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Book review: Bruce Watson's Freedom Summer

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If you were there, you remember a lot about the long, hot, historic summer of 1964. If you weren't there, then here's a gripping book that will tell you all you need to know about the hottest story of a pivotal year in U.S. history: Freedom Summer.

By 1964, the Montgomery bus boycott was seven years past; the civil rights movement's Birmingham campaign, which brought images of dogs and fire hoses used against demonstrators, was last year's news; and African-Americans still did not have equal rights. In fact, the landmark civil rights act originally proposed by Pres. Kennedy was stalled in the U.S. Senate. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") had had enough. It was time for direct action to challenge the power structure in the South.

SNCC went for the South's segregationist jugular — the quasi-medieval state of Mississippi. The group used their experienced organizers to train 700 volunteers, mostly white college students, to help Mississippi blacks register to vote; set up "Freedom Schools" to augment the poor education provided blacks there; and aid the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's challenge to the state's all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention.

It was a simultaneously joyous and terrifying summer for the student volunteers, who mostly lived and worked with local African American residents — and paid the price for that choice whenever they ventured "into town." The Freedom Schools were held in church social halls and old, rehabbed shacks. As the book's blurb correctly puts it, "By the time their first night in the state had ended, three volunteers were dead, black churches had burned, and America had a new definition of freedom."

Scores of would-be voters and their volunteer escorts were beaten, shot at, and otherwise threatened at voter registration offices. Thirty-seven black churches, and 30 black homes or businesses were burned (as in, Mississippi Burning. Over 1,000 people were arrested. And in the most shocking incident, which absolutely riveted and outraged the nation, three civil rights workers were kidnapped on June 21; their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam on August 4.

Watson's writing is crisp, and his personal interviews of participants — some of whom tell their story here for the first time — make for a book filled with riveting, thriller-paced drama and — dare I use the term in cynical 2010? — inspiration. Although politicians and a few celebrities dot the book, Watson's emphasis is on how regular people fought the racist Mississippi power structure — and how regular people did all they could, including killing, to stop them. Humankind at its best and worst — what more do you want from a book?

One of the darkest ironies of Freedom Summer was that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally passed the Senate on July 2, two weeks after the three martyred men were abducted. The intensity of that summer's experiences garnered widespread support for the civil rights movement, which was energized to redouble its efforts for a Voting Rights Act (which was enacted in 1965).

Cold, colder, coldest

For folks who are feeling a little overwhelmed by this hot summer, here are four novels that could help you out, and make you think the temperature has dropped sharply. Happy cool reading.

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. Set in New York City, this love story veers into a fantasy of the city captured by Winter. It's about love, justice, God and everything else — and its overwhelming winter setting makes it a damn cold read.

* The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge. Based on British explorer Robert Falcon Scott's famous, and fatal, 1912 expedition to the South Pole, this is gripping reading, at temperatures sometimes sinking to 100 below, from a terrific Brit writer who died recently.

The Shining by Stephen King. A couple and their son are isolated in an old resort hotel in the Rockies, in the dead of winter, along with malevolent spirits of some of the hotel's former staff and guests. Not just blood-chilling, it chills you to the bone.

A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. If this doesn't cool you off, nothing will. I first read this book one hot August day in South Carolina, and I swear I remember shivering. The events of one day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet Siberian labor camp was based on Nobel winner Solzhenitsyn's own experience. If you desperately want cold, this is it.

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