Friday, August 22, 2014

Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy by Bruce Watson

Miami U’s Summer Read Program was Freedom Summer, selected this year in part because the training for young college students to go to Mississippi to help African American’s register to vote in 1964 took place at the Western College for Women in Oxford, OH (which became part of Miami University in 1974) and because this year is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.  And because “the past is never the past” according to both Faulkner and history.  Because of rain and weather, our convocation and book discussion groups were cancelled this morning, so I thought I’d let out some of my enthusiasm for this wonderful book out on my blog.

 Old as I seem to be when I see the new crop of students coming in, many of whom were born in 1996 (ahem), the events of this book were still slightly before my time.  However, by the time I arrived in the early 70s, these events were shockingly recent history and I was rather stunned reading this account—my SC education did not lead me to the history of civil rights even though it was going to shape the world I was growing up in.  I was astounded by the violence, hatred, and small heartedness of the white southern culture depicted in this book—although most were not murders or violent, so many turned a blind eye to the cruelty and mistreatment of African Americans, it is a poignant reminder of what can happen when we are not our brother’s and sister’s keepers. It’s a lesson humans do not seem to easily learn.

As disturbing as the oppression was in MS in 1964, the young college student volunteers who took their ideals to the road to help the disenfranchised and the disenfranchised who knew the risks of reprisal much more clearly who hosted the volunteers, they were very inspiring. And tough.  And tenacious.  It’s everything you hope (and then are slightly terrified by if you are the parents) in your fellow humans and the next generation—that we will take risks to make the world a better place and to help our fellow human beings, so that in turn, there is someone to help us when there is need. 

One of the memorable quotes in the book for me was Bob Moses’ thoughtful comment “We’re not here to bring politics into our morality, but to bring morality into our politics” after they had brought the stories of the African Americans in MS who were effectively and often violently kept from registering to vote—a basic right of our citizenry!  “All we want is a chance to be a part of America,” Fannie Lou Hamer said.  Ugh.  Yes, of course. We are an America that is built on compromise, but there are some compromises that are hard to make or that aren’t real compromises to begin with—the kind of compromise the Freedom Democrats were being asked to take.


This book has me thinking about race in our society today, how a phenotype can make such a big difference to people’s lives when all it is is a little genetic variation in skin color that influences the amount of melanin in your skin thought to protect skin from ultraviolet radiation. Seems like we make mountains out of mole hills. The book also makes it very clear how shining light on something and increasing awareness can really change the world.  The publicity that MS received made both black and white folks aware that the views they had were not necessarily shared around the world or throughout the US, and that changed all of them. Awareness. We do not all have to agree with each other (although we do have to protect one another’s basic human rights), but being aware of the wider world can make us all wiser.  The southern experience of Freedom Summer made the young volunteers wiser, if more cynical about the political process and human nature; it made the disenfranchised aware that the view held in Mississippi was not held everywhere and that people cared and were willing to take risks; and it made the enfranchised aware of the abuse of power and that the times were changing.

Although science is perhaps in some ways, completely different, I can see parallels on the ability of knowledge of nature to change the world. Science is a process of seeking to find the light of knowledge. And the natural world is becoming increasingly disenfranchised—I hope we are all brave enough to work together on this issue, which could arguably be our Mississippi.

I hope you read this book if you haven’t.  It is wonderful. (And I loved so much more in this book that I've mentioned the power of song!)