Bruce Watson, author of the 2015-2016 The College Reads! book selection – “Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy” – will deliver a lecture about his book at 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, in Sottile Theatre. The event is free and open to the public.
In the following Q&A with The College Today, Watson discusses student activism in 1964 versus today, offers his thoughts on the Emanuel A.M.E. Church shootings and the role of black churches during Freedom Summer.
Q: Do you believe that the same spirit of activism and idealism that motivated hundreds of college students to descend on Mississippi in the summer of 1964 – at great risk to their own safety – still exists among college students today?
A: Yes, I believe there is actually a greater spirit of activism and idealism on campus today than in 1964. Remember that the entire recruitment of Freedom Summer was about 1,000 people – not that many among a whole nation. Today it would be easy to recruit ten times that many IF there were, as in 1964, one single issue that drew all altruistic students. The problem for today’s activists — and it’s the reason so many adults think activism has waned — is that there are dozens of worthwhile causes. Global Warming. Black Lives Matter. Immigration. Education reform. Inequality… Tens of thousands of students are involved in one cause or another, so activism is far from finished.
Q: Your book was selected for The College Reads! program and your visit was arranged prior to the tragic shootings that claimed the lives of nine Charleston citizens at Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17, 2015. What are your thoughts about the Charleston tragedy and the community’s response in the historical context of race relations in the South?
A: Like everyone, I was shocked by the shootings in Charleston. Alas, we have become far too accustomed to mass shootings in America, yet the Emanuel AME Church shootings stood out from the rest. The tragedy reminded us that among the random hatreds in our nation, there still exists a targeted rage, most often based on race. When I wrote Freedom Summer, six years ago, I did not delude myself into thinking that racism or its rage had vanished, but I truly thought it had learned to contain itself. As Mississippi’s own Hodding Carter told me, “What is in the hearts of individuals is one thing, how they now find they must act in public is another. ” Cordiality and tact still seem to guide the vast majority of race relations in America, and it’s a tragedy that a lone individual can negate so much good will. On the other hand, the amazing grace of the victims’ families and the response of the state of South Carolina in recognizing the stark symbolism of the Confederate flag and removing it have shown the resilience of the human spirit in dealing with tragedy and hatred.
Q: The histories of Emanuel A.M.E. Church and many black churches in the South are deeply rooted in the African American community, the abolition movement and the civil rights era. What was the role of black churches in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer?
A: Black churches in Mississippi played a key role in Freedom Summer, but mostly as meeting places. Nearly every volunteer was quickly immersed in a local black church where he/she found more soul than anything encountered back home. Not mere Sunday services but nightly gatherings in small churches kept hopes alive. Freedom songs sung by whole congregations kept fear at bay. However, not many pastors or clergy played key roles in Mississippi’s civil rights movement because, as established members of the community, they had too much to lose. Hence, the Mississippi locals who hosted volunteers, who registered to vote, who became Mississippi Freedom Democrats were mostly independent farmers, sharecroppers, barbers, and cooks whose political involvement did not threaten their livelihoods.
Culminating in Bruce Watson’s visit on Nov. 9, Words and Voices is a series of public events celebrating diversity, community and the power of expression.
Q: For many of today’s college students, the 2016 presidential election will mark the first time they will have the opportunity to cast a vote in a presidential election. Beyond the reading of books such as “Freedom Summer,” what other ways can we better illuminate the connections between the struggles of the civil rights era and the voting rights we have today?
A: First and foremost, vote. It can’t be said enough. Thousands risked their safety, their status, their lives for that right to vote and voter turnout in America remains embarrassingly low. But beyond that single exercise, people should study the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which truly, as my subtitle says, “made America a democracy.” Study the act not only for what it was but for the ways it is currently being challenged. The recent Supreme Court ruling removing many of the Voting Rights Act restrictions was a huge setback. The court was correct in noting that times have changed and that singling out Southern states for scrutiny is unfair. In truth, the challenge to voting rights is nationwide now, and it exists wherever exaggerated charges of “voter fraud” have led to Voter ID laws, shortened registration periods, and other gambits. The target of these laws is the same population excluded from voting prior to Freedom Summer — poor blacks and other minorities. If we are to remain a democracy, access to voting should be expanded, not diminished, and everyone eligible should vote in every election.
Q: Describe a particular moment during your research and/or reporting for “Freedom Summer” when you most felt the weight and profoundness of your book’s subject matter?
A: I’m tempted to mention my visit to Rock Cut Road, the dirt path where Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were killed, but Freedom Summer was about more than its violence. So I recall Fran O’Brien, the young volunteer who taught in a Freedom School in Vicksburg. She told me a story I’ll never forget. Her students were pressing her to teach history so she found an old history book that began “The history of America really begins in England.” After reading that sentence aloud, Fran looked at the black faces before her. She asked where else Americans came from. Hands went up. France? Yes. Italy? Yes. Germany? Of course. Finally, Fran asked the kids, “what about Africa?” And one little girl raised her hand and asked, “Does that count?” With tears in her eyes, Fran assured the little girl that, “yes, Africa counts.” Freedom Summer was as much about making black lives matter as it was about voting, and it’s a struggle that still goes on.
Q: Your bio says you were once an elementary school teacher. What was that experience like, and what effect, if any, did it have on your career as a writer?
A: My eight years as an elementary teacher drew me to the Freedom Schools, which embodied the joy of learning. I spent hours reading through Freedom School newspapers, letters from teachers, and other memorabilia. Freedom School architect Bob Moses had been a teacher before heading to Mississippi, and he has since returned to education with his wonderful Algebra Project. Having been a teacher, I came to see Moses and Freedom School teachers as the unsung heroes of the summer and I gave them as much attention as I could.
Q: What current project or book are you working on?
A: I have a new book coming out that is unlike any I’ve written. It is a “biography,” if you will, of light. It traces the history of human understanding of light, from creation stories to quantum theory. Along the way it touches on almost every discipline we have used to understand light — religion, philosophy, architecture, painting, poetry, and physics. The book is called Light: A Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age and is due out in February. Beyond that, I’m in search of a new book topic. Any ideas, anyone?
Q:What books that you have read have had the most influence on you and why?
A: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina taught me how to tell a story. Catcher in the Rye taught me how to capture a character. Faulkner, especially Light in August, taught me volumes about the Old South. And The Elements of Style taught me to “omit needless words.” I also return frequently to such modern non-fiction models as The Perfect Storm, Praying for Sheetrock and the work of New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.