Freedom Summer Narratives

Discrimination, segregation, and violence in Mississippi became subjects of national fascination during the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. One of the project’s goals was to focus national attention on the injustices African Americans faced in the state and on the experiences of activists fighting those injustices. At least five very different books were published shortly after Freedom Summer to document their authors’ responses to Freedom Summer and more broadly to describe Mississippi at a dramatic moment in its history: Three Lives for Mississippi (1965) by William Bradford Huie, The Summer That Didn’t End (1965) by Len Holt, Stranger at the Gates by Tracy Sugarman (1966), Mississippi Notebook (1964) by Nicholas Von Hoffman, and Letters from Mississippi (1965), edited by Elizabeth Sutherland. Written by journalists and activists sympathetic to the project, these books used a documentary style to convey the drama of the fight, the enormity of the oppression black Mississippians faced, and the zeal of the activists. All of the authors were not from Mississippi.

Despite their different points of focus and styles of documentation, all of the books suggested that conditions in Mississippi were part of a larger national issue. Huie argued, “We must see the link between a rotting shack in Mississippi and a rotting America,” and Holt agreed, writing that the racial discrimination so obvious in Mississippi was present in different forms in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities: “For the worse, not for the better, Mississippi is America.” A northern student quoted in Letters from Mississippi wrote home, “Has everybody in the U.S. asked himself—asked himself! am I prejudiced? Asked himself persistently until he arrives at that prejudice that is inevitably there by the nature of our society?”

Sugarman was a New England illustrator who traveled with the young northern activists from Oxford, Ohio, to Mississippi to contribute his artistic talent to the movement. Stranger at the Gates contains sketches of scenes he encountered deep in the Delta, showing meetings, homes, and faces. He sought to convey physical sensations: the dirt floors of the homes of Delta farmworkers, the dripping of leaky faucets, the hostile stares of white Mississippians driving by in pickup trucks, and the heat of the Delta summer.

Mississippi Notebook consisted of a collection of snapshots and fragmented images from Freedom Summer. Von Hoffman used short, three- to four-sentence paragraphs to create subtle portraits of Mississippians. The book opened with black and white photographs of African Americans taken by Henry Herr Gill, while the text began with a vivid image: “Devil’s Dust, the little wind-stirred geysers of dry earth that blow up between rows of cotton plants, puff here and there across the fields.” He moved from the land to the people on it, their expressions, and their words, and he recorded overheard conversations, interviews, and numerous physical images. Perhaps above all, he portrayed activists’ and African Americans’ feelings of fear.

The missives published in Letters from Mississippi were written by northern activists working in the state and collected by the Mississippi Project Parents Committee, and the book sought to inspire support for the activists and their cause. The correspondence begins with preparations in Oxford, Ohio, and moves chronologically through the summer, offering accounts of travel to Mississippi; volunteers’ first experiences living in African American communities; efforts to register voters and teach schools; difficulties with law enforcement officials and other white supremacists; concerns about the disappearances of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County and later reflections on their murders; the details of office work; the political efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; and reflections on their Mississippi activism, its challenges, and its shortcomings. Most of the writers were white college students, and their first names were included, though their surnames were not. Many letters showed a youthful earnestness and great respect for fellow activists who had spent more time in Mississippi. Many volunteers found conditions worse than they had imagined: one activist wrote, “I really cannot describe how sick I think this state is.” Some letters were humorous; others revealed fears about safety, about the work’s effectiveness, and about romanticizing the experience.

Huie, a novelist, screenwriter, and author of several nonfiction works, faced the difficult challenge of writing about a murder investigation as it took place. Three Lives for Mississippi included considerable information about the lives and work of Chaney, Goodman, and especially Schwerner as well as about their murders and the subsequent investigation and trial. He summed up the enormity of the issue early in the book: “For most normal human beings, including those in Mississippi, much of what follows will be incomprehensible.” To address such an issue, he used an abundance of quotes, included diagrams showing the details of the murders, and thoroughly described the trial of the accused perpetrators.

Holt, who described himself as a “Negro lawyer,” offered a more straightforward account of the Mississippi Summer Project, beginning with the Neshoba County murders and continuing through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Federated Organizations, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and other groups; the Freedom Schools; the so-called White Folks’ Project; and the Democratic National Convention. Holt included a great deal of primary source material—newspaper and trial reports, demands of activists, school curricula, and policy papers.

Further Reading

  • Len Holt, The Summer That Didn’t End (1965)
  • William Bradford Huie, Three Lives for Mississippi (1965)
  • Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez, ed., Letters from Mississippi (2002)
  • Tracy Sugarman, Stranger at the Gates (1966)
  • Elizabeth Sutherland, ed., Letters from Mississippi (1965)
  • Nicholas Von Hoffman, Mississippi Notebook (1964)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Freedom Summer Narratives
  • Caroline Millar
  • Author Ted Ownby
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date February 27, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018