What Are These Bodies Doing in the River?: Freedom Summer and the Cultural Imagination
In his final book-length essay, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin investigates the Atlanta Child Murders, a series of twenty-eight killings between 1979 and 1981 that terrorized the African American community in a city that had become a beacon of black empowerment and possibility in a post-civil rights era. The nation’s ill-buried history of racial violence and inequality inevitably surfaces in Baldwin’s account:
Some years ago, after the disappearance of civil rights works Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi, some friends of mine were dragging the river for their bodies. This one wasn’t Schwerner. This one wasn’t Goodman. This one wasn’t Chaney. Then, as Dave Dennis tells it, “It suddenly struck us—what difference did it make that it wasn’t them? What are these bodies doing in the river?”(99)
Baldwin’s meditation on the value of black life, and threats to it, brings him to the notorious 1964 murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who were in Mississippi to register voters only to be met with violence from Ku Klux Klan members abetted by local law enforcement. In Baldwin’s long and loping essay, the martyrs of Freedom Summer provide a crystallizing moment as he dredges the swamps of American history. The FBI search that summer revealed eight additional bodies and, for Baldwin, larger structures of violence and disregard that long predate the essay’s purported subject. As Baldwin put it, “I dare you to go digging in the Bayou” (99). Literature of the civil rights movement may begin in individual stories and [End Page 174] character-driven narratives, but the best ones push further to ask questions about root causes and underlying structures. What does the murder of three activists—one black, two white, all committed to democratic ideals—reveal about a concerted effort one summer to make the nation live up to its promises? Further, what stories have yet to be told?
The murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner brought national attention to Freedom Summer and remains a flash point in our historical memory of the civil rights movement. Their murder, though, has not captured the literary imagination as much as that of other civil rights martyrs, such as Medgar Evers, shot in June 1963 as he arrived home to his wife and young children, and of course Emmett Till, whose brutal murder a decade prior and the subsequent acquittal of his killers has been retold in upwards of one hundred fifty times in novels, poems, and plays.1 Nonetheless, the murders of the three activists, and the brave work of Freedom Summer for which they stand, remain a focal point in the larger cultural imagination. The most high profile example is “Mississippi Burning,” the 1988 Hollywood drama starring white actors Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe that notoriously tells the story of racial terrorism and civil rights activism as one of white heroism, federal intervention, and procedural justice. In that big-budget film, the grassroots activism so central to Freedom Summer is almost nowhere to be seen, and the national coordinating efforts of CORE, SNCC, SCLC, and the NAACP fade into the background. Albeit high profile, “Mississippi Burning” is an outlier within the literary tradition of Freedom Summer, which tends to focus more on black empowerment and the dangers of activism in addition to dreams of cross-racial solidarity.
What’s more, literature and the performing arts were central to Freedom Summer from its inception. In particular, Freedom Schools featured literature and literacy in its curriculum, as well as storytelling events for young children and library development initiatives. According to the prospectus drafted by Charles Cobb in 1963 for the Council of Federated Organizations, “The aim of the Freedom Schools’ curriculum will be to challenge the student’s curiosity about the world, introduce him to his particularly ‘Negro’ cultural background, and teach him basic literacy skills in one integrated problem” (Cobb 4–5). Literature’s role in this emancipatory project manifested explicitly in key African American readings, such as touchstone writing by Frederick Douglass, alongside American school classics such as Huckleberry Finn. The focus on culturally relevant curriculum also informed a shift away from rote memorization and toward discussion-oriented pedagogy in order to develop the imaginations and voices of black citizens and leaders. Some Freedom Schools also included creative writing so that students themselves gave voice to their own experience through poetry and story. Theater was [End Page 175] similarly prominent, including the theatre project sponsored by the Tougaloo College drama department to craft and perform stories out of the lives of black Mississippians. Finally, the activists and volunteers themselves turned to literature to tell their own story, as shown in part by Elizabeth Martinez’s invaluable inclusion of original Freedom School poetry in a 2007 revised edition of the 1965 classic Letters from Mississippi.
In the five decades since, Freedom Summer has become shorthand in the cultural imagination for grassroots activism in the civil rights movement. For instance, in Getting Mother’s Body, Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2003 novel reimagining Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, pregnant young Billy Beede gets on a bus in search of an abortion doctor in Southwest Texas and the driver tells her succinctly and without provocation, “I don’t want no Freedom Riders, now” (56). The novel is deliberately set on the eve of the March on Washington, but Parks does not go out of her way to include much historic detail. We are simply supposed to know all that the bus driver means in his curt admonition. So too, Mississippi itself has become shorthand in the American historical imagination to signify both the depths of entrenched American racism and the civil rights activism seeking to combat it. We see this in Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, a plucky 2001 novel that chronicles the efforts of a small West Virginia town to cash in on the currency of a black folk hero by creating a festival to commemorate the US postal service stamp bearing his likeness. The protagonist is J., a snarky New York City reporter covering the festival, who notes the predominantly white tourists:
“This isn’t Mississippi in the fifties, J.” One Eye says, cocking his head.
