Freedom Summer by Bruce Watson

18 of 52 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

I bought Freedom Summer months before I read it. The reviews were good. I expected it to be a decent read, but I dreaded it. I read it because I thought I ought to, not because I wanted to.

This is about something that happened in Mississippi. This is about something that is too close to home.

I like to live in the Mississippi where people go to Starbucks and Target and integrated Little League baseball games, where they eat sushi and read the latest New York Times best sellers, and complain about the price of gas, but don’t worry too much about race relations because all those bad times are in the past.

This Mississippi is imaginary and real in nearly equal proportions. People do go on about the business of living in a Mississippi that is just like everywhere else without worrying about the violent past that is very much in the past. They also live with the remnants of that past and the enduring attitudes of that past in ways that are very much reality.

There is a sort of general attitude in Mississippi that we don’t like to have bad things said about us, that we get tired of dealing with everyone’s negative impressions of us, and we just wish everyone would shut up already about how awful Mississippi is. I share in this feeling, but I also believe it is an attitude that is self-destructive. I think we have to face the past, not ignore it, if we ever hope to recover from it.

It was with this in mind that I read Bruce Watson’s Freedom Summer. I cringed through the whole book as I once again experienced the story of the slain civil rights workers who came to Mississippi only because they were young and hopeful and believed in a cause.

I thought about how only a week before I talked to a friend about what happened in Nazi Germany. I said, “It’s so horrific to think about. It seems impossible to imagine that any group of people could let this happen, but I’m afraid it is possible that something like that could happen here.”

She said, “Something like that did happen here. Just look at the Klan.”

That’s the hard part to think about. Anyone could explain how a group of crazy people could turn violent and do atrocious things. The difficult thing is to explain how normal people let it happen, how they turn a blind eye or fail to take a stand or hold on to just enough of their own prejudices that they validate those at the more extreme.

However we go about looking at this, what happened in Mississippi in the early 60s is just not defensible. What the Klan did with the lynchings and the burnings and the murder and mayhem is pure evil. What the rest of the state did in resisting change to such a degree that they allowed for an environment in which the Klan could thrive was also evil, though the state was incapable of seeing it as such at the time, and to a large extent remains incapable of seeing it as such.

I remember once talking to a friend about growing up in small churches in Mississippi, and he said, “They lost their moral credibility when they came down on the wrong side of civil rights, and once they lost it, they could never get it back.”

Too many people came down on the wrong side of civil rights, and too many people contributed to Mississippi’s loss of moral credibility. No matter how normal life seems as we drink our lattes and listen to our iPods and go about being just like everyone else, we know that it is possible for unimaginable atrocities to happen here. They already have.

And what does this have to do with reading the particular book at hand? Nothing other than the fact that it is impossible to be from Mississippi and read this book without experiencing all of these thoughts and feelings. If you are thinking about reading it, it’s okay if you put it off until you have the emotional capacity to deal with it. That’s what I did.

That said, I think the book is fair. It does paint us in a bad light, but that reminds me of another conversation with a friend. Someone said to him, “Does this skirt make my butt look big?” He said, “Honey, your butt makes your butt look big.”

This book doesn’t make us look bad. We made ourselves look bad. This is an account of something that really happened, and there is very little conjecture in it. Watson does a thorough job of explaining his sources. He also does a good job of putting the violence in Mississippi in context by covering what was happening around the country at the same time. We might have made ourselves look bad, but we weren’t alone. Racial tensions were flaring across the country. They were just particularly bad in the Deep South, and Mississippi happened to have hosted one of the worst events from even the Deep South.

Aside from spending the whole book wanting to throw up just thinking about how terrible things were right here in my own home state, I did feel like I learned from it. Watson draws a clear time line and fills it in with a great deal of explanation.

One of the most interesting ways he creates the context for what happened is through incorporating letters to the editor from the Jackson papers at the time. It’s pretty hard to deny the racist attitudes of the state when you find them in print straight from the original sources.

Not surprisingly, an idea that frequently cropped up in the Jackson news was that the civil rights workers were just “stirring up trouble,” “interfering where they didn’t belong,” and “asking for a fight.”

To which I say this. The civil rights workers, for the most part, were just college kids. They were young and idealistic and full of the passionate conviction that any hope for the future this country was up to them. If the grownups who lived in Mississippi at the time had been behaving with decency and addressing their own problems and standing up for right, no one would have felt the need to come in and try to save them.

I finished this book reminded of what a great tragedy the murder of the three civil rights workers was. I tried and tried to think of a way this tragedy could have been avoided. I tried, as I have tried my whole life, to explain to myself why Mississippi lacked the moral courage and credibility to stand up against the Klan.

No doubt I will spend the rest of my life struggling with this same question. Meanwhile, I’m looking for something lighthearted to read next. Facing reality might be necessary, but I still like to pace myself with that.

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