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BOOK REVIEW: 'Risking Everything: A Freedom Summer Reader,' edited by Michael Edmonds

Terri Schlichenmeyer | 7/23/2014, 3 p.m.
You've probably heard that all your life and it's true: a lot of people have come before you to smooth ...

c.2014, Wisconsin Historical Society Press

$18.95/higher in Canada

244 pages

You stand on the shoulders of giants.

You’ve probably heard that all your life and it’s true: a lot of people have come before you to smooth your path. You benefit from their work, efforts, and their struggles – but you probably don’t think about it much.

Or maybe you don’t know about it. But read the new book “Risking Everything,” edited by Michael Edmonds, and you’ll learn.

Not long ago, when a volunteer expressed surprise at what he discovered about the civil rights movement, historian Michael Edmonds realized that the young man only had “a children’s book understanding … a sanitized version …” of the movement.

It’s an understanding that many Americans have. This book seeks to remedy that in a small, but monumental, way.

Fifty-four years ago, 42 percent of Mississippi’s citizens were Black, yet 90 percent of eligible African Americans could not vote. The prevailing attitude in Mississippi then was single-minded: “white-only.”

In the winter of 1963-64, after “much discussion,” the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee decided to move forward with plans for voter registration in the state. They initially called it the Mississippi Summer Project but it later became known as Freedom Summer. Volunteers included about 1,000 college students, most of them white Northerners; clergy, lawyers, and medical personnel.

When opponents heard what was coming to Mississippi, they “swung into action.” Laws were passed to make most forms of protest illegal. Local and state police “beefed up their arsenals; Jackson even bought a tank,” says Edmonds. Black citizens who participated in the program endured harassment and threats; racist groups held “sessions” on how to murder and dispose bodies without leaving evidence. And still, volunteers persevered by holding voter registration classes, by starting and running Freedom Schools and establishing libraries, and by continuing to hold meetings to foster “enthusiasm for the program in the Negro community.”

But just nine weeks after it started, the Mississippi Summer Project ended. Organizers, says Edmond, were “exhausted, disappointed, and angry” because they felt that little had been done and white supremacy was “as deeply entrenched as ever.” What they didn’t know, however, was that they “had actually accomplished more than … leaders could appreciate at the time.” They had “awakened sleeping giants.”

When I first started “Risking Everything,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. The cover gives almost nothing away; in fact, it’s a little bland.

Not so, with what’s inside.

Through eyewitness reports and information from more than 40 documents, editor Michael Edmonds brings readers an in-the-trenches look at Freedom Summer in a way you’ll never get from any class. Included are letters home from Freedom workers, training manuals, essays, testimonies, transcripts, photographs, and curriculums; as Edmonds himself says, “No punches are pulled.”

And that’s what makes this an excellent book: it’s both a paean to those who did their jobs that summer, and as education to anyone who’s too young to remember what happened 50 years ago. And if that’s you – in either case – then you’ll like this book. For you, “Risking Everything” is a giant eye-opener.