“It’s always Mississippi in the fifties,” J. answers.(127)
The exchange recalls, of course, Nina Simone’s 1964 civil rights anthem, “Mississippi Goddam.” The concise expression beautifully captures a collective sense of black exasperation and even rage. And it reinforces why Mississippi became the focus of civil rights activism for the Freedom Summer. Nowadays, Freedom Summer, especially its signature Freedom Rides and Freedom Schools, are a familiar cultural touchstone, making appearances in popular culture everywhere from the sixth book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series to season four of the hit television series Mad Men and Lee Daniels’s The Butler, starring Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
As the original Freedom Riders and Freedom School teachers knew, we must be vigilant about the stories we engage and pass along. The essays collected in this section underscore that Freedom Summer does not fit neatly into a vision of American history as marching inevitably toward progress [End Page 176] and the promised land. The full story includes the difficulty of eradicating long-cemented racist practices and structures of disenfranchisement, the terrorism activists faced, the bravery of everyday citizens in exercising constitutional rights, and the fragile beauty of the vision of citizenship on offer that summer in Mississippi by local communities in partnership with a national network of young students and activist organizations.
The question becomes how to tell the story of Freedom Summer and understand its lessons. The scholarship in this special issue points the way as it illustrates how the task is ultimately both an aesthetic and ideological question. Literature that looks back to Freedom Summer and the larger civil rights movement can help us think about legacy, how we remember social change, and perhaps to ask questions about unfinished business. For example, in her article “‘Presenting Our Bodies, Laying Our Case’: The Political Efficacy of Grief and Rage During the Civil Rights Movement in Alice Walker’s Meridian,” Shermaine Jones turns to Walker’s novel for the way it focuses on anger and mourning to ask “what is the cost (in lives) of creating a beloved community?” Or, in his meditation on civil rights memory in Pearl Cleage’s 1997 play Bourbon at the Border, Julius Fleming pays particular attention to the experiences and people not often featured in the national script. That is, more so than historical monuments or political speeches, literature is able to recuperate non-iconic figures and also “critiques the uneven distribution of value that society maps onto the fatal disappearances of those activists who have been accorded iconic status.”
The black press was particularly crucial to helping the nation understand the grassroots activism central to Freedom Summer and other initiatives, often turning to literary techniques of narrative and character development. Generic distinctions that may be central to literary studies are necessarily porous when it comes to civil rights literature. This section includes an interview by James West of Simeon Booker, one of the most important journalists of the movement as he powerfully shaped how the nation came to initially understand it. Journalism and first-hand accounts remain crucial resources, in part because work remains to be done in the literary sphere. As Booker declares in his revealing interview with West, “The civil rights era was a time of such hope and courage, such unimaginable determination in the face of ignorance, hatred and violence. I don’t think our literature has yet captured even a tenth of the texture of that period.” Like Booker’s own account Shocking the Conscience (UP of Mississippi, 2013), West’s interview is itself an invaluable contribution to the task of constructing our national memory.
The section concludes with a selected bibliography of literature that tells the story of Freedom Summer in particular. Though not meant to be comprehensive, the bibliography sketches the breadth of artistic imaginings of [End Page 177] Freedom Summer across genres, genders, races, and market demographics. The literature as a whole leans toward didactic and educative modes and, beyond the bibliography, fiction is outnumbered by autobiography and memoir. There is also a strong tradition of retelling the story of Freedom Summer in children’s and young adult literature. This points to the importance of preparing the next generation for struggles yet to come in addition to celebrating progress achieved. We might do well to return to the original design of the Freedom Schools to imagine a curriculum that connected formal education to liberation projects. Freedom School sessions were designed to begin in the mornings with academic instruction and then move in the afternoons to community-based discussions and planned actions, be it a picket line or voter registration drive. What kind of action might the subsequent literature of Freedom Summer warrant? And what practice of reading might bring it about?
Brian Norman is associate professor of English at Loyola University-Maryland where he also founded the program in African and African American studies. He is the author of the Dead Women Talking: Figures of Injustice in American Literature (Johns Hopkins, 2013), Neo-Segregation Narratives: Jim Crow in Post-Civil Rights American Literature (U of Georgia P, 2010), and The American Protest Essay and National Belonging (SUNY P, 2007). With Piper Kendrix Williams, he co-edited Representing Segregation (SUNY P, 2010).
1. See the annotated bibliography in Metress and Pollack, Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination.