Amid all its gloss and giddiness, summer TV can also deliver some important documentaries. Consider "The Sixties," Thursdays on CNN: June 19 eyed Vietnam; June 26 has civil rights. Or consider PBS: A week after rerunning "Freedom Riders," it has the debut (9 p.m. June 24) of the superb "Freedom Summer," by the same filmmaker. Here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
Fifty years ago this month, young people – college students,
mostly – plunged into the unknown.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” recalled Linda
Wetmore Halpern, then a 19-year-old from Massachusetts and now a teacher,
featured in PBS’ “Freedom Summer” documentary.
A previous venture – registering voters in Raleigh, N.C,
during spring break – was jolting, she said. “This was 1964 and you still had
‘white’ and ‘colored’ drinking fountains?”
But now she was heading into Mississippi; it was, filmmaker
Stanley Nelson said, a place that even activists avoided. “The rest of the
civil rights movement was saying, ‘Don’t go to Mississippi. You have to talk
about Mississippi from the outside. If you go to Mississippi, they will kill
Dave Dennis knew the risks. Now a lawyer and educator, he
grew up as a sharecropper’s son in Louisiana. “We were taught … that even
looking white people in the eye” was dangerous.
Fears had grown in 1955, he said, when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old
visiting from Chicago, was killed after reportedly flirting with a white
woman. “People talked to us in the
churches about: ‘If you see a white woman, just cross the street.’”
In 1961, Dennis followed Bob Moses into Mississippi,
establishing a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in what was considered
the most dangerous state for civil rights workers. This was a state, the film
says, in which blacks who tried to register to vote faced imposing literacy
tests (at the whim of the clerk) and repercussions; some lost their jobs and
Three years later, “freedom summer” sent about 1,000
Northerners to register voters and lead “freedom schools.” The danger was soon
clear: On June 16, a small-town church, planned as a freedom-school site, was
burned down; on June 21, three young civil rights workers, visiting the church’s
parishioners, disappeared. Their bodies were found 44 days later.
“In the couple years I’d been in Mississippi,” Dennis said, “I
actually lost about 19 people who had been killed, many of them local people in
the movement.” As one of the speakers at the memorial service, he was asked to
avoid strong emotions.
“I’m looking out at this crowd,” he said, “and I’d gone to a
number of funerals over the past few years and so I just began to feel all of
this anger, disappointment …. It was all just impromptu, just came out.”
Years of pain and frustration emerged. His passionate speech
was rerun often by the news and seen as a turning points. Registrations soared.
The next year, the Voting Rights Act was passed; and 50 years later, TV is
revisiting a perilous summer.
“American Experience: Freedom Summer,” 9-11 p.m.
Tuesday, PBS (check local listings)
More on civil rights: PBS precedes it at 8 p.m.
with a rerun of “The March,” eying the 1963 march on Washington; at 9 p.m.
Thursday, CNN’S “The Sixties” has “A Long Walk to Freedom”