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PBS' 'American Experience': 'Freedom Summer' recounts rampant racism

Published June 25, 2014 9:39 am

Television • The documentary, whose events are far from ancient history, airs on PBS.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the events chronicled in "Freedom Summer" is that they are not ancient history.

Yes, it was 50 years ago that 700 student volunteers joined local organizers in Mississippi to register African-American voters. But many of those involved in the effort are still alive. The ones who weren't killed, that is.

"I actually lost about 19 people who had been killed, many of them local people in the movement," said Dave Dennis, who was the Mississippi director of the Congress of Racial Equality and one of the principal movers behind Freedom Summer.

That included three civil-rights workers who were murdered during Freedom Summer; an uncounted number of beatings; 35 churches burned and more than 70 homes bombed. All in an effort to prevent African Americans from claiming their rights as citizens and registering to vote.

"Freedom Summer," which debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival," is a sequel of sorts to the "American Experience" documentary "Freedom Riders." The latter took place in 1961; the former in 1964.

The main focus of the documentary is Mississippi — where just 6.7 percent of eligible African Americans were registered to vote pre-Freedom Summer — but it's not just about that state. Linda Wetmore Halpern recalled that, when she was 19, she went to North Carolina to help register black voters.

"That was really the turning point for me," she said, "Not because it was so hard to voter-registrate, but because when we went to get a drink I see 'white' and 'colored,' and no one ever told me that. This was 1964, and you still had white and colored drinking fountains?"

To hear Dennis talk about his upbringing is astonishing.

"I was raised in northern Louisiana, which was the black belt in the heart of the Ku Klux Klan," he said. He was taught to avoid "even looking white people in the eye." And after 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 because he had talked to a white woman, "People talked to us in the churches about — if you see a white woman, just cross the street."

"So I grew up not being able to go to places and where the community was totally segregated," Dennis said. And "people being lynched and killed" was just a fact of life.

"And going from Louisiana to Mississippi, for me, was almost like not jumping from the frying pan to the fire, but actually from the fire to the frying pan."

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson Jr. insists that "Freedom Summer" is not an indictment of Mississippi as a whole, but it does make the state appear nightmarish for African Americans, who made up half the state's population in 1964.

"I think Mississippi is just like anywhere else in this country," he said. "There are some people who are racist. There are some people who are not. There are some people in between."

The "white power structure" in Mississippi in 1964 feared giving an inch because the black population could unseat them.

"And so it was a kind of state-sanctioned terrorism that existed in Mississippi," Nelson said. "The Klan didn't even really exist in Mississippi because there was a thing called the Citizens Council, which ran Mississippi. So there was a feeling of, 'We don't even need the Klan because nobody can speak up. Nobody can say a word.' "

Until the black population began to register to vote — an act of courage at a time when it could cost them their jobs. Get them beaten up. Get them killed.

"That's what this film shows," Dennis said. "People coming out of the backwoods — uneducated people from the plantations and other places saying, 'I want the right to vote,' and begin to say to the nation, 'I am a citizen, and I want the same rights everybody else has.'

"That was the big change that you began to see and what that movement was all about in Mississippi and what this film sort of projects, which I think is very beautiful."

spierce@sltrib.com

Twitter: @ScottDPierce —

On TV

P The "American Experience" presentation of "Freedom Summer," which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, will be Tuesday at 8 p.m. on PBS/Ch. 7.