Bruce Watson's Freedom Summer revisits Mississippi in 1964.

Bruce Watson's Freedom Summer revisits Mississippi in 1964.

Bruce Watson's Freedom Summer revisits Mississippi in 1964.

Reading between the lines.
July 26 2010 6:45 AM

Honoring Good White People

What really happened during Freedom Summer in 1964?

"Freedom Summer" by Bruce Watson.

I was drawn to Bruce Watson's Freedom Summer because of a book I am writing, provisionally titled Good White People. It will be a history of whites who have contributed conspicuously to anti-racist struggles on behalf of people of color. Just as the Israelis have created the category of "righteous gentiles" to honor those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, I want to create a category of "good white people," or GWP, to honor those who have risked ostracism, injury, or even death to join with people of color in resisting racial domination.

I am drawn to this topic, in part, because of its drama. Like male feminists or straight proponents of gay liberation, GWP will almost always encounter the agonizing problem of facing disapproval from their own privileged side while simultaneously facing resentment from those they seek to help. I am also attracted to the topic because I have been touched directly by GWP. My project is, in part, an homage to whites who have gone out of their way to open doors for me and other people of color. 

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Given my project, reading Bruce Watson's Freedom Summer became obligatory. It is, after all, the latest book-length exploration of the remarkable summer of 1964, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee mounted a dramatic challenge to the ideology and practice of white supremacy in Mississippi. Founded by the Negro students who had spearheaded the electrifying sit-ins of 1961, SNCC, with the courageous support of local dissidents, pursued three missions. First, it attempted to register blacks to vote. Second, it established Freedom Schools in which youngsters learned about black history and their rights as citizens. Third, it helped to create and sustain the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an alternative to the state's lily-white official Democratic Party, and contested the legitimacy of the official delegation at the Democratic National Convention, which nominated Lyndon Baines Johnson for the presidency. SNCC obtained personnel and publicity for these and related activities by issuing a nationwide call for volunteers. Hundreds, the great majority of whom were white, journeyed to Mississippi to help. This stirring episode in the civil rights revolution is often referred to as the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign.

Watson vividly chronicles what SNCC and the volunteers faced and accomplished. He describes beatings, shootings, bombings, arson, threats, and unjustified jailings. He details grievous losses, the most notorious of which were the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. He shows that the Freedom Summer campaign successfully publicized Mississippi's grotesque pigmentocracy, thus helping to prepare the way for the epochal Voting Rights Act of 1965. He recalls the creation of a community that featured not only courageous protesters who should be better-known—Robert Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, Amzie Moore, James Forman—but also brave dissidents who, inspired by their experience down South, became leading figures in subsequent struggles on behalf of feminism, gay and lesbian liberation, the defense of the poor, and other progressive causes. Susan Brownmiller, author of the landmark Against Our Will, participated in the Freedom Summer campaign. So did Mario Savio, who sparked the free speech movement at Berkeley. So, too, did two of the most distinguished liberal congressmen of the past half-century: John Lewis and Barney Frank.

Watson provides a helpful antidote to historical amnesia, reminding us that in 1963 the candidate elected governor of Mississippi publicly and repeatedly joked that NAACP stood for "Niggers, Alligators, Apes, Coons, and Possums" and that in 1967 the federal judge who sentenced the killers of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner remarked off-handedly that the defendants had killed "one nigger, one Jew, and a white man." Against the backdrop of the election of America's first black president, it is useful to recall that, not so long ago, blacks in Mississippi and elsewhere in the Deep South were deprived of the ballot by chicanery, intimidation, and violence.

Although Freedom Summer has been heavily tilled by journalists and historians, Watson succeeds in excavating neglected stories. He highlights, for instance, Murriel Tillinghast, a black student at Howard University who abandoned the relative safety of the North; worked as SNCC's only female project director in Mississippi; and taught and inspired platoons of youths, one of whom, Unita Blackwell, became the state's first black female mayor.

