Not Rated. Documentary. Running time: 1 hour 54 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (0-5): 5
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
African-American documentarian Stanley Nelson, whose marvelous Freedom Riders was reviewed in the March/April 2011 issue of my full Visual Parables journal, again delves into civil rights history in his new remarkable film. Shown to appreciative audiences at the last Sundance Film Festival, it will air on PBS to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project. (This PBS website provides background for the June 24, 2014, debut of the film.)
I have more than just a reviewer’s interest in this film because I participated in that life-changing project and met and spoke with two of the people featured in the film—Fannie Lou Hamer and Charles McLaurin. Today, McLaurin is not as well known, but he was the organizer who SNCC coordinator Robert Moses dispatched to “find the lady who sings the hymns.” McLaurin accomplished that assignment and, today, the world remembers Hamer’s courageous voice and activism.
A PERSONAL NOTE: I heard Mrs. Hamer speak at Freedom rallies in Shaw and Cleveland, Mississippi, and then again in her hometown of Ruleville. I also heard and spoke with Mr. McLaurin in Ruleville at the celebration in honor of the second anniversary of his coming to town to set up a SNCC project. These were two incredibly brave souls!
Using archival footage, filmed interviews, striking photos, and freedom songs, Mr. Nelson provides an excellent overview of the project and short portraits of many leaders and volunteers. Among the people you will meet are Julien Bond, Robert Moses, Rita Schwerner Bender, Pete Seeger, Tracy Sugarman (civil rights chronicler, who died recently), and activist Dorothy Zellner.
What emerges is a picture of a people—outsiders and native blacks—who were incredibly brave and creative, a far cry from the way they were depicted in the deplorable Hollywood movie Mississippi Burning. That 1988 film tried to rewrite history, claiming the FBI rode to the rescue of the entire movement.
Freedom Summer gives us a lot of background about Mississippi, the state where African Americans made up about half of the population, but less than 6% could vote due to the impossible hurdles raised by the white establishment. In the film, we see former White Citizens’ Council member William Scarborough boast that there was no need for the Ku Klux Klan because the Council controlled everything. An upstart who tried to register could lose his job—and often far worse. SNCC and the NAACP had been working in the state for several years, but to only limited effect.
I was surprised to learn that SNCC staffer Robert Moses was at first opposed to bringing in outsiders, but was won over, becoming the project director. Thus hundreds of students gathered at a college campus in Oxford, Ohio, for training by SNCC leaders. Considerable time is given to this, scenes of the training interspersed with several of the participants reflecting on their experiences. They talk honestly, acknowledging the tensions, and even a little animosity, between the black civil rights veterans and the mostly white students volunteering for that summer. The tensions were overcome as they all realized that they would be facing danger together. This was driven home when three volunteers left the campus to go down to the state to investigate a church burning. They disappeared, the news bringing the sobering reality to the students that the danger facing them could overtake them, as well.
The 700 students went anyway, one of them reporting that as they came to the “Welcome To Mississippi” sign, two highway patrol cars that were waiting followed their bus. The volunteers spread out all over the state, a Freedom Center set up in virtually every sizable town. In the film, we hear Mississippians talking about what it meant to take a volunteer into their homes, each learning from the other. Some of the people whom they were to help comment on their taking a white person into their homes, each learning from the other. One former student speaks of the hospitality and courage of their hosts, who were facing as much danger as the volunteers.
Amidst all of the people seen and heard from two stand out for me—Rita Schwerner (Bender) and Fannie Lou Hamer. The wife of slain student Michael Schwerner speaks today with no bitterness as she reflects back on the tragedy of her husband’s murder, and the younger widow in archival footage also speaks calmly and without fear. Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who became involved in the movement when she was fired for trying to register to vote, became famous for breaking out in song during moments of high anxiety in the movement. In the film, she tells her story of being beaten when arrested. Later we see her testifying before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic Party in Atlantic City where she and her fellow delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party hoped to replace the racist “regular” delegates from the state. She died a few years ago, so we can be thankful that the cameras preserved her moving words.
President Johnson does not come off well in this film. He was worried about losing the “Solid South” in the upcoming presidential campaign, so he and his cronies did everything they could to discourage the blacks challengers, even setting up a phony presidential press conference when Mrs. Hamer was scheduled to speak before the Credentials Committee and the TV cameras. As he knew, the three TV networks switched from Atlantic City to Washington DC, effectively cutting Mrs. Hamer off the air. The ploy in a way brought more interest in Mrs. Hamer’s colorful words when they were rebroadcast. Although both Mrs. Hamer and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in their testimony, used moral arguments, politics won out, a humiliating compromise was offered by Democratic officials to the Mississippi activists. To the surprise of Democratic leaders, the Mississippi activists rejected the compromise, packed their bags and went back home.
In a sad sequence the film details how moderate white voices in Mississippi were brutally silenced. In the case included in the film, a thoughtful white couple invited some civil rights volunteers to their home to talk—unleashing a backlash against them by white neighbors that ultimately forced the moderate family to abandon their home and flee the state.
That summer many were beaten, 35 churches were burned or bombed, and 70 black businesses, homes, and community centers were burned. Few new voters were registered. The late folk singer and civil rights activist Pete Seeger, who is honored in the Interfaith Peacemakers series of profiles, appears in this film talking about the concert at which news broke about the discovery of the bodies of the three murdered activists. This shocking news quieted the room, until We Shall Overcome began to roll through the hall. As we hear the mass singing of this civil rights anthem the camera shows us the chilling picture of the partially excavated bodies and then their being placed into a hearse.
This powerful chronicle of a troubled time in our nation’s past ends on the hopeful note that today there are more black elected officials in the once totally segregated state than in any other. Too many people in that region still live in poverty, and there are still those who would keep them in economic bondage, but progress has been made, progress that was costly in blood, and made possible by the sacrificial efforts of both blacks and whites.
I wish the film had given a little recognition to the National Council of Churches that recruited the many ministers, such as myself, who worked with the students. There were also quite a number of lawyers, teachers, and medical staff who toiled in the 100-degree heat that summer. However, this is a minor complaint about such a fascinating and well put together film.
Available now on DVD, Freedom Summer is a film that every person concerned with social justice should see and discuss, possibly in a double feature that would include the director’s gripping film set a year earlier, Freedom Riders.
(THE NEW YORK TIMES published a fascinating background story related to “Freedom Summer.” AND, still another film, a fictional one produced by Danny Glover, is the wonderful Freedom Song, about the coming of SNCC workers to a small MS town in 1963.)