Written by Don Mitchell
The Freedom Summer Murders is a non-fiction book written by Don Mitchell and was released in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the deaths of three civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964. This event was a pivotal catalyst in the civil rights movement and many people attribute the success of legislation that was passed to protect the rights of individuals in response to racist acts against blacks to the notoriety that the Freedom Summer murders brought to the cause.
This book is geared toward a younger audience (not adults) so it is written in a more basic style and has the feel of a traditional journalistic format for the most part – a lot like reading a newspaper account. The author includes quotes from documentation of the day as well as information from personal interviews and research that he, himself, participated in. Sometimes the terse and unadorned writing style made it a little boring and I didn’t connect with it as much as I would like. But I think the straightforward, uncomplicated method Mitchell uses gives strong credence to everything that he lays out in this book, and emphasizes the factual nature of the incidents.
Although the events are laid out accurately (no shying away from harsh realities), it still treats the situations presented delicately. I think that is a good approach for a younger audience who might not be able to handle detailed descriptions of the violence that occurred. A movie was made in1988 (Mississippi Burning) which was loosely based on this story as well, but the brutality of the events portrayed in the film is definitely not intended for sensitive viewers and would not, in my opinion, be considered a wise option for young people to learn about what took place at that time. But I do like that, although the author is not gratuitous in his depictions, he does make clear the horror and gravity of the actions against the three young men that were murdered.
One departure that Mitchell makes from a straight-up objective, journalistic portrayal is that he is very clear whose side he is on in this case. He demonizes the perpetrators of the crimes and pays honor to the victims. He champions the civil rights cause, not only in the year the murders took place, but also in the country today. He highlights a lot of current and past activists and creates a strong positive sentiment for their cause.
At the end of the book, Mitchell includes several personal stories from people that were involved in the events and I found these very powerful and poignant. I like that he represents not only the citizens who were directly affected by this vicious act, but that he brings to light the circumstances of others who suffered in alternate ways, but who definitely endured suffering nonetheless because of the prejudices of community members and the horrific conduct carried out as a result of those prejudices. I have to say that I found it very sad to realize that similar, and perhaps worse, tragedies took place in that area but were ignored because they were not inflicted on white people. Black people endured a great deal at the hands of bigoted individuals, but those events were never given any recognition.
One thing I didn’t like about this book is the set-up. Mitchell starts with a very glossed over account of the events that took place and then goes back and talks about the three victims to give it a more human element and to help the readers connect with them. He also takes a few side stories here and there that don’t quite work chronologically. Because of the lack of strict chronology, I got a bit distracted and had a harder time becoming engaged in the story up front. I would personally have preferred Mitchell to introduce the men first and then launch into the story of what took place.
I learned a lot reading this book (that’s the point of non-fiction, after all). I was happy to gain more insight into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in America and to learn more of the particular events that shaped it. The most surprising thing I learned is that this fight for rights and justice which I felt like is somewhat removed from my generation is still going on today. While the perpetrators by and large got away with their crime, the mastermind behind the murders was finally sentenced in 2005 for his crimes (although it was a lesser charge of manslaughter). It seems the unjust politics and discrimination of the 1960s is still alive and well in certain areas of the nation. That is pretty distressing.
Overall, this is a very good book. It is a quick read, but with a lot of powerful messages and insights. I think it is a great introduction for youth and adults alike to learn about civil rights and to become aware of the events that occurred during a pivotal time in America’s past. I would recommend it to anyone.
Review by Rachelle Funk, Skyline High School Media Center
Rating: ★★★★✩ (4 stars)
Interest Level: 8-12
The Freedom Summer Murders
Written by Don Mitchell
Release Date: April 29, 2014
ISBN: 9780545477253 (hardcover)