Retracing a summer of terror -- and freedom

Story highlights

  • New documentary captures recollections of Freedom Summer civil rights veterans
  • Film by MacArthur "genius grant" fellow reveals clash of idealism, casual brutality
  • "No one felt like he was going to make it out alive," says one volunteer
One volunteer woke up every morning with a sigh, relieved that no one had murdered him in his home the night before. Another expected a bullet from a sniper whenever she strolled down the street. And one young woman was so petrified after an encounter that she urinated on herself in public.
We've heard about the inspirational side of the civil rights movement: the rousing marches, freedom songs and electrifying speeches. But these recollections come from a group of civil rights veterans who sound more like combat soldiers who once lived in constant terror.
That's part of the power of the new documentary, "Freedom Summer," which premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on PBS. The "American Experience" film captures the idealism that inspired an interracial group of college students to journey to Mississippi for 10 weeks in the summer of 1964 to register African-American voters.
But it also reveals what happened when that idealism collided with the casual brutality of white Mississippians who saw Freedom Summer as a "nigger communist invasion."
A terrifying warning
"There is no guarantee that you will get out of this summer alive; just know that," Bob Moses, a Freedom Summer organizer, told volunteers after learning that three of their colleagues had been killed.
There have been plenty of films on the violence of segregationist Mississippi. Yet "Freedom Summer," directed by MacArthur "genius grant" fellow Stanley Nelson, goes deeper. Nelson unearths rare film footage, interviews former segregationists, and persuades some Freedom Summer veterans to tell stories they had never before shared in public.
Bob Moses, a Freedom Summer organizer, speaks with volunteers.
Still, what may be most striking about the film is not what is said but what is implied. Nelson captures the idealism of an era in America that seems as distant as covered wagons. Ordinary Americans believed they could change the world. Most Freedom Summer volunteers were only 19 or 20. They had heard President Kennedy's challenge to "ask what you can do for your country." They saw themselves as patriots.
"It was terrifying," Dorothy Zellner, a former volunteer, says in the film. "But if you cared about this country and you cared about democracy, you had to go."
The paranoia of white Mississippi
Democracy was on life support in the Mississippi of 1964. Almost half the state's residents were black, but only 6% were registered to vote. In some counties, blacks made up 70% or more of the population but were barred from voting through a combination of literacy tests, economic intimidation -- they could lose their jobs, homes or land for registering to vote -- and raw violence.
It may seem odd today that the white power structure in Mississippi was willing to be so brutal just to keep people from voting. The film, though, shows that the whites' brutality was driven by an apocalyptic fear: Black voters would drive them from office, and from the state.
Some had other fears that had nothing to do with politics. They seethed with fury after seeing white college women, who came to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, interact with black men and live with black families. One white volunteer recounted how segregationists were obsessed with interracial sex; one sheriff even asked her to describe the size of big black men's penises.