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Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy Hardcover – June 30, 2010

4.6 out of 5 stars 57 customer reviews

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Hardcover, June 30, 2010
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--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews


"Recreates the texture of that terrible yet rewarding summer with impressive verisimilitude."
-Washington Post

"Remarkable...a well-researched, vivid retelling of the 1964 civil rights crusade to put Mississippi's 200,000 disenfranchised blacks on the voting rolls...[an] important book."
-San Francisco Chronicle

"Elegantly written...A fascinating look at ordinary people at their best and worst...Riveting."
-Richmond Times-Dispatch

"An amazing account of one pivotal summer in the history of civil rights...with a thriller's pacing, the book forcefully describes the depravity and treachery behind the bombings, beatings and intimidation...and shows the physical and emotional costs of such a fight."
-The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

-The Economist --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From The Washington Post

It was known as the "long, hot summer," the place being Mississippi and the time being 1964. That the phrase came from the work of the state's most famous and distinguished native son, William Faulkner, was not without irony since Faulkner, who had died two years earlier, had urged his fellow Mississippians to be calm and decent in the face of the bigotry, discrimination and violence that were tearing them apart. The summer was long and hot not merely because summer in Mississippi is always long and hot but because the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had chosen to subject the state to what Bruce Watson calls "a racial firestorm."

It came in the form of the Mississippi Summer Project, better known as Freedom Summer. For the most part outrages committed by whites against blacks in Mississippi went unnoticed elsewhere, but the SNCC was determined to change that. Watson, whose useful, thorough chronicle of this unjustly forgotten time is marred by an occasional lapse into overheated prose, describes the SNCC's strategy as follows:

"What if, instead of Mississippi's black folk struggling in isolation, hundreds of college students from all across the country poured into the state? Wouldn't America pay attention then? And what if, along with [voter] registration drives, these volunteers staffed Freedom Schools, teaching black kids subjects their 'separate but equal' schools would never teach? Black history. Black literature. The root causes of poverty. What if, in the spirit of America's new Peace Corps, this 'domestic Peace Corps' set up Freedom Houses all over Mississippi, with libraries, day cares, and evening classes in literacy and voting rights? And what if, at the culmination of the summer, delegates from a new Freedom Party went to the Democratic National Convention to claim, beneath the spotlight of network news, that they, not Mississippi's all-white delegation, were the rightful representatives from the Magnolia State?"

John Lewis, who then was 24 years old and chairman of the SNCC, put it this way: "Before the Negro people get the right to vote, there will have to be a massive confrontation, and it will probably come this summer. . . . We are going to Mississippi full force." Actually, the "force" was rather small -- a few hundred college students and other young people -- but so far as white Mississippi was concerned, it was an invading army. Mississippi in the 1960s "was a mean and snarling state, run by tight-lipped politicians, bigoted sheriffs, and cops 'not playing with' anyone who crossed them." One notable Mississippian, Walker Percy, wrote: "During the past ten years, Mississippi as a society reached a condition which can only be described, in an analogous but exact sense of the word, as insane."

White-on-black violence was pandemic. The case that caught the world's attention had occurred in 1955, when a black teenager from Chicago named Emmett Till "flirted with a white woman" and was brutally murdered; his killers were let off with an official wink. Faulkner wrote in despair: "If we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don't deserve to survive, and probably won't." But if anything, the violence ramped up, Watson writes: "Within four years, ten more Mississippi blacks were murdered by whites; no guilty verdicts were rendered. The reign of terror also revived lynching. In the tiny town of Poplarville, Mack Parker, accused of rape, was dragged from jail and later found in chains, drifting in a logjam on the Pearl River."

In the year of Freedom Summer, a book called "Mississippi: The Closed Society" was published by an uncommonly forthright and courageous professor of history at the University of Mississippi named James Silver. In it he said, among many other things, that the state was "as near to approximating a police state as anything we have yet seen in America," and the police were both solely and wholly there to uphold the racial status quo. Black Mississippians were vilified, denied the most fundamental rights of American citizens, clubbed and shot, disfigured and murdered. A place of at times heart-breaking natural beauty, Mississippi was in reality a hell hole.

This was what the young people from California and New England and other such places found when they began to arrive in June 1964. Watson focuses on four of them, three of whom are white: Chris Williams from Massachusetts, Fred Winn from California and Fran O'Brien, also a Californian. The fourth, Muriel Tillinghast, was a bit older, a native of the District of Columbia and a recent graduate of Howard University. All were put to the test in various ways -- O'Brien's was the most violent and debasing -- but all came away with their convictions reinforced and deepened. All also were profoundly and lastingly impressed by the quiet courage and innate decency of even the poorest and most desperate black Mississippians whom they met and with whom they lived. It was a learning experience on both sides: The whites discovered the humanity and individuality of people who previously had been little more than a vague blur, while the blacks for the first time were in the company of whites who treated them with respect and admiration.

Whites -- not just in Mississippi but throughout the South -- referred to those who came from other places to work for civil rights as "outside agitators." Watson has found a lovely comment on this by a confident, outspoken Mississippi African American named Robert Miles, who welcomed a group of young volunteers as follows: "Y'all gonna hear a lot of different stories from white folks about what these people are and why they're down here. White folks are gonna tell you they're agitators. You know what an agitator is? An agitator is the piece in the center of a washing machine to get dirt out. Well, that's what these people are here for. They're here to get dirt out."

Things never got dirtier than on the night of June 21, when three young men -- two white outsiders and a native black Mississippian -- were arrested in Neshoba County, then released and not seen again until August, when their bodies were found buried under a dam in the same county. Their names were Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. It took years for the full truth to come out -- they were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, with the complicity and approval of Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and his deputy, Cecil Price -- but the case immediately woke the nation to the brutal facts about the closed society in Mississippi. Like the murders of four schoolgirls in Birmingham the previous year, this case created martyrs whose deaths awakened a complacent nation.

Though Watson's penchant for overripe prose, as in the passage quoted in the third paragraph of this review, is matched by his occasional ventures into hagiography -- his portrait of Bob Moses, the SNCC leader, borders on hero worship -- he recreates the texture of that terrible yet rewarding summer with impressive verisimilitude. This means that at times the book is painful reading because Mississippi was a painful place in those days, and Watson does not shrink from even the worst details. As one who at the time was only a few years older than the student volunteers, I watched the summer unfold from afar, in horror and macabre fascination. I have never been able to forget it and am perpetually astonished at how few of my contemporaries remember it and how little younger people seem to know about it. It is a wild exaggeration to say, as Watson's melodramatic subtitle does, that Freedom Summer "Made America a Democracy," but it certainly was important, and it deserves to be honored.
Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley
Copyright 2010, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Books/ (June 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,486,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"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.
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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.
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