Customer Reviews: Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy
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on June 23, 2010
Bruce Watson talks about my teen years, in his "Freedom Summer." He talks about my people, as he describes one of the most significant years of the country's civil rights struggle. In the summer of 1964 I was a 14 year old Mississippi boy; actually, a Mississippi good-ol'-boy-in-training. The three civil rights workers were killed in my regional neighborhood. They were communist agitators, invading my land, stirring things up.

Watson wasn't there, that hot, hot Mississippi summer; he really wasn't. But the reader of his "Freedom Summer" wouldn't know that, as they are transported in his narrative to that time and place.

As I read Watson, it was, for me, mostly a poignant and painful reminder of my past, as he narrates my 1964 summer. I was there, and he will put you there, with me, as social forces transform the cultural landscape -- not just in Mississippi, but the very consciousness of the nation. "Freedom Summer" is that good.

In a most compelling manner, Watson describes the hundreds of civil rights activists as they arrive in Mississippi, having no real idea as to the world they were entering, settling into towns and communities throughout the state. He puts the reader into the lives of the activists, as they help invigorate and support the black population to register to vote; as they are all spit upon, cursed, beaten, jailed, terrorized, and killed.

In addition to the terror, Watson describes, in an equally compelling manner, the forever-kindled hope and commitment of both the outsider civil rights workers and the local black communities. One small victory after another, and another, he describes the joy of the movement from within.

As in insider of that Freedom Summer, I know that Watson's description is more than fair. It is an accurate depiction of that time and place; as accurate a description as I have known. It will become an important contribution to the history of civil rights.
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on June 10, 2010
"Freedom Summer" is likely to be recognized as the definitive account of a seemingly all-but-forgotten but nevertheless enduringly transformative episode in American history. That I myself was a volunteer in the Mississippi Summer Project necessarily colors my perception, but I little doubt that a reader more objective of mind will draw the same conclusion. Bruce Watson, a meticulous journalist, takes you into every nook and cranny of Mississippi with an abundance of crackling anecdotage recounting the actualities that transpired during this unprecedented surge into a higher level of American democracy, and he does so with an imagination suggestive of the gift one expects of a novelist; so much so that, on the one hand, I found myself reading his compelling narrative as if I were entering Mississippi for the very first time, while on the other I was able to locate myself in the there-and-then of my actual experience as I was never able to do heretofore. He tells his story so empathically that, did I not know otherwise, I'd be thinking he himself was a Mississippi volunteer.

Watson gives his tale luminous specificity by threading it through the experiences of four particular volunteers. We find out why they came to Mississippi, what they were thinking and feeling as they were either teaching in a freedom school or canvassing door-to-door for voter registrants, and how their Freedom Summer experience impacted their lives thereafter. Lurking with a tumescent tension behind the accounts of their unique travails is the tragic story of the disappearance and murder of the three advance-guard civil rights workers whose names--Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman--will forever be paradigmatic for the savageness that permeated Missssippi not only that summer but for all-too-many prior years as well.

As an engaging counterpoint to the goings-on within Mississippi, Watson keeps us abreast of how the nation is responding to all that it's seeing and hearing, and how the federal government--J. Edgar Hoover, RFK, LBJ--struggles to cope with it, all of which adds to the tale a welcome historical perspective.
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on July 5, 2010
This is a powerful book, and reminds me of the excellent book written a few years ago entitled We Are Not Afraid. If you are a volunteer in any capacity don't ever say you are JUST a volunteer. The fact that you are working without pay aptly illustrates you are dedicated to doing a good job. The individuals involved in this 1964 Freedom Summer program in Mississippi are not widely remembered today for their efforts. That distinction goes to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. However, these young individuals, many of them college students, who chose to spend their summer helping those who never had others who thought of them as anything worthy of a human being left their positive mark on history in an environment that looked upon them as interlopers to say the least.

Mississippi was filled with domestic terrorists with names such as Rainey, Price, Killen, Roberts, and several others who would stop at nothing, including murder, to preserve their bigoted way of life. Judges and juries were such that justice was a farce in regard to matters regarding civil rights. Even though he masterminded the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, Edgar Ray Killen enjoyed several years of freedom because one of the jurors in his trial stated she could "never convict a preacher." You have to wonder why she was on the jury in the first place with that attitude. Several others eventually got off with light sentences several years later with some of them still out and about.

These volunteers literally took their lives in their hands to correct the indignities that were taking place in the police state that was Mississippi. Young people today have a hard time believing that blacks and whites were not allowed to marry, attend school together, eat in the same restaurants, or having to duck down to prevent law officers from seeing mixed races riding in an automobile together.

We have come a long way since those terror-filled years of the 1960s, but we still have a long way to go since bigotry still raises its ugly head when we turn on the news. We need to be vigilant to prevent returning to those days when an individual was judged by the color of their skin rather than by their character.

This is an important book to remind us what others have gone through to achieve the gains that have been made in the area of civil rights. An outstanding DVD you may want to buy on this subject is entitled Murder in Mississippi. It is available here on Amazon.
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on August 3, 2010
I eagerly awaited the publishing of this book, wondering how someone who was not in Mississippi that summer of '64 could possibly tell the story accurately. But before I had finished the first chapter of Bruce Watson's account of Freedom Summer, I was already back in Mississippi, feeling the stifling heat and smelling the Mississippi air.

