Freedom Summer, when the past is not even past


As you'll probably be hearing a lot over the next week, this year marks the 50th anniversary of a seminal event in the American civil rights movement -- Freedom Summer in Mississippi. The crusade -- in which students who were mainly white kids from colleges north of the Mason Dixon line teamed up with young black activists from the South -- will be commemorated with what sounds like a fascinating documentary on PBS tomorrow night. The events of a half-century ago seem even more incredible when viewed from the perspective of 21st Century sit-on-your-rear-end "hashtag activism."

These kids took an enormous risk. Some were roughed up or beaten, some were jailed...and three were killed. And all for such an altruistic cause:

"There is no guarantee that you will get out of this summer alive; just know that," Bob Moses, a Freedom Summer organizer, told volunteers after learning that three of their colleagues had been killed.

There have been plenty of films on the violence of segregationist Mississippi. Yet "Freedom Summer," directed by MacArthur "genius grant" fellow Stanley Nelson, goes deeper. Nelson unearths rare film footage, interviews former segregationists, and persuades some Freedom Summer veterans to tell stories they had never before shared in public.

Still, what may be most striking about the film is not what is said but what is implied. Nelson captures the idealism of an era in America that seems as distant as covered wagons. Ordinary Americans believed they could change the world. Most Freedom Summer volunteers were only 19 or 20. They had heard President Kennedy's challenge to "ask what you can do for your country." They saw themselves as patriots.

"It was terrifying," Dorothy Zellner, a former volunteer, says in the film. "But if you cared about this country and you cared about democracy, you had to go."

We seem to be going through a time of historic anniversary overload these days -- but some of them matter more than others. The ones that resonate are the ones that speak to our present circumstances -- and by that standard the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer looms large. That's because the right that these young kids worked and even died for, the right to vote, is under assault all over again.

The worst abuses are a slew of new voter ID laws which threaten to disenfranchise thousands of legitimate voters -- many of them minorities -- all in the name of tackling a problem of voter impersonation which is non-existent. Not surprisingly, Mississippi jumped  on the voter ID bandwagon -- with an assist from the U.S. Supreme Court which tossed out a section of the Voting Rights Act that was passed in 1965, in part because of the fallout from Freedom Summer.

Ironically, on the same day as the airing of the documentary on PBS, Mississippi voters will be going to the polls for a critical U.S. Senate runoff election -- and here is what they will encounter:

WASHINGTON — As Senator Thad Cochran, the veteran Republican, fights for his political life in Mississippi by taking the unexpected step of courting black Democrats, conservative organizations working to defeat him are planning to deploy poll watchers to monitor his campaign’s turnout operation in Tuesday’s runoff election.

Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars backing Mr. Cochran’s Tea Party opponent, State Senator Chris McDaniel, said in an interview on Sunday that his group was joining with Freedom Works and the Tea Party Patriots in a “voter integrity project” in Mississippi.

The groups will deploy observers in areas where Mr. Cochran is recruiting Democrats, Mr. Cuccinelli said. J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department official and conservative commentator who said he was advising the effort, described the watchers as “election observers,” mostly Mississippi residents, who will be trained to “observe whether the law is being followed.”

I've covered this issue on several occasions over the years, and these "voter integrity" efforts tend invariably to be efforts to make voting an unpleasant or more time-consuming process -- with the goal of frightening folks away (and before you say anything, this, indeed, is a horrific and extreme example). In this case, the subtext is that while not too many black voters are Republican in Mississippi, it's thought that some of them would be so wary of right-wing extremist McDaniel that they'll be voting in the runoff (Mississippi is an "open primary" state) -- hence the interest suddenly in "voter integrity."

When is it time for Freedom Summer II, the sequel?