist. (She died of cancer in 1994.) Her biography helps explain the curiously unmoored feeling of "Freedom Summer." Belfrage wasn't the typical volunteer. She was at the same time more sophisticated and less rooted in the particular dilemmas of being American at that time. She's able to maintain clarity and objectivity, which are valuable assets to a reporter who was effectively operating in a war zone. But even though she was an active participant, and often in harm's way during the summer, we don't get a sense of what she has invested or what she has to lose, which is why this is a very good memoir about an important historical moment, but not a great one.
What the more typical Summer Project volunteer went through can be found in Letters from Mississippi, which was reissued by Zephyr Press in 2002. This book collects the raw insights and feelings of the volunteers through the letters they wrote to family and friends. Their bravery, and idealism and dismay at the poverty and lawlessness they encountered shine through. The biggest shock to most of the volunteers was discovering that racial oppression was propped up by the Southern courts and particularly by the police, who operated as a law unto themselves. The cowardly refusal of the FBI to intervene in the mayhem being perpetrated on civil rights workers also opened many volunteer eyes to fundamental flaws in the federal government. Many who came down to Mississippi as idealistic liberals believing that government was the solution went home believing that government was the problem. The death throes of FDR's New Deal began at the business end of a policeman's billy club thunking off white liberal skulls in 1964.
The disillusionment with government that began on the dusty roads of Mississippi was reinforced by the urban riots of the sixties, the political assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy, the moral horrors of Vietnam, and the cynical machinations of the Nixon administration. That rift has never been repaired. Today, Baby Boomers on both the left and the right have little faith in the government's ability to solve our problems. The tragedy of this view is that we're being led by default to a harsher, less egalitarian society. The TV images of poor blacks fleeing Hurricane Katrina's devastation with just the clothes on their backs while the federal government did nothing to help them makes one wonder, despite the fact the Southern courts now convict the Edgar Ray Killens for their crimes against humanity, just how far we've actually come since 1964.