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Fractured youthful idealism

Guest Blogger

Idealistic and motivated, several hundred college students went South in the summer of 1964 to change Mississippi. The students set out to register some blacks to vote and they taught a different kind of black history in Freedom Schools, as Bruce Watson chronicles in “Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy,” released last month by Viking. What has happened to such youthful idealism? Does it still exist? Could something like a Freedom Summer ever occur again? Here, Watson explores the question.

By Bruce Watson

In the summer of 1964, with the Civil Rights movement reeling from bombs, beatings, and a Klan backlash, 700 college students answered a call to courage.

Ignoring their parents’ fears, facing down relentless intimidation and violence, the students volunteered to spend a sweltering summer in the racial hellhole of Mississippi. They registered black citizens, only 7 percent of whom could vote. They formed Freedom Schools where they taught black history and other taboo topics. Working and living with Mississippi’s downtrodden blacks, they broke the back of Jim Crow.

Could anything like Freedom Summer happen today? Could America’s youth, seeing rank injustice on the nightly news, channel their prodigious energy and ideals into a single cause for a single summer?

Probably not. Though the Obama campaign echoed a similar spirit, the splintering of media and messages since 1964 has diluted youthful idealism. Calls to courage now come from dozens of causes – to stop global warming, end dog fighting, clean up the Gulf. However worthwhile, none will receive the jolt that revived the Civil Rights movement in 1964.

Freedom Summer was unique not just for its headline violence but for its timing. With recruitment begun just months after the Kennedy assassination, many applications cited JFK and the need to “honor the memory.” And the issue at hand – the disenfranchisement of an entire group of Americans – was unequivocal.

“You didn’t run into many situations where there was a clear right and wrong,” one volunteer told me. “In this case, ‘right’ seemed very obvious.”

Also obvious was the geography. Injustice can still be found within our borders, but the loudest calls for collective action now come from overseas. Save Darfur. Free Tibet. Given the means, idealists still put themselves in the line of fire. Witness the flotillas that challenged Israel’s Gaza blockade. But an abundance of causes also dilutes leadership.

Freedom Summer was organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Even before the summer of 1964, SNCC’s grassroots members, whom Sarah Palin might mock as “community organizers,” were the “shock troops” of civil rights, enduring arrests, beatings, and “jail with no bail.”

Rather like our Founding Fathers, SNCC’s remarkable generation of black leaders -- Bob Moses, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer -- seems unlikely to come again. How could a single issue draw such talent when Facebook’s “Best of Causes” page reveals two dozen appeals, everything from pit bull rescue to fighting the “global water crisis”?

With its tragic triple murder (Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman) and its full frontal assault on the status quo, Freedom Summer truly changed America. Angered and radicalized by Mississippi, volunteers went home to lead the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and more militant marches for civil rights.

And that August, President Lyndon Johnson ordered his attorney general to “write me the goddamn best, toughest voting rights act that you can devise.” The Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. Within months, 60 percent of Mississippi’s blacks were registered to vote.

“If it hadn’t been for the veterans of Freedom Summer,” Congressman John Lewis told me, “there would be no Barack Obama.” But perhaps with a black president, something unimaginable in 1964, youthful idealism can be better spent on redeeming the world and not just a single cause or state.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  August 2, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: freedom summer; civil rights movement; youthful idealism  
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