- The Summer of 1964
New South Books—Twentieth Anniversary Edition
364 Page; Print, $23.95
Good historical fiction tells a story while staying true to the facts. The best historical fiction does that while offering an analysis that is both subtle and true to the situation. William Heath manages to achieve all of this and more in his novel The Children Bob Moses Led: A Novel of Freedom Summer, written in 1995 but reissued in 2014 to honor the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer.
Heath builds the narrative around the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group known for its sometimes frustrating adherence to participatory democracy and its resulting lack of clear leadership. He recapitulates this structure in the novel, leaving the reader with no clear heroes but with a number of likeable yet flawed young men and women who worked alongside local people in Mississippi, hoping to make a difference in the world and in their own lives. Rather than fall into the pitfall of so many others whose stories turn into celebrations of heroic characters stepping in to save local blacks, most recently and notably in Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help (2009), Heath traces the complex motivations of White and Black activists, showing the altruistic along with the selfish. He also helps the reader understand the complex situation and behavior of local people who wanted to fight their own oppression but had to weigh that desire against the danger they faced for challenging the local power structure, leaving the reader to ponder the extent to which Freedom Summer succeeded. He concludes by speaking through one of the “local people” after the failure of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to take seats at the national Democratic Convention in 1964:
I used to think Mississippi negroes was the only peoples in the world who was always afraid of losin’ they jobs. But that ain’t so. Even the president of the United States is afraid of losin’ his job. He knew we had justice on our side, but he was scared. That’s why he didn’t do right by us.
This helplessness, and the question of whether or not characters had the courage to do what was right in the face of intense pressure, provides the tension that holds the novel together and leaves the reader wondering how far society has come since that promising and disappointing summer.
The chapters alternate between the perspectives of Bob Moses, one of the real-life architects of Freedom Summer, and Tom Morton, a fictional character who represents a typical Freedom Summer volunteer. Through Moses, Heath introduces the historical context of the movement, and through Morton, he analyzes the complex motives of the volunteers, the terror they faced, and the question of whether the movement succeeded or failed. As both of these men make friends among African Americans in Mississippi and other Freedom Summer participants, Heath adds characters that allow him to explore multiple perspectives. The result is a rich, deep, and painfully honest account of Freedom Summer.
The Moses chapters rely heavily upon history and show impressive research in both primary and secondary sources. Heath draws upon SNCC field reports and other records at a variety of archives from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta, Georgia to the comprehensive collection at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. He also consulted collections at Stanford and Howard universities and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, searched an impressive number of contemporary newspapers, and conducted interviews of both participants and civil rights scholars. His research is solid, and he uses these chapters to recount the events that led to Freedom Summer.
Most impressively, Heath touches upon something on which many civil rights scholars are now focusing—the relationship between the Movement and representatives of the political establishment who wanted to control it and keep it from becoming radical enough to offend the average northern Democrat. In one passage, Al Lowenstein represents the liberal Democratic establishment, trying to impose order on the chaotic structure...