Archived Events, Film



America is becoming more like Mississippi. Or so writes Jamelle Bouie in a recent piece in Slate.

Bouie’s piece highlights recent political and economic polarization in the U.S. as a symptom of large-scale demographic shifts. Recent sociological research finds that white Americans grow more conservative in their views (and distrustful of non-whites) when they’re primed to see themselves as a minority.

Bouie warns, importantly, against a future in which this tendency increases. A politics of “mutual suspicion” between blacks and whites should seem like a relic of the past, but it is increasingly a reality across the US.

This polarization has a history, of course. But to describe the Mississippi of 1964 as “polarized” would risk almost-comic understatement.

In 1964 African-Americans in Mississippi faced intimidation not only at the voting booth, but violence and harassment in nearly every avenue of daily life. Stanley Nelson’s new documentary FREEDOM SUMMER confronts some of the most violent and horrific moments of the era: the murder of civil rights workers and the bombings and burnings of black homes and churches.

But the film also highlights the collective work of civil rights activists across the state that summer. A coalition, led most significantly by SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) coordinated a campaign to register African-American voters, establish freedom schools, and construct an opposition political party to confront the exclusive and all-white Democratic Party.

That opposition, The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, led by activists like Fannie Lou Hamer, functioned as disruptive splinter organization at the 1964 DNC, drawing national attention to the cause.

Not only does FREEDOM SUMMER look to be an affecting record of a violent and heroic time, it can also serve as a kind of primer on effective social activism. SNCC and the MFDP weren’t afraid to work both within and outside of official systems. They practiced a kind of multidimensional politics that both negotiated with unfriendly realities and was uncompromising in its sense of justice.

Further, this was a genuinely multiracial grassroots movement, one that didn’t rely on one group “saving” another, but rather worked cooperatively and effectively toward racial justice in the most segregated state in the South.

Part of remembering civil rights and its legacy as a movement is looking at ways in which these techniques and political practices can be applied today—and being on guard against both racism and racially segregated politics. Such things today are couched in the language of “single issue” politics like voting rights and voter ID law, and larger policy debates surrounding immigration, healthcare, poverty, profiling, and policing. This kind of racism is subtler, but more insidious. Films like Nelson’s help illuminate the history behind today’s political and racial rhetoric.

Nelson, an experienced documentarian, has made films on the civil rights movement before. His excellent 2011 documentary, FREEDOM RIDERS is available for free streaming on WGBH’s website. He has also made films for PBS on the Jonestown massacre, the murder of Emmett Till, the battle at Wounded Knee, and the a capella/gospel/soul/blues group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.

The free screening is the area premier of the film and part of the BIFF Nelson joins UMass Boston scholars Robert Johnson, Jr., Erin O’Brien, and Lisa Rochester for a conversation following the screening.



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