Freedom On My Mind

Freedom On My Mind - The San Francisco Examiner
 
 
     
  THE SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER  

 

    'Freedom Summer' comes alive on film
by Scott Rosenberg
   
         
   

Any decent documentary with sufficient archival footage and smart editing can foster a "you are there" feeling. The tougher achievement is to make you understand how and why events unfolded in a different era -- and how they shaped where we are now.

 

By that yardstick, "Freedom on My Mind" --a new documentary about the civil rights movement's summer 1964 effort to register black voters in Mississippi -- is a great success. Created by Berkeley filmmakers Connie Field ("Rosie the Riveter") and Marilyn Mulford, with writer-editor Michael Chandler, "Freedom" manages not only to record the inspiring experiences of the white volunteers and black pioneers of the voting rights drive, but also to place those experiences within a larger and more depressing story of power politics at the national level.

 

"Freedom" opens with a brief but pungent portrait of the old, segregated South- where black men could be lynched for "eye-rape" (looking at a white woman the wrong way) while the actual rape of black women by the white men who employed them often went unpunished. When a black schoolteacher named Bob Moses began to try to organize a voter registration drive in a rural Mississippi county, the white response was swift and murderous: the first black farmer to sign up to vote was shot by a state representative, who was acquitted of the crime.

 

The film uses black and white period stills and newsreels, as well as contemporary interviews with civil rights movement veterans, to show what happened when the black voting-drive organizers decided to bolster their flagging efforts in the "Freedom Summer" of 1964 by importing 1,000 white volunteers from out-of-state. The law wasn't protecting Mississippi's African Americans, Moses explains it today, so the strategy was to attract media attention and government intervention by bringing in the kind of people the media and the law were accustomed to covering-white college students and the offspring of America's power elite.

 

This is an oft-told story, of course. What's new in "Freedom on My Mind" is some valuable glimpses of the interpersonal dynamics of the movement. Black veterans-like the remarkable Endesha Ida Mae Holland, the prostitute turned organizer turned playwright-describe how volunteering opened new possibilities for their lives.

 

Holland recalls her astonishment at seeing a black woman typing at the local civil rights office, or hearing white volunteers address blacks as "Mr." and "Mrs." There were tensions, too, as when white volunteers laughed at news footage of an obese white Southern county clerk-the kind of official whose abuse of power was no laughing matter for the blacks in the audience.

 

Despite upbeat anecdotes of racial cooperation, "Freedom on My Mind's" larger story is more tragic. From the partial success of the Freedom Summer drive, the civil rights activists formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and challenged the national Democratic Party to seat them instead of the old-line segregationists at the Atlantic City convention in August 1964. White organizer Marshall Ganz tells the filmmakers of the insurgents "confidence of the righteous"-their optimistic belief that they'd win simply because they were right.

 

As labor attorney Joe Rauh recalls the story, President Lyndon Johnson--fearful of losing the old South vote--blew a gasket and called an impromptu press conference to preempt the stirring live testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer before the convention's credentials committee. Using Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale as his hatchet men, the president forged a paltry "compromise" to seat the Freedom Party delegates as 'guests' The activists, feeling manipulated and betrayed, walked out. Although Congress would pass the landmark Voting Rights Act the next year, these believers lost their faith in the liberal dream of changing the system from within.

 

"Freedom on My Mind" identifies this moment as one precise turning point when the idealism of the early '60s turned sour and the battle lines that would fracture the nation's politics later in the decade first hardened. The Democrats gave up on any chance of harnessing the energy of the increasingly radical'60s youth; the stage was set for the anarchy of Chicago 1968.

 

Meanwhile, of course, ironically, the party lost its Southern base anyway. The fatefully wrongheaded choices of 1964, in other words, set the nation up for the ensuing quarter-century of liberal paralysis and Republican presidential hegemony.

 

"Freedom on My Mind" is full of stirring reminiscences and character sketches-but for today's documentary filmmakers, that's par for the course. What sets it apart is the sophistication and depth of its historical perspective. The film goes beyond providing the portrait of an era; it offers us a fascinating map of a political watershed.

   
     
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