I was a volunteer that summer and think about it often. But only after reading this account was I able to remember many details that had remained hidden beneath the conscious level. I couldn't put the book down. It reads like a novel, but having been there myself, I can assure the reader that the book is accurate and riveting. Mr. Watson captures the sights and sounds and most importantly, the emotions of that never-to-be forgotten summer.

I highly recommend this book as a must-read to any teacher or student wanting to understand the civil rights movement of the sixties. It tells it like it was and allows the reader to feel that they were there.

Congratulations to Bruce Watson on his important contribution in keeping this important time in history alive.
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on November 8, 2011
I was still in diapers in the summer of 1964, so I was not aware of Freedom Summer in Mississippi. If you've seen the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, you know about the three young men, two white and one black, who disappeared on the first night of Freedom Summer. This book tells the rest of the story.

Hundreds of brave and idealistic college-age kids left their safe white enclaves all over the country to converge on Mississippi. They hoped to register black voters, many of whom were not even aware they had the right to vote. They also taught in Freedom Schools, where black children could come and get a taste of what it was like to get excited about learning and be treated with the dignity they weren't allowed in the public schools.

These volunteers risked everything, including their lives. Mississippi wasn't just another state back then, it was another country! There was no real law there, and it was a violent and dangerous place. Four volunteers lost their lives, and many others were beaten, bombed, threatened, jailed, and humiliated. It took a long time for the seeds they sowed to bear fruit, but when we elected a bi-racial president 44 years later, some of them felt like they'd had a part in making that possible.
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on July 23, 2010
The story of the Freedom Riders, the young American idealists of the early 1960s who rode buses and hitched rides to integrate a stubbornly segregated south, has been told in documentaries and print. But not quite like this. Bruce Watson, the author of the critically acclaimed Sacco and Vanzetti and Bread and Roses, makes every reader wonder what he or she would have done when disembarking a bus into hostile neighborhoods - or what it would have been like to have a son or daughter do the same. The on-the-ground battles play out against the politics of Johnson's 1964 Civil Rights Act and the horror of the disappearance, later discovered to be murders, of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. If your knowledge of that summer in 1964 is confined to the FBI heroics and black martyrdom of Mississippi Burning, prepare to have your eyes opened and your heart moved.
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on July 29, 2010
Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy by Bruce Watson

Off the top, this is the best new examination of the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964. It brings the strengths of Sally Belfrage's Freedom Summer (1965) and Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez's Letters from Mississippi (1965) and avoids trumpeting the FBI's heroic efforts to locate the bodies of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. Rather Watson ably recreates the atmosphere of terror and tension the civil rights activists and volunteers lived through during the long hot summer.

He does this through his interviews with volunteers and civil rights workers and focuses the readers' attention on their personal experiences in a land which was barely comprehensible to America of the 1960's. Mississippi's "Closed Society" is revealed as a world constructed to keep the African American in his place or take his life if he chose to throw off those restraints.

Although Watson's book is not an academic study, he makes use of established source materials and truly provides the reader with a bottom-up look at Freedom Summer, rather than what the political establishment considered it. Those who wish to reexamine the period would make good use of this work to help them understand the civil rights movement as it was in 1964 in Mississippi.
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on July 25, 2010
Bruce Watson's engaging history of one of the most important events in the history of civil rights should be read by everyone. The civil rights workers who came to Mississippi in 1964, at great personal risk, began a process that broke the back of segregation in the toughest state of the Old South. Watson does an excellent job of describing the situation in Mississippi by telling the stories of several of the young people, mostly college students on their summer "vacation." He places their experiences in the context of what was happening throughout the state and nation at the time and also relates the "Summer Project" to the events at the 1964 Democratic Convention. The Freedom Democratic Party that rose out of the project forced the national Democratic Party to face the problem of racist Southern parties and, with the help of Goldwater and Nixon, resulted in a historic realignment of national political parties. The events of 1964 have been forgotten by many and are unknown to those born too late to have lived through them. Watson has succeeded in retelling the story in a way that will be enjoyed by any reader.
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on August 28, 2010
This was a well written book that I read in pieces as there was so much to comprehend. I lived in those times in Chicago. Really forgot how dangerous it was.The book brought it all back. I was working in Florida and was watching MLK funeral with black co-workers. I was called into my supervisors office and asked if I was a Communist. This was in Ft.Lauderdale Florida. Living in the South West, I see how much easier it is for Black and White people to live next door to each other. No segregated neighborhoods. I loved reading about those times, and who was there. Bravo to those brave students who got on a bus and went into a war zone. Bravo to those brave black folks from Mississippi who stood up to hatred. Let us remember white people who changed into the next generation of good neighbors in the South.
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on October 20, 2013
If you want to understand the racism that is still prevalent in the South and especially Mississippi, read this book. Typically historical books compromise some of their story-telling grip and joy of getting lost in a book, and this book is the best of both worlds. It provides amazing, albeit sometimes difficult to read b/c it's horrible but you know it's the truth, history with great story-telling prose. If you have any interest in the subject, read this book. You will not be disappointed, and you will be the wiser and more informed for it. This book offers invaluable perspective.
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