Thursday, July 10, 2014
The Freedom Summer Murders, written by Don Mitchell. Scholastic, 2014. $20.99 ages 14 and up
I knew their names...I knew little else about them. Three young men, whose summer was to be spent helping African Americans in Mississippi register to vote. On June 21, 1964 they were brutally murdered on a back road in Neshoba County, because of their belief in and support of that work.
Don Mitchell honors their lives in this compelling and factual book. The Freedom Summer Murders recounts the vicious killings in clear, revealing text. He lets his audience know that Mississippi was a very dangerous place to be for young men wanting to take a stand:
"For many years before the 1964 Freedom Summer, Mississippi held a special place of terror for America's black population. Indeed, blacks were victimized by violence in Mississippi perhaps more than anywhere else in the United States. And lynching, in which mobs took the law into their own hands, was the ultimate penalty."
Their murder was 'planned, deliberate'. The events leading up to that terrible June night are shared and the three young men - Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner from New York, and James Chaney, a young man from Mississippi who wanted a better life for his family - are introduced prior to Don Mitchell's chilling account of their murder. He also introduces the men involved in planning the heartbreaking end to such young lives, and their certainty that soon no one would even remember the three. They were wrong.
The author ensures that his audience gets to know the three very well. He describes their lives leading up to that fateful summer: their families, their upbringing, and the strong values that led them to want to help during the summer of 1964.
Andrew Goodman's grandfather inspired his children and grandchildren:
"He was kind of polite to the people he didn't think were terribly productive. But you could tell he didn't think much of them." "Be a doer" was an admonishment that Andy, his brothers, and his cousins took to heart and applied to their own lives."
James Chaney travelled with his father to work at plastering jobs, and learned valuable lessons along the way:
"He was able to observe the political hierarchies of the many towns and counties he passed through, and James obtained a broader sense of the unfair, unequal way that black people were treated. When James came home to Meridian from his travels, he would ask, "Why do we live this way? Why do we have to live this way?"
When his mother wondered at Mickey Schwerner's 1957 decision to buy a German-made Volkswagen after all that had happened to his relatives during WWII, Mickey was firm in his answer:
"I know how you feel, Mother," Mickey replied. "One reason I want to buy it is that it is a very economical and practical car. But, more important, I want to spend my life relieving hate, not preserving it. I see reason to hope that thee will never be another Auschwitz."
Their deaths make the final chapters all the more heart-breaking. In them, Mr. Mitchell describes the arduous, complicated, prolonged journey to justice for those men who were responsible. The discovery of the bodies, the funerals, the federal investigation, and the prevailing notion that white men were not convicted on murder charges in Mississippi led Don Mitchell to conclude that it wasn't just the men who were to blame. In fact, he believes "they were killed by institutionalized racism that in 1964 permeated every aspect of Mississippi's legal, political and social order."
Archival photos, an afterword, short sketches of notable civil rights leaders, detailed endnotes, the author's personal note on his sources for the writing, and an extensive bibliography add to the importance of this meticulously researched book.
The focus for the writing is centered completely on the three young men whose lives ended far too soon:
"James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner lived relatively short lives, but they were lives of consequence. They risked, and ultimately lost, their lives to fear, ignorance, intolerance, hatred, and inequality. Those who believe in the importance of fighting against these things - like James, Andy, Mickey, and countless others - still cannot rest. Because, in the words of the song from that long-ago summer, freedom is a constant struggle."
There is no putting their story down, until you know that justice has perhaps been served.