Bruce Watson’s book, subtitled The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy, is a remarkable accomplishment. His premise – that the summer that Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner were killed – represents a high point in citizen-led democracy stands up well. There are names we know throughout the book (it is the rare author who can criticize MLK, Jr. – once wrongly, I thought), but Watson’s story is of those whose names remain unknown to many – Fannie Lou Hamer, for example. I knew of Bob Moses’ Algebra Project, but nothing of his work before that.
At times, Watson’s tribute seems too glowing, but it’s hard to argue with it. What these people did, both white and black, both young and old, is astonishing. Is Obama’s election only possible because of their work? Watson doesn’t spend much time drawing that line, but if John Lewis believes it is so, I’m ready to believe it.
Watson is a great storyteller. If at times the prose shows tinges of purple, that’s okay. These were people working for high stakes and broad ideals. It’s hard not to get swept away. It’s equally hard to think of where these kinds of people are today.
As good a writer as Watson is, he often defers to the words of those who were there, even anonymous ones. One woman, apologizing on behalf of the state of Mississippi, wrote to the Goodmans: “Who are these fiends and where do they live who could come out of the darkness and kill?” (133).
All of those who involved in Freedom Summer clearly believed Faulkner’s lines from Intruder in the Dust:
“Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash: our picture in the paper nor money in the bank either. Just refuse to bear them.”