I remember the summer of 1964 very well--I watched most of it on the TV evening news where I gathered with fellow Peace Corps trainees in the evenings at Indiana University (and for two weeks at Indiana State in Terra Haute). We had classes all day: history of Africa and Sierra Leone, public health lectures, phys ed, Krio language, etc. etc. It was really like going to summer school except that we all lived together in Quonset huts left over from WWII and stuck together because we never had a free minute from 7 in the morning till 9 or 10 at night.
Before 1964, I had never been particularly tuned in to Civil Rights. I don't even remember hearing about the murder of Emmit Till until many years later, but 1964 was the summer when SNCC volunteers--mostly college students from the north--went to Mississippi to run "Freedom Schools" and help the blacks register to vote (often having to convince them first that they deserved to take the same role as the whites in a democracy). And it was the summer when 3 Civil Rights workers were murdered by a bunch (18-19) of racists and KKK members who got a backhoe and buried them under a dam being built. It took all summer for the FBI to find informants who eventually led them to the bodies. It was the summer when the country was really shocked to discover that white Mississippi would stoop to beatings and murder to "preserve their way of life", i.e., to keep blacks in their "place". It was also the summer where the Freedom Democrats tried (unsuccessfully) to get seated at the Democratic convention to supplement or replace the illegally chosen white Democrats.
And I felt twinges of guilt all summer. I was going to Africa to help blacks--and not going to Mississippi--because I wanted to see the world, other cultures, etc. When at the airport in NY a man laughed at us and said, "IF you want to help blacks, I can just take you to Harlem and you can work there. You don't have to go to Africa", I felt another twinge. I was tuned into JFK's "Ask Not" message, but from the first tuned into the Peace Corps as the chance of a lifetime to see the world no one else saw (in those days, ordinary people who went abroad went to Europe and that's about all).
Bruce Watson's book is a worthwhile read, especially for those who don't know much about the Civil Rights movement and about this experiment by America's young liberals. It will be an eye opener. Although Watson slides into some "purplish prose" every once in awhile--which I didn't mind because I shared his views--this is an excellent history of Freedom Summer. As well as profiling the leaders and providing an excellent overview of Mississippi history since the Civil War, it focuses on four of the volunteers--who they were, why they joined, what happened to them in Mississippi--even where they are now.
The murder of Chaney, Goodwin and Schwerner is a story that's told piece by piece since, though the murder happened on the first day of Freedom Summer--June 21st--it reverberated through the whole period as the mystery of their disappearance was gradually unraveled in all its sordidness. And in the end, Mississippi refused to prosecute anyone and the only trial was when the Federal government brought suit for Civil Rights violations, which the defendants laughed at. And while that murder was undoubtedly the worst thing that happened during Freedom Summer, it was certainly not the only violence. Watson even tells the story of an insurance agent who defended the the work of Freedom Summer and, as a result, his business was ruined, his family harassed and they were eventually forced to move out of the state. Violence was meted out to blacks who dared to want to register as well as to the "uppity Northerners, Jews and Communists" who presumed to challenge Mississippi ways and help them. And if you wonder "why Mississippi?" more than any other southern state, Watson tackles that question too.
The final chapters of the book focus on the impact of Freedom Summer, particularly on the heart-breaking defeat at the Democratic Convention. A mealy-mouth compromise was reached--and Humbert Humphrey cried too when he proposed it. Lyndon Johnson knew he couldn't seat the Freedom Democrats without taking the very great risk that Goldwater would be elected when the entire Southern delegation left the Democrats as they threatened. He tasked Humphrey with seeing that the delegation wasn't seated. Politics trumped conscience on that one. But Watson also chronicles how Mississippi changed--and changed relatively quickly--after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and after the awful publicity from Freedom Summer (business and tourism were affected seriously). Many citizens who had been afraid to speak out when the voices of hate ruled began to make themselves heard. Mississippi, with a majority of black citizens, began to let blacks register and win some elections....
Not all of the blowback from Freedom Summer was benign. SNCC became increasingly divided over the issue of nonviolence. Stokley Carmichael and others moved to "black power" and discouraged the participation of whites in Civil Rights issues. Violence broke out in Northern cities, proving that racist and bigotry were not exclusively Southern phenomena.