Freedom On My Mind

Freedom On My Mind - The Village Voice
June 28, 1994


    Freedom Then by J. Hoberman

Opening at Film Forum to mark the 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the feature doc "Freedom on My Mind" recounts the drama of the Mississippi Voter Registration Project with a focused intensity that's alternately sobering and exhilarated.


The civil rights movement was a real-life analogue to the ponderous biblical spectaculars with which America congratulated itself in the 1950s. If the fight against segregation provided the most clear-cut moral combat in our postwar history, Mississippi was that struggle's most dangerous arena-"a state like no other," the voiceover tells us, "a kind of little South African enclave...the battleground for the South's last stand."


Unlike Henry Hampton's epic "Eyes on the Prize," "Freedom on My Mind" is less an overview than an oral history. Abetted by some remarkable archival footage, its subjects recollect the conditions of their childhood and the transformations of their youth. The film's central presence is Bob Moses- the amazingly coolheaded and low-keyed Harlem-born Harvard graduate, who taught math at Horace Mann before relocating to Mississippi in 1961 to coordinate the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The protagonists, however, are his disciples- children of sharecroppers and domestics, a young prostitute, and the white college students whose lives were changed through their work with SNCC.


"They looked so magnificent," Curtis Hayes remembers thinking of the Freedom Riders when he saw them first on television in the early '60s. "Freedom on My Mind" is a similar source of essential imagery. White mobs scream as U.S. Marshalls escort a black child into a segregated school, a five-year-old cries as a beefy cop snatches the American flag out of his fist; dignified church matrons march toward a mass arrest. That the Mississippi Delta is also an appropriately primal American landscape is reinforced by the bottleneck guitar and wailing harmonica that underscore the black-and white newsreel footage of sultry main streets and dirt-floor shacks.


As the civil rights bill was debated in Congress, Mississippi segregationists ran amok, staging open Klan rallies and committing unpunished murders-an NAACP official shot point-blank by a white state legislator who'd known him from boyhood, Medgar Evers assassinated by a sniper...30 years later the perp was convicted. Blacks were unprotected in what was essentially a foreign country; Moses planned to draw more attention to Mississippi by bringing a thousand Northern college kids to help with the registration drive. (Local police armed themselves for "self defense" against 50,000 "invaders," but a secondary drama concerns the culture shock experienced by the white students and the people of Mississippi, black and white).


Freedom Summer began with the passage of the civil rights bill-held up by the longest filibuster in American history-and the disappearance of the civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwemer. The summer climaxed, two weeks after their bodies were discovered in a Mississippi swamp, at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, where, as the representative of 80,000 newly registered Mississippi voters, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged-the credentials of the state's segregated official Democrats.


Once Lyndon Johnson eliminated Robert Kennedy as a possible running mate, the MFDP provided the convention's only drama. "Freedom on My Mind" shows the optimistic MFDP delegates singing, lobbying, and camping out under pictures of the three martyrs- even displaying their burnt-out station wagon on the boardwalk. LBJ unsuccessfully tried to preempt testimony given by the indomitable Fannie Lou Hamer, then assigned Hubert Humphrey to defuse the situation. (Humphrey delegated the dirty work to his protege Walter Mondale.) A paternalistic compromise was rejected by both delegations. The whites walked out and the MFDP staged a bitter demonstration by temporarily filling their empty seats.


The makers of " Freedom on My Mind" blame the failure to seat the MFDP for the whirlwind that followed--a montage of demos, riots and Black Power salutes--as if the storm weren't already evident. Alabama's governor, George Wallace, had run strongly in the Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland primaries as the personification of white "backlash." Senator Barry Goldwater, the leading non-Southern opponent of the Civil Rights Act, was the Republican nominee; there were racial disturbances that summer in New York Rochester, Jersey City, and Philadelphia. The failure to assimilate the MFDP presaged the schisms that would convulse the '68 and '72 Democratic conventions.


Because Freedom Summer was also an ongoing media event, "Freedom on My Mind" adds another chapter to that celluloid Boomerography that has been a distinct part of Clinton Culture. While Maverick was fading when Bob Moses left for Mississippi, the prime-time heyday of The Flintstones--presenting suburban white America as a page out of prehistory--coincided with that of the civil rights movement.


"Freedom on My Mind" recalls the vivid images of violent injustice, the gutsy idealism of civil rights organizers, and the seemingly innocent fervor of the aroused black underclass, which re-energized the American left. It hardly seems coincidental that Connie Field (maker of "The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter") and Marilyn Mulford are both veterans of Vietnam-era newsreel collectives. In more ways than one, "Freedom on My Mind" is about their roots as well.

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