We Boomers were eyewitnesses to a bewildering amount of history in the making during the 50’s and 60’s in which we grew up. The death of an idealistic young President was the first memory that many of us can recall clearly. Man’s first steps on the moon are recorded indelibly in our minds. And we also recall the Civil Rights Movement, whether we were actual eyewitnesses to its painful birth, or we viewed its struggles in black and white on the TV set.
Many narratives exist. For example, there is the controversial movie Mississippi Burning, which paints the FBI in a heroic light for its supposed courageous stand in safeguarding equal rights for all races in the most segregated state that existed in 1963. Alas, the movie, while entertaining, takes extreme liberties with the sad truth: the FBI really didn’t want to be involved, and had to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing its job of busting individuals and groups who violently sought to keep the blacks “in their place.”
Hollywood, for better or worse, will forever be Hollywood. Written books are more and more available in the age of the internet, and can be produced with a much smaller investment. Therefore, with the demands of a return on a large investment removed, greater honesty in storytelling is very much a possibility.
In the case of the book being reviewed here, the honesty is brutal indeed. The summer of 1964 saw a large number of white college students descend upon the most backwards state in the Union. Honesty is revealed in the humanity of many of the students, in many cases, their motives were less than 100% noble.
But even though the lure of adventure (and more earthly delights) may have been on the minds of the “Commie troublemakers” (as the local KKK chapters and their sympathizers referred to them), ultimately, the influx of outsiders succeeded in changing the most unchangeable of all southern states. It was, to steal a line from Dickens, the best of times, the worst of times.
This book, Freedom Summer, tells a most honest account about that long, hot, miserable, thrilling fight to finally put an end to one of mankind’s most embarrassing and despicable chapters. But keep in mind that honesty is often painful to the teller as well as the listener.
I found the book nearly impossible to put away once I started reading it. The New York Times crossword puzzles, my golf game, and other welcomed diversions had to take a back seat until I finished the 300-page account of courage, hatred, prejudice, and all that makes the human race what it is.
I suggest that this book should be required reading anyone in my modest audience who is interested in what really happened when the vestiges of Jim Crow and officially sanctioned racial hatred were finally smothered out in Mississippi.