[The killing of one black and two white civil rights workers] was an example of what we had really been talking to the volunteers about before the three went missing—that you are going into a murderously violent state and you have to understand that the danger affects you every day, all day long.

— Charlie Cobb, former field secretary for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the Mississippi Delta and a major architect of the Freedom School program (‘50 Years Ago’)

Documentary programming is normally not a spectator sport, despite being widely utilized by television as an economical staple over the last 30 years.  For every Ken Burns, Michael Moore, and Errol Morris, there are dozens of talented documentarists who rarely if ever get their work seen on TV never mind in movie theaters.  Other nonfiction producer-directors, such as Stanley Nelson, are well recognized among their peers, and regularly reach millions through the small screen and the Internet, but labor in relative obscurity when it comes to having their names known by the general public.

Nelson has now produced 20 full-length documentaries and has emerged as somewhat of a fixture at PBS’s flagship historical series, American Experience, which just premiered his latest television special, ‘Freedom Summer,’ on June 24 (currently available for viewing online here).  Though less famous than his mentor, William Greaves or especially Gordon Parks and Spike Lee, Stanley Nelson is a pioneering chronicler of the African American experience specializing in a bottom up view of history rather than focusing mainly on iconic figures such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X (Hale).

William Greaves                   Stanley Nelson

Greaves and Nelson

Stanley Nelson’s background is upper-middle-class and private school educated.  Growing up his dentist father and librarian mother would take the family on vacation to their summer home at Oak Bluffs, a racially diverse enclave on Martha’s Vineyard, which Nelson featured in A Place of Our Own (2004).  He has also made documentaries on the first self-made black millionaire businesswoman, Madame C.J. Walker (Two Dollars and A Dream, 1989), The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1999), and seven episodes of the American Experience including primetime Emmy winners, ‘The Murder of Emmett Till’ (2003) and ‘Freedom Riders’ (2010) as well as most recently ‘Freedom Summer’ (2014).

Stanley Nelson interviewed by Richard French on the Regional News Network about ‘Freedom Summer’


Freedom Summer is shorthand for all the events surrounding the Mississippi Summer Project, which was a campaign launched in 1964 to register disenfranchised black voters in the most segregated U.S. southern state at the time.  Although the system of segregation known as Jim Crow was still alive and well in the American south during the early 1960s, Mississippi was the most extreme case.  For example, voter registration in the rest of the American south (i.e., Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) ranged from 50 to 70 percent of black residents.  In Mississippi, the percentage was 6.7 percent.  As one reporter in a contemporaneous news clip used in ‘Freedom Summer’ explains, ‘you crack Mississippi and you crack the whole south.’

Freedom Summer was organized by SNCC with the support and participation of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference).  Its prelude was a two-week teach-in hosted by mostly black SNCC and CORE organizers between June 14 and June 27 at the Western College for Women (now part of Miami University) in Oxford, Ohio.  Their job was to prep nearly 1,000 predominantly white middle-class 19 to 24-year-old students who gathered together from campuses all over the country.  Workshops were held on the latest voter registration tactics and self-protection techniques learned on the ground in Mississippi where verbal abuse and beatings were commonplace and murder was always a distinct possibility.

The first third of ‘Freedom Summer’ efficiently recreates the historical context and introduces the major players (such as the cerebral Bob Moses and the fiery Dave Dennis, co-directors of the voter registration efforts in the state) before climaxing with a cold-blooded act of violence that catalyzes the burgeoning civil rights movement and grows to embody the dangerous and unprecedented nature of the Mississippi Summer Project.

Bob Moses                    Dave Dennis

Moses and Dennis

James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippian, and Michael (‘Mickey’) Schwerner, a 24-year-old New York Jew, were two of the organizers in Oxford.  Chaney and Schwerner had just spoken at the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, a few weeks earlier on Memorial Day weekend.  They had implored the congregation to set up a Freedom School to educate and encourage black voter registration in surrounding Neshoba County.  A week into the teach-in at Oxford, Chaney and Schwerner learned that members of the church had been beaten bloody and the building burned to the ground.  They immediately left Ohio to investigate the incident taking with them student volunteer, Andrew Goodman, another white Jewish New Yorker.  They arrived in Mississippi on June 20 and went missing the following day.

Since SNCC and CORE organizers had already been working on voter registration in rural Mississippi for two to three years, the carefully thought out objective of Freedom Summer was to trigger a breakthrough by recruiting whites to work alongside blacks, thus attracting more national interest with the influx of a large number of college students from out of state.  ‘We were young and foolish,’ admits former volunteer and current District of Columbia congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, in an onscreen interview.  Their idealism was infectious, however, as SNCC organizers selected 700 volunteers in Oxford—90 percent of whom were white—to go to Mississippi.  Over the next ten weeks, they set up a network of 40 Freedom Schools and community centers to support the local black population, while living with African American families and advising the voting-age members of these households on how to register.

The middle third of ‘Freedom Summer’ illustrates the unintended consequences of the protracted search for Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman as well as the ups and downs of the Mississippi Summer Project.  Outside media attention escalated with each passing day as no discernable headway was made in finding the three civil rights workers.  News stories reported how local officials were calling their disappearance a hoax while at the same time only half-heartedly pursuing the case.  U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy quickly ordered a reluctant F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover, to conduct a massive federal investigation that further opened the nation’s eyes to the hidden realities that were taken for granted in this closed, racist society.

