Witness to history: Wisconsin historian delves into Freedom Summer

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By Terri Schlichenmeyer, Special to The Gazette
Thursday, July 24, 2014

You stand on the shoulders of giants.

You’ve probably heard that all your life, and it’s true. A lot of people have come before you to smooth your path. You benefit from their work and struggles, but you probably don’t think about it much.

Or maybe you don’t know about it. But read the new book “Risking Everything,” edited by Michael Edmonds, and you’ll learn.

Not long ago, when a volunteer expressed surprise at what he discovered about the civil rights movement, historian Edmonds realized that the young man had only a “children’s book understanding … a sanitized version” of the movement.

That kind of superficial understanding is common among Americans. This book seeks to remedy that in a small but monumental way.

Fifty-four years ago, 42 percent of Mississippi’s citizens were black, yet 90 percent of eligible adults could not vote. The prevailing attitude in Mississippi then was single-minded: whites only.

In the winter of 1963-’64, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee decided to move forward with plans for voter registration in Mississippi. They initially called it the Mississippi Summer Project, but it later became known as Freedom Summer.

The volunteers included about 1,000 college students, most of them white Northerners, along with clergy members, lawyers and medical personnel.

When opponents of the black vote heard what was coming, they swung into action. Laws were passed to make most forms of protest illegal. Local and state police beefed up their arsenals.

“Jackson even bought a tank,” Edmonds wrote.

Black citizens who participated in the program endured harassment and threats. Racist groups held “sessions” on how to murder and dispose of bodies without leaving evidence.

Still, volunteers persevered by offering voter registration classes, running freedom schools and establishing libraries. They continued to hold meetings to spur enthusiasm for the program in the black community.

Just nine weeks after it started, the Mississippi Summer Project ended. Organizers were “exhausted, disappointed and angry,” Edmonds wrote, because they believed little had been done and white supremacy was as deeply entrenched as ever.

What they didn’t know, however, was that they had accomplished more than they thought. They had “awakened sleeping giants,” he wrote.

When I first started “Risking Everything,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. The cover gives almost nothing away; in fact, it’s a little bland.

The story is anything but bland.

Through eyewitness reports and information from more than 40 documents, Edmonds gives readers an in-the-trenches view of Freedom Summer. Included are letters home from the freedom workers, training manuals, essays, testimonies, transcripts, photographs and curricula.

As Edmonds himself writes, “No punches are pulled.”

That’s what makes this an excellent book: It’s a paean to those who did their jobs that summer and a history lesson for anyone who’s too young to remember what happened 50 years ago. If that’s you—in either case—then you’ll like this book. For you, “Risking Everything” will be a giant eye-opener.

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