For university and high school instructors eager to give students a clear understanding of the powerful historical moments that took place during Freedom Summer, US History Scene enthusiastically recommends the Academy Award-nominated documentary film Freedom on My Mind (1994) directed by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford and written by Michael Chandler.
Freedom Summer was a nonviolent social movement guided by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) under the mentorship of Ella Baker and their compassionate student leader, Harvard graduate student mathematician Bob Moses.
The film documents the journey of nearly 1,000 white college students recruited from across the country who relocated to Mississippi to help educate and register black Jim Crow Era sharecroppers in Mississippi to vote. Connie Field argues that the interracial discourse and communal living students experienced in “Freedom Houses” allowed white college students who came of age during an era of mass conformity–the 1950s–to be politically reborn. Social responsibility and racial equality became cornerstones of the activists’ burgeoning worldview, while radically altering the lives of Southern black people who lived and labored under a regime of racial fear. As the film explains, the organizational tactic of bringing white students down into the Jim Crow South during the Civil Rights Movement forced the nation to both invest in and pay attention to the cause. As sons, daughters, and friends endangered their lives so that black Americans could obtain the right to register to vote, relatives and colleagues were drawn into the movement due to its new applicability. The film aptly portrays what was at stake for these activists by exploring the incredible danger involved in Freedom Summer. One particularly poignant scene shows Bob Moses telling the volunteers that due to the disappearance and subsequent lynching of volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, anyone wishing to return home would not be shamed as the imminent danger propagated by vigilante white supremacists were both real and palpable.
Although many white students were profoundly changed by their experience, there were very strong gender and sexual dynamics that were constant sources of tension. Field discusses black men’s incredible fear of lynchings for “eye rape” after the horrific death of Emmett Till in 1955 and the opening up of their sexual world when white college women spoke to them as equals and human beings. However, Field did not discuss or use footage that documented how the college-educated women (black and white) were forced to clean the Freedom Houses, cook, and generally remain in a subservient position to the overall race movement.
Field argues that the contributions of Freedom Summer significantly lead to the passage of the 1965 federal law signed by President Lyndon Johnson, forever changing the political landscape of the United States.
The evidence and sourced used in this beautiful film is vast in breadth. Freedom songs, especially those sung by Fannie Lou Hammer such as, “Which Side Are You On,” “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” “We Shall Overcome,” and the film’s titled song, “Freedom On My Mind” further personify the use of culture and daily life as a way to create political unity and to portray to the audience the all-consuming and spiritual struggle for equality experienced by the participants of Freedom Summer. Also used were newspaper articles, court transcripts, and newsreels commenting on the disappearance of James Chaney, Michael Scherner, and Andrew Goodman.
An unprecedented amount of footage from home video and national news archives documented church meetings, the female-led Freedom Schools, The Voter Registration Program, and daily interracial living at dinner tables, outdoor showering holes, and sleeping. Images of sharecropper’s homes, the poverty they endured, and the visible segregation served to portray how the “system was internalized down to every encounter” was intertwined with testimonies of students and city residents. One such student was Endesha Ida Mae Holland, a young black prostitute turned Ph.D. whose childhood photographs supplemented the story of her first rape at the age of eleven by the white man in whose house she served as a domestic servant. She initially approached a Freedom Summer worker hoping to turn a trick, but when she was brought inside SNCC headquarters and saw for the first time in her life African American women working as office assistants and typists she became curious about their ideology. “The movement said to me I was somebody,” she recalled years later.