FBI Informational Poster

Three Murders

For instance, F.B.I. agents found eight other black bodies while trolling the state’s rivers and swamps looking for Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman.  There had been little need for the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi before Freedom Summer; now there were signs of the K.K.K.’s rise throughout the state.  During June, July, and August, another civil rights worker was murdered and four others were critically wounded; 80 Freedom Summer organizers and volunteers were beaten; more than 1,000 more were arrested on trumped up charges by Mississippi law enforcement officials; and 40 churches along with 30 black homes or businesses were either bombed or burned.  There was something akin to a voter registration war breaking out everywhere as the local white supremacists overreacted and Mississippi devolved into a police state.  As a result, the F.B.I. christened their case ‘Mississippi Burning’ or MIBURN.

Mississippi Burning

The most popular portrayal of Freedom Summer up to this point has been Alan Parker’s Academy Award-winning albeit highly controversial Hollywood feature, Mississippi Burning (1988), starring Willem Defoe and Gene Hackman as a couple of fictional good cop/bad cop F.B.I. agents who eventually solve the case of three missing civil rights workers by utilizing an amalgam of legal and illegal means.  Despite the creative team’s best intentions, Mississippi Burning was justifiably criticized at the time for playing fast and loose with the historical record; and for putting two white men at the center of what is first and foremost an African American story of ingenuity and persistence.

In many ways, Stanley Nelson’s ‘Freedom Summer’ serves as a perfect antidote to Mississippi Burning.  Its 112-minute historical narrative is produced from an African American perspective and populated primarily by black characters with a sampling of whites in supporting roles.  Another case in point is Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper who rises to become vice chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDF).  She emerges as the star of the final third of ‘Freedom Summer,’ as she did in 1964 when she testified before network news cameras at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The forces of white supremacy blocked voter registration in Mississippi wherever possible, so the emphasis of the Mississippi Summer Project shifted somewhat to include building an integrated MFDP to counteract the all-white segregated state Democratic Party that was representing Mississippi at the national convention.  The party establishment led by President Lyndon Johnson wanted a public show of party unity not controversy, thus Nelson incorporates oval office audio recordings to show how LBJ worked feverishly behind the scenes to suppress the civil rights efforts of the MFDP led by Fannie Lou Hamer.

Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic National Convention

Fannie Lou Hamer

Hamer eventually appeared on national television before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention on August 22, speaking passionately and eloquently about the undemocratic conditions in Mississippi, explaining how she herself had been beaten senseless but recovered, and delivering the relatable demand that all ‘we want to become [is] first-class citizens.’  Her appearance is the dramatic high point of the film which retells the bittersweet reality of how civil rights activists in the state such as Hamer lost most of the individual battles of the Mississippi Summer Project, such as when the MFDP was marginalized by the Democratic Party establishment at the 1964 convention, but ultimately their efforts paid off and they won the war.

‘Freedom Summer’ captures the inherent drama of a transformative moment in American history and documents how the Mississippi Summer Project helped shape the racial politics of America in the years that followed.  All told, organizers and volunteers only registered 1,200 new black voters in the state during the summer of 1964; nevertheless, they collected 60,000 signatures from black Mississippians to launch the MFDP; while the voter registration movement and the MFDP together led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the most sweeping legislation in the country’s history prohibiting voter discrimination.

‘Freedom Summer’ also reminds viewers how the Mississippi Summer Project exposed the face of home-grown institutional racism for all Americans and the rest of the world to see and reflect upon.  After 44 days, the badly beaten and decomposed bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were found buried deep beneath an earthen dam on a local farm outside Philadelphia, Mississippi.  Immediate reaction was shock and outrage; long-term repercussions resulted in an increased activism and civil involvement from many who took part in the Mississippi Summer Project, including volunteers such as Mario Salvo, who would become one of the  founders of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and Barney Frank, longtime congressman from Massachusetts who was the first U.S. House member to voluntarily come out as gay in 1987.

I was just a boy growing up in Massachusetts when Freedom Summer took place in 1964.  In hindsight, I remember media coverage of the three civil rights workers disappearing and later being found, but most of what I now know about this seminal episode in American History I’ve learned through reading about it afterwards as an adult and now seeing this gripping and informative documentary.  What I do recall though is how prevalent the myth of Mississippi’s exceptionalism was in my home state during the 1960s.  Northerners in general felt a misplaced sense of superiority over southerners in terms of race relations, but in Massachusetts for example, the busing crisis of the 1970s revealed the lingering legacy of racism and residential segregation was buried deep within the DNA of liberal America as well.

I bring this up to underscore the final graphic that ends ‘Freedom Summer.’  It reads: ‘Today, Mississippi has more African American elected officials than any other state in the country.’  Having lived in Virginia for 18 years, which is the capital of the old Confederacy; as well as in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach metropolitan area, which experienced ‘massive resistance’ in 1958-59 whereby local schools were shut down for an entire year rather than desegregate, I believe the southern U.S. has emerged a half-century after Freedom Summer as comfortable and progressive in its handling of race relations as any region in the United States.

‘Freedom Summer’ reminds us that the past still informs the present as in the June 2013 partial rollback of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a split Supreme Court decision in ‘Shelby County v. Holder’ in which the majority struck down one influential section of the act as no longer relevant in a post-racial America.  On the contrary, race matters as much as ever in the U.S.  We are just in a different and hopefully more humane place than we were in 1964.  ‘Freedom Summer’ is both compelling viewing and eminently germane for understanding the current state of race relations and civil rights in America.

Trailer for American Experience’s ‘Freedom Summer’ 


Gary R. Edgerton is Professor and Dean of the College of Communication at Butler University.  His latest books are The Sopranos (Wayne State University Press, 2013) and a reprint edition of American Film Exhibition (Routledge, 2013).  He also coedits the Journal of Popular Film and Television.