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Stanley Nelson’s gripping new documentary “Freedom Summer” takes audiences to Mississippi in 1964, telling the tale of the 1,000 young people who poured into the state to register oppressed African Americans to vote.
Organized by pro-civil rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the idealistic activists’ immediate goal was a voter registration drive in the state, which was completely segregated in 1964 despite having the highest percentage of African American residents in the entire country.
Just as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic “The Birth of a Nation” illustrated the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Nelson’s “Freedom Summer” reveals that the “invasion” of what white Mississippians called “outside agitators” -- many of them Yankees -- and how their rising influence was met with a revival of the Klan. Nelson’s unflinching narrative paints a horrifying picture of America’s second civil war: the battle for civil rights.
As “Freedom Summer” documents, the KKK and White Citizens’ Council swiftly retaliated against integration efforts with brutal violence. By June 21, 1964, three civil rights organizers disappeared near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The organizers, Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, were investigating the torching of Mt. Zion Methodist Church, where the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had setup a Freedom School, when they went missing.
The trio of organizers was an unusual sight for many Mississippians. Schwerner and Goodman were Caucasian Jews from New York, while Chaney was an African American from Meridian, Mississippi. After they were pulled over and jailed for an alleged traffic violation, all three suddenly went missing. Initially, the FBI dragged its feet on investigating the case, so Attorney General Robert Kennedy stepped in and launched an intensive manhunt. “States rights” advocates who defended segregation claimed the disappearances were merely “a hoax,” but their defense fell apart after their bodies were found 44 days later. “Freedom Summer” makes a point to portray these civil rights martyrs as heroes, unlike in the 1988 Hollywood fictionalization of the case, “Mississippi Burning,” in which the FBI plays the protagonist.
Mickey’s widow Rita Schwerner is interviewed in the documentary, and the footage proves her to be a stoic, stalwart individual of integrity. Archival footage of a funeral service in New York for the organizers shows their devastated mothers arm-in-arm trying to console one another. In that moment of tragedy, Carolyn Goodman, Fannie Lee Chaney and Anne Schwerner transformed themselves into a rare example of the integration eluding America in 1964, where apartheid still reigned south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Even more heartbreaking is footage from James Chaney’s funeral in Mississippi, where his 12-year-old brother Ben is beside himself with agonizing grief. At the funeral, CORE’s Dave Dennis delivers an emotional eulogy that presages the rise of black militancy.
“Freedom Summer” also features news footage of SNCC leader Robert Moses and revered black comedian Dick Gregory, who chartered an airplane to deliver tons of food to black Mississippians after segregationists cut off federal aid for poverty-stricken communities in hopes of crushing the voter registration drive. Indeed, the black comic’s finest moment was no laughing matter.
Then there’s the outspoken sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer, a remarkable woman who dared defy not only Jim Crow but also the Democratic Party establishment, too. As vice chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, she spearheaded the campaign to unseat Mississippi’s segregated delegation and replace them with the integrated Freedom Democrats at the Democratic National Convention in 1964, just a few weeks after the corpses of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were discovered.
One astounding sequence in “Freedom Summer” even includes phone calls recorded by the White House’s wiretapping apparatus, featuring the self-serving, supposedly liberal President Lyndon Baines Johnson twisting arms to derail Hamer’s efforts, despite having just signed the Civil Rights Act. Suspecting that the Mississippi Freedom Democrats were actually Bobby Kennedy’s plot to disrupt the convention and win the nomination, the paranoid president enlists Democratic and union hacks to stop the Freedom Democrats dead in their tracks. When Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell opposes them, Hamer replies by asking how many bales of cotton the dapper Powell had picked.
With “Freedom Summer,” Nelson has given us an indelible, memorable portrait of America’s pitched struggle with institutionalized racism in the 1960s. The film proves, without a doubt, that even a small but organized cadre of committed activists can change the world. The Freedom Summer of 1964 was a major milestone in breaking the back of Jim Crow. Because of their struggle and sacrifice, today there are more African Americans holding elected office in Mississippi than in any other state.
What the film does not take on directly is the rise of black militancy following the Freedom Summer. The film closes with video footage of SNCC organizer Stokely Carmichael repeatedly crying, “black power!” in an ominous sign of things to come. Following a grand Hollywood tradition, Nelson -- who’d directed “Freedom Riders” in 2010 -- is planning a sequel about the black power movement.
In any case, “Freedom Summer,” which just won the Pan- African Film Festival’s Best Documentary award, is riding atop a surge of powerful films about black history. Along with “12 Years a Slave,” Nelson’s look back at the summer of 1964 is among the very best of these movies. It is a film which reminds us that we owe much to those who gave their very lives so that others may enjoy a greater freedom, even as the battle for a more just society is still being fought.
“Freedom Summer” will air on PBS’s “American Experience” series in June, marking the 50th anniversary of the actual Freedom Summer.
Ed Rampell is The Progressive's man in Hollywood and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book," in stores now.