Freedom On My Mind

Freedom On My Mind - The Washington Post Weekend
August 12, 1994


    A Fresh Look at 'Freedom' by Desson Howe    

After 30 years, the Mississippi Voter Registration Project-which pitted idealistic college students and underclass blacks against segregationists- seems lost in the expanding rush of 20th-century history-a mere blip of black-and-white archival activity. But "Freedom on My Mind," Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford's elegant, informative documentary, evokes that era with palpable-and alarming-freshness. To sit through this two-hour film is to vicariously experience-or re-experience-a time of courage and fear, empowerment and subjugation, interracial coalition and bitter division.


As we see footage of proto-Afrikaner cops beating black demonstrators with rifle butts, or dragging female activists across the tarmac, the courage it took for African Americans to stand up to such intimidation-and for liberal whites to help organize them-becomes awe-inspiringly clear. To protest for basic civil rights was, for most blacks, as outrageous as flying to the moon. It was infinitely alarming to most of Mississippi's white citizens, who considered this turn of events the work of rabble-rousing feds, liberals and communists. They prepared for invasion-literally.


These political events occurred just as electronic news gathering was coming into its own, and "Freedom" benefits from the extensive historical film material available. Field and Mulford have created an outstanding assemblage of stock footage, which they intercut with informative interviews with black and white activists involved. The result is a compelling, historic combination of film research and oral-tradition that shows the events-and fallout-of Freedom Summer, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to Mississippi to transform the disenfranchised blacks into a political power.


The filmmakers touch on such events around "Freedom Summer" as the deaths of volunteers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney; the cold-blooded execution of Herbert Lee, Mississippi's first black voter, by legislator E. H. Hurst (who had known Lee since childhood); the reaction of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and its unsuccessful attempt to replace their Dixiecrat counterparts at the Democratic National Convention of 1964; and the cultural disparity between the northern white organizers and their black political partners.


Several interviewees stand out. Perhaps the most compelling life story comes from Endesha Ida Mae Holland. When SNCC activists came to her town, she was a prostitute, who had been raped at 11 by a white employer. But after seeing the transformation in other black women she became deeply involved herself, a modern-day Mary Magdalene, as it were. For the first time, she recalls, white people, started looking up into my face, into my eyes." She was terrified during every protest march, but, something just wouldn't let me turn back." Today she's a playwright and college professor of Afro-American and women's history.


Nothing speaks as eloquently as those black-and-white films, however. In one scene, a white cop yanking American flags from black marchers grabs a small Stars and Stripes from a boy. The boy--who looks to be between 8 and 1 years-old--won't let go. The cop jerks the boy violently one way and then another, trying to wrench the flag free. Eventually he succeeds. The child--caught touchingly in a still photograph--wails uncontrollably.


That boy--whoever he is and if he is still alive--must be approaching 40 today. Chances are he remembers that day well. Thanks to "Freedom," we'll remember it too.

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