Freedom Summer revisits Mississippi’s voting rights history

Award-winning filmmaker credits his career to those who risked their lives for change


By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

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An oft-overlooked but important part of the Civil Rights Movement is the focus of Freedom Summer, which premiers on American Experience Tuesday, June 24 and will be shown locally on TPT Channel 2 at 8 pm.

Bob Moses, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) local secretary, came up with a plan in 1964 to bring over 700 student volunteers, mostly from the North, to the South for a 10-week stint during the summer to help locals fighting for voting rights for Blacks in Mississippi. That state’s Black registered voters were less than seven percent at that time compared to 50-70 percent in other southern states.

Later known as “Freedom Summer,” the Mississippi Summer Project was also intended “to force the media and the country to take notice of the shocking violence and massive injustice taking place in Mississippi.” Sadly, the country did take notice as, after a week into the program’s start, three volunteers went missing and were later found brutally murdered.

Stanley Nelson Photo courtesy of PBS
Stanley Nelson
Photo courtesy of PBS

Moses, NAACP Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond and U.S. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton are among the 32 individuals filmmaker Stanley Nelson interviews in Freedom Summer. Nelson wrote, produced and directed the documentary.

“The film is almost two hours, and that is a long time for a documentary,” said the award-winning documentary filmmaker last week in an MSR phone interview. “It’s a very, very important story — not only a historical story, but it’s very important now. It is the story about the battle to get African Americans the right to vote.”

The individuals featured in the film, along with countless others, are “brave people” who deserve their place in history, continued Nelson. “They knew their lives were in danger. Many of the people took beatings. Everybody knew what was at stake. But the amazing thing about it is that they did it anyway.”

Nelson admits that it was somewhat easy to get these individuals to talk about what happened 50 years ago. “We have great interviews in the film. Sometimes for me it’s just asking one question and it opens up the floodgates. These were people who weren’t asked a lot [about it].”

This is what he hopes the viewer come away with from watching the film, especially present generation members: “There are two lessons that I would like people to get,” stated Nelson. “One, to understand [that] to have the right to vote — especially for African Americans — we can’t take that lightly on how important that is. I think the bigger thing that I want people to take from it is the fact that we do have power. You see in this film people who aren’t famous, and so many of them risk their lives to make change in this country.”

Nelson has directed 12 documentaries in his career, including Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple and The Murder of Emmett Till, and has produced seven American Experience episodes in all. He emphasized how grateful he is for what was done by these persons a half-century ago, without whom “I would never have been able to do what I’ve done in my life,” he said. “It was through the courage of people in the Civil Rights Movement, like the people we see in Freedom Summer, that allows me to do the things I do.”

PBS has shown many of his works over the years, including Freedom Riders (2009), which re-aired Tuesday, June 17 on PBS. “I think that PBS is the best vehicle for this film,” said Nelson of his latest effort. “They give you the freedom, the time and resources to make a film that will last for ages. PBS is the only network that would allow this to happen.”

Finally, with several states in recent years either enacting or proposing voter suppression legislation, Nelson said it “is more timely and more important than ever that we understand what happened to get the people the right to vote. We need to continue to fight to keep that right.”


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