Monday, June 23, 2014

The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell

On June 21, 1964, three young men disappeared in Mississippi. Upon hearing the news, their co-workers, families, and friends immediately feared the worst: that James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were dead, killed because of their work in the voter registration effort known as Freedom Summer.

It was dangerous work and everyone knew it. Don Mitchell opens The Freedom Summer Murders by describing the treatment civil rights workers would expect in Mississippi and explaining why they were there, that "[f]or many years before the 1964 Freedom Summer, Mississippi held a special place of terror for America's black population." And, to paraphrase the words of one of Mississippi's few black lawyers during Freedom Summer training, the state's white citizens would be even tougher on white volunteers.

Michael Schwerner and his wife Rita had been working in Mississippi for CORE, the Congress for Racial Equality, since January. James Chaney was from Meridian, Mississippi, one of the first people to help the Schwerners, and quickly indispensable to their work. Andrew Goodman was a Freedom Summer volunteer. On June 21, Rita was in Ohio, helping with Freedom Summer training. The three men were in Mississippi, where they "were brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, with the complicity of the local police."

It's likely, as Mitchell suggests, that the killers did not expect such an uproar to develop. As Rita Schwerner later said, "I believed at the time, and I continue to believe today, that if all three of the men killed in Neshoba County had been black, the nation would have taken little notice." But the country did notice. An informant told the FBI where the bodies of the three men had been buried, and on August 4, their remains were uncovered.

In The Freedom Summer Murders, Don Mitchell examines one of the most pivotal moments of the civil rights movement using actual statements made by people complicit in the murders, civil rights activists, and the families of the three men to vivid effect. He also delves into the backgrounds of the three men, the eventual trials of the killers, and the changes in attitudes in Neshoba county. While the structure of the book seemed a bit off in a couple of places (mostly, why put the map of Mississippi at the end of the book, rather than at the start? And I think parts of chapter 8 belong in chapter 9 instead), overall it works to pull readers in and keep them turning pages. Back matter includes comprehensive endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.

Another new book commemorating the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner is Freedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by Susan Goldman Rubin.

Book Information
The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell
Published April 2014 by Scholastic
ISBN 9780545477253
YA Nonfiction

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