Freedom On My Mind

Freedom On My Mind - The New York Times
June 22, 1994


    The Living Arts

The idealism of the 1960's can seem like a cultural artifact now, as distant from the 90's as those quaint black-and-white television reports are from today's high-tech, second-to-second coverage. "Freedom on My Mind," the story of the volatile battle to register black voters in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, makes provocative use of that' old film to situate viewers in a blatantly racist time and place. "I am a Mississippi segregationist and proud of it," says Ross Barnett, the Governor of the state. A well dressed white man sitting in a little cafe says, "The colored people are very happy in Mississippi." Among the clips are scenes of the idealistic civil rights volunteers, black and white, who gave the lie to statements like that.


Interwoven with the archival material are recent interviews with many who were active in the civil rights movement: L. C. Dorsey, a sharecropper's daughter from Mississippi; Bob Moses, a black graduate student from Harvard, Marshall Ganz, one of many white, middle-class college students bused in to register black voters and to attract the kind of news-media attention that Southern blacks would have been unlikely to draw on their own.


As they look back 30 years to what was called Freedom Summer, their testimony adds a complex layer to the film. An absorbing work of historical preservation and strong ideas, "Freedom on My Mind" won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It opens today in New York and will reach other cities starting next month.


Among those the film follows through Freedom Summer, Endesha Ida Mae Holland offers the most dramatic personal story. Known today as a playwright, she recalls being raped at the age of 11 by a white man. She soon dropped out of school and became a prostitute. When the white volunteers arrived in Mississippi in 1964, she responded by looking for customers, but stayed on as a volunteer. "The movement said to me I was somebody," she says buoyantly.


The film doesn't bypass harsh facts about the movement. Black people lost their jobs and risked their lives for daring to register to vote. There were cultural tensions between the Northern white students and the Southern black families with whom they lodged. Many of the black volunteers had never sat at a table with white people before. The students were aware (though perhaps not aware enough) that they were in the touchy paternalistic position of self-appointed saviors.


Mr. Moses was at the center of the political strategy. He led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (a group that wanted to unseat the official, all-white Dixiecrat delegates) to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. For true culture shock, "Freedom on My Mind" offers scenes of a boardwalk packed with middle-American delegates, and the sound of that convention's theme song, "Hello, Dolly" (recast as "Hello, Lyndon"). While Fannie Lou Hamer spoke on live television in favor of seating the civil rights delegates, President Johnson called a news conference that strategically bumped her off the air.


Mr. Moses calls the rejection of the Freedom Democratic Party "a betrayal" by the Democrats and sees it as a turning point in the civil rights movement. "It led directly to armed struggle," he says, "one of the great tragedies of this country."


Mr. Moses alone expresses such a sense of betrayal. Only when the final credits roll does the audience discover that he eventually left the United States to spend several years working in Africa before returning to create a public education program in Boston. He and the other Freedom Summer volunteers interviewed here remain idealistic, in ways that are inexplicable but convincing Mr. Ganz, who went on to work with Cesar Chavez, says simply that the movement "gave us hope." Ms. Dorsey, the sharecropper's daughter, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in public health, is eloquent on the subject of the deep cultural shift the civil rights movement set in motion. Black children in her generation were taught to stay in their place in regard to white people, she recalls; the next generation was not. Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford, who together produced and directed "Freedom on My Mind," have created the best kind of historical record -- one that resonates today.

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