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Portrayals of Freedom Summer have sometimes been marred by commentators who write as if history can be made only when white folks act. Watson avoids that tendency. He appropriately lauds the whites who journeyed to Mississippi to redeem the promise of American democracy knowing that they would encounter abuse at the hands of those who viewed them as dangerous subversives. But he places at center stage the blacks who resisted subordination before the advent of the white volunteers and after their departure. He succeeds in avoiding in his own work the racial bias that SNCC played upon when it elicited the assistance of white volunteers in the first place. Frustrated by the inattentiveness of politicians and journalists when it was "only" black activists who were being brutalized, leaders in SNCC suspected that the response would be different if white youngsters were hurt. They proved to be correct. White activists received much more coverage than their black peers. The contrast was so blatant that it prompted Ella Baker, a formidable elder amongst the dissidents, to remark that they must carry on "[u]ntil the killing of black mothers' sons is as important as the killing of white mothers' sons."

The major deficiency of Freedom Summer is Watson's diffidence in exploring the complicated relationships forged by the blacks and whites who joined as one to fight Mississippi's old regime. This is especially evident in his treatment of interracial sex. He notes that leaders of SNCC sternly directed their staff and the volunteers to stay clear of romantic attachments across the color line. He quotes Robert Moses scorning whites who fantasized about finding "my summer Negro" and blacks bragging about "the white girl I made." Watson leaves unclear, however, the reasoning behind the warning and how one should assess it, hurriedly moving on to other matters as if embarrassed by the presence of conduct that might, in the eyes of some, compromise his heroes and heroines.

The dynamics of interracial sex in the context of racial good Samaritanship in Mississippi are rich and complicated terrain. SNCC leadership feared eliciting increased levels of white violence. It also feared validating the segregationist myth that black demands for equal rights were merely a cover for black demands for "white pussy." Those reasons are, I think, quite weighty and entitled to deference. But the opposition of some leaders went beyond a prudential judgment to disapproval stemming from a certain version of black solidarity. That rationale, I think, is not entitled to deference (especially when voiced by black men who were sexually active with white women under cover of darkness). One gets the impression that Watson agrees with those who deride much of the interracial romance in Mississippi as mere sexual tourism. If that is his belief, it would have been helpful for him to have said so explicitly and to have articulated precisely why the satisfaction of interracial sexual curiosity is, in principle, a bad thing.

The historiography of Freedom Summer, especially accounts that focus on gender issues, is riven by contrasting accounts of the extent of the interracial sex that transpired. While some participant-observers suggest that the sex was plentiful, others contend that the sex was scarce—itself testimony to the conflicting perspectives at work. Along many dimensions, the whites of Freedom Summer were surely more conventionally privileged than their black peers. But sexually, in that peculiar circumstance, both the black men and the black women had access to unique sources of authority, including images of black supersexuality and the prestige of the racially downtrodden. Freedom Summer witnessed activists discovering their own racial neuroses as whites who had never been dependent upon blacks put their fates in the hands of blacks who had never previously been in a superior position to whites.

Watson's disinclination to probe controversial issues emerges elsewhere. He never expressly declares himself, for example, on what he rightly characterizes as "the thorniest issue"—the key matter of interracial coalition. Some within SNCC envisioned creating a movement of and for blacks in which whites could properly play, at most, a marginal, auxiliary role. They opposed involving whites in a large and central way. Their opposition was overcome temporarily. But after Freedom Summer they gained the upper hand. By 1966 SNCC was systematically purging its ranks of whites. Watson's favorite people—Moses, Hamer, Baker—fervently criticized this racial parochialism. One infers that Watson objects to it, too. But it would have been good for him to have said so directly. After all, the racialist turn against white allies betrayed SNCC's founding ideals and helped to speed its tragic demise.

In "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. maintained, "One day the South will recognize its real heroes." Blacks were on his roster, including several who played major roles in the movement in Mississippi. King also declared that the roster of "real heroes" should include whites who had grasped the meaning of the civil rights crusade and committed themselves to it—the people who "marched with us down nameless streets . . . [and] languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who [viewed] them as 'dirty nigger-lovers.' " They are "few in quantity," he observed, but "big in quality." Freedom Summer contributes nicely to the mission of remembrance that King aptly championed.

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