Wednesday, June 25, 2014

American Experience: Freedom Summer (Spark Media, WGBH, PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a quite powerful documentary, Freedom Summer, on the PBS American Experience series, dealing with the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 — a high-stakes venture of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which at that time still represented the Left wing of the mainstream African-American (a term that hadn’t been coined yet) civil rights movement before it broke off two years later and became the home of the “Black Power” racial nationalists. Back in 1964 SNCC’s logo was a Black arm and a white arm holding each other’s hands — a visual representation of what the late Michael Harrington called the “Beloved Community” of Black and white activists that together he hoped would transform the country. Freedom Summer was a three-pronged offensive against entrenched racism in Mississippi, whose population in the 1960 census was 42 percent Black (the highest percentage of African-American residents in any U.S. state at the time) but where Black people were so systematically denied the franchise that only 6 percent of the adult Black population was registered to vote.

SNCC had formed in the wake of the 1960 sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina and elsewhere in the South, where Blacks (mostly male college students) sat in at whites-only lunch counters and demanded to be served. But Robert Moses, the SNCC official in Mississippi who got the idea for Freedom Summer and ran the project (and who next year briefly changed his name to “Parris” because he didn’t want a cult of personality to form around him when he did a similar project in Alabama), decided that for Blacks in Mississippi, winning the right to participate in the political process was far more important and immediate an issue than getting served crappy meals at the lunch counters at Woolworth’s. Freedom Summer was a three-pronged approach that included 1) having volunteers, both Black and white, go door-to-door and urge people to go to the county courthouse to register to vote (the fact that volunteer registrars couldn’t just sign people up then and there at their homes itself shows how tightly the Mississippi state government and the whites who ran it controlled the franchise to make sure the “wrong” people didn’t get to vote!); 2) running “Freedom Schools” to teach African-American kids in Mississippi their heritage, both in Africa and in the U.S. (I happened to read one of the “Freedom School” history primers at age 11 and was grateful that it inoculated me against the Columbia University school of thought about Reconstruction that in the 1960’s was still being taught in mainstream public schools as unchallengeable fact — this is the version, unforgettably dramatized by D. W. Griffith in the film The Birth of a Nation, that held the Reconstruction governments in the South were run by opportunistic “carpetbagger” whites and naïve, easily manipulated Blacks until the native white Southerners rose up, cleaned house and put the Blacks back “in their place”); and 3) organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to elect an alternative slate of delegates to the 1964 Democratic Party convention and challenge the right of the all-white mainstream Mississippi delegation to sit at the convention. Considerable personal risk was involved — the show’s Web site quotes a song from the period about going to Mississippi that sounds like one of those stiff-upper-lip songs associated with someone on his way to fight a war: “And if you never see me again/Remember that I had to go.”

The risks were dramatized early on in the campaign when three civil-rights workers who had gone to Neshoba County, Mississippi ahead of most of the people in the project — Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white; and James Chaney, Black — disappeared and were ultimately found murdered (and their killers turned out to be the sheriff and deputy sheriff of Neshoba County, a fact oddly unmentioned in this film, though it does cover the role of Michael Schwerner’s widow Rita in dramatizing the case and spreading word about it in the media nationwide). The film shows the famous shot of the three civil rights workers’ station wagon being pulled out of the water — the car was discovered well before their bodies were — but it treats their story, properly, as incidental to the overall saga of Freedom Summer and what it did and didn’t accomplish. The filmmakers, director Stanley Nelson (an African-American who has previously produced six other episodes of American Experience, including one about the Freedom Riders who sought to integrate interstate bus service in 1961-62 and also suffered personal jeopardy for their pains, and who’s currently in post-production on a documentary about the pioneering woman jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams) and his co-writer, Paul Taylor, showed a wide range of interviewees — including quite a few clips of surviving members of Freedom Summer that dramatically clash with the archival footage of what they looked like 50 years ago —and also include some horrifying footage from “the day” of the racists themselves, dripping with the weird combination of patronization and hatred with which people who think they’re racially superior to others justify those beliefs. One of the most dramatic sequences comes when one of the white Mississippi officials starts talking about how he’s particularly horrified at the white women who came down to work on Freedom Summer and how he can’t conceive of any reason for a white woman to stay in the home of Black people except to have sex with Black men — and we see him melt down and start sputtering and stammering, until he reaches the point where he degenerates from a comprehensible spokesperson for a contemptible point of view to a virtual idiot, literally unable to put or keep a sentence together. This is intercut with a horror story from a woman who recalled being kidnapped by three white men who put a rope with a noose on it around her neck, dragged her down, chanted loathsome slogans about her being a “nigger-lover” and put her in abject fear of being lynched — and though they let her go, she was so unnerved by the experience that she literally peed in her pants out of fear.

