In Their Own Words with Bruce Watson, author of Freedom Summer
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."—Margaret Mead
Fifty years ago this summer, 700 clean-cut college students headed to Mississippi to live in shacks and hovels and stare down injustice. Their aim was simple—to make America a democracy. Raised in comfort, coddled by teen culture, these young Americans might have spent the summer of 1964 at the beach, watching TV, or listening to that new group, the Beatles. But they chose a different path, changing America and, in the process, changing themselves and their generation. Freedom Summer follows these students from their training in Ohio to their testing in the racial cauldron of Mississippi, “the closed society.” The story includes murder and violence, arson and ugliness. But it is also filled with hope, humor, and proof of what America can be when its ideals are held to the fire.
I am often asked whether the altruism of Freedom Summer could arise today. The question usually hides a sneer. “Not today’s students! With their Facebook and Twitter! They’d never be so idealistic!” I disagree. Today’s college students are every bit as eager to change the world as the volunteers of Freedom Summer. Perhaps more so. While there may be no single focus for their idealism, no glaring injustice just a long bus ride away, the students I meet and teach are as committed as those who went south in 1964. Today’s students have plenty of causes; millions join every day, and not just by tweeting. What today’s students too often lack is role models—stories of change that grew from the smallest ripples. I found Freedom Summer full of such stories—of Freedom Schools where black and white joined hands in the spirit of learning, of host families—”the best people I ever met”—opening their homes and hearts to total strangers, and of bone-poor citizens who risked their lives just to vote.
The phrase “changed America” has become a cliché, but Freedom Summer can make that claim. This single summer inspired the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and its volunteers jumpstarted the 1960s. Some continued to play key roles in the Civil Rights Movement while others returned from Mississippi to work in the Free Speech Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the anti-Vietnam Movement.
Like many who have studied and written about the Civil Rights Movement, I resent the simplification of this heroic human uprising. The basic story, the only story often taught in classrooms is: Rosa Parks sat down, Martin Luther King stood up, and freedom triumphed. But freedom, as one movement song noted, “is a constant struggle.” Though I was too young to be in Freedom Summer, I felt remarkably privileged to tell this truly American story of sacrifice, dedication, and spirit.
This new site from the University of Wisconsin Historical Society with archives of Freedom Summer material — http://preview.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=N:1474
And this is the site set up by Civil Rights Veterans themselves, including bios, oral histories, and other archives — www.crmvet.org.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of, Freedom Summer" premieres on PBS June 24, 2014.