Freedom Summer also goes into the ways white Mississippians made sure Black Mississippians couldn’t vote; at a time when many Black Mississippians lived on plantations and made their living sharecropping, an attempt to register to vote meant almost certain eviction, thereby depriving them of their livelihoods as well as rendering them homeless. And for those who couldn’t be dissuaded, there were always arrests (often on trumped-up charges) or out-and-out beatings. The film tells its chilling story matter-of-factly (as I’ve seen from other documentaries by Stanley Nelson; he’s the sort of filmmaker who stays out of the way, gives you the information and lets the story tell itself, generating emotional outrage without the director blatantly forcing it on you in the manner of Michael Moore and his imitators) and leads up to an emotional climax with Fannie Lou Hamer’s intense testimony before the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic convention. Hamer gave a wrenching account of how she personally had been forced off the plantation where she lived, arrested and beaten for trying to register to vote in 1962 — and President Lyndon Johnson was so outraged at being challenged that he called a press conference to announce the nine-month anniversary of the assassination of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, just to get Hamer’s testimony off the airwaves. It backfired; kept by Johnson’s press conference from broadcasting it live, the networks showed it on film and Johnson’s weird attempt to suppress it itself became a subject of nationwide debate. Though President Johnson did more for civil rights and racial equality than anyone else in that office, before or since, the show reveals his obsession with party decorum and order; his paranoiac belief that Hamer was a stalking horse for Robert F. Kennedy, the late president’s brother and still U.S. Attorney General at the time, whom Johnson believed wanted to stage a scene at the convention so the delegates would dump Johnson and nominate Kennedy; and his willingness to play the same sort of hardball to block the Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge that the Mississippi whites had used to deny Blacks the right to vote in the. first place.

As documented by actual recordings of Johnson’s White House conversations (contrary to popular belief Richard Nixon was not the first President to record White House conversations — that began with Franklin Roosevelt, the first President to serve once recording technology had developed enough to make it technically possible — though Nixon was the first, and probably still the only, President who had his office and phones literally bugged so they recorded whether he consciously wanted them to or not), Johnson interceded with United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther to get Joe Rauh, the attorney for the UAW and also the legal representative of the Freedom Democratic Party, essentially to sell them out or else lose the UAW as a client. The result was that instead of unseating the 68 delegates from the regular Mississippi Democratic Party — or getting the compromise they would have been willing to accept, which was a half-and-half split (a fact I recall from the time that’s oddly unmentioned here) — the Freedom Democratic Party was offered just two seats as “delegates-at-large,” and they angrily (and unanimously) rejected this sop. Director Nelson makes the interesting argument that it was the shabby treatment of the Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge that broke the multiracial “beloved community” of the first civil rights movement and sent the African-American movement into the swamps of reverse racism represented by the “Black Power!” slogan and the violent, incendiary rhetoric of the late 1960’s (though in fairness the “Black Power!” groups were considerably less incendiary and violent in practice than they were in their rhetoric), alienating whites and leading to the racial polarization we’ve seen since (though the analysis above is mine, not his!). The Freedom Democratic Party in general and Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony in particular also come off in Nelson’s film as a precursor of the so-called “second-wave feminism” of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s (Susan Brownmiller, who later became known as author of the book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, which made the case that by terrorizing women and leaving them feeling restricted in their ability to go out in certain places at certain times and dress in certain ways, rapists were “the shock troops of the patriarchy,” was a Freedom Summer volunteer and appears briefly in this film); Nelson makes the hope that the women serving on the Democratic Convention’s Credentials Committee were much more moved by Hamer’s story, and much more emotional about wanting to respond to it, than the men. 

Overall, Freedom Summer is quite a documentary, its low-keyed presentation just adding to its historical persuasiveness, and its continuing relevance was just underscored by a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law ( Last year the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the principal legislative legacy of Freedom Summer (the Freedom Summer volunteers actually got very few people to register but they dramatized the issue nationwide and led to the push that got the Voting Rights Act through Congress and President Johnson to sign it), by eliminating the “pre-clearance” requirement that had forced states with histories of discrimination against people of color in voting to have all changes in their elections laws cleared by the federal government to make sure they didn’t have the effect of discriminating. Once this part of the law was thrown out by the Right-wing majority of the current Supreme Court on the ground that it was historically unnecessary, virtually all the states of the Old South that the law had been directed at in the first place, as well as quite a few states (mostly in the Midwest) that were under Republican control, rushed through restrictions on people’s right to vote. “Since the 2010 election, new voting restrictions are slated to be in place in 22 states,” the Brennan Center report said. “Unless these restrictions are blocked — and there are court challenges to laws in six of those states — voters in nearly half the country could find it harder to cast a ballot in the 2014 midterm election than they did in 2010. The new laws range from photo ID requirements to early voting cutbacks to voter registration restrictions. Partisanship and race were key factors in this movement. Most restrictions passed through GOP-controlled legislatures and in states with increases in minority turnout.” As Clarence Darrow said in his opening statement at the Scopes trial (a legislative attack on the teaching of evolution which, in different forms, is still going on!), “Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more.” Just because the party identification of the white Southern establishment has changed from Democrat to Republican, and out-and-out racist statements of the type seen in the archival clips in Freedom Summer are now de trop, that hasn’t lessened one bit the determination of the Right, Northern as well as Southern, to restrict the franchise so only the “right” people vote and phenomena like the presidency of the mixed-race but Black-presenting Barack Obama are never allowed to happen again.