“Freedom on My Mind”: A Symphony of Voices for Civil Rights

What’s the problem with talking heads? What other part of the body do critics want to see talking? I’m suspicious of movies that rely on silence as a sign of mystique; all too often they involve depicting the poor or the unschooled as lacking language. In movies, sound and image are equals, and talk is action. Just as with physical action, the efficacy of talk on film depends on a filmmaker’s ability to convey a sense of authenticity, wonder, discovery. The 1994 documentary “Freedom on My Mind,” directed by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford, is a great movie of talk, one in which simply seeing people talking imparts a feeling of thought in motion. (It’s one of TCM’s offerings for Black History Month and is streaming on Max and Vimeo on Demand.) The film is centered on a voting-rights campaign initiated by Black people in Mississippi in 1963, and it brings that campaign to life mainly by way of interviews with more than a dozen participants. The former campaigners speak in detail and with a mighty candor, filling the screen with the overwhelming power of their experiences. The result is a movie that expands the historical record both objectively and subjectively.

Although the events covered by “Freedom on My Mind” had already been extensively reported in the media and studied academically, the film’s dramatic arc feels unplanned, as if Field and Mulford discovered it in the course of their interviews—as if asking, listening, and learning guided them in the selection and deployment of archival footage and the composition of voice-over narration. The screen-bursting presences of many of the participants are as important as the information they dispense; the interviewees bring history to light—and to life. Their testimonies infuse the film with an inner life that’s hard to find in observational news reporting. Intercut with startling archival footage, the interviews lend an extra dimension, that of time, to those scenes, not simply commenting on them but pulling history into the present tense.

The premise on which both the movie and the movement are based is the impact of Jim Crow on the daily lives of Black people and Black communities in Mississippi. In detail, the interviewees relay how segregation entailed much more than separation in areas like housing and schooling—it was a thoroughgoing project of subjugation that denied Black people financial opportunity and political representation and that, at root, was predicated on fear. L. C. Dorsey, a sharecropper turned organizer who later earned a doctorate and became a writer, says, “You learn how to negotiate your life with white folks, and I guess you also learn the fear associated with them, of how much power they actually held over you, how they could determine whether you continue to live or whether you die.” The practice of lynching is only one trace of that systematically sustained vulnerability. Endesha Ida Mae Holland, from Greenwood, Mississippi—who also eventually earned a doctorate and became a professor—tells of being raped, at the age of eleven, by a white man. She didn’t inform her parents, “because they couldn’t do anything about it but get killed if they said something,” but she and other girls would talk in secret, because “it happened very, very frequently.”

Federal desegregation orders and Supreme Court decisions, the movie’s participants say, had little effect on racist oppression in Mississippi. There was already an active underground network of Black activists for civil rights, and there was also an aggressive white backlash. Holland recalls that her house was bombed and her mother was killed not long before the infamous murder of Medgar Evers. “It was like living in a foreign country,” Dorsey says; the state apparatus of courts, police departments, and the like offered “no protection” from crime or violence. Local activists realized that they needed the aid of national ones, because it would force the federal government to get involved; they approached Bob Moses, a key representative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Curtis Hayes, of McComb, Mississippi, who was part of the group that met with Moses, says that “this strategy was explained to the feds, to the Kennedy boys, and they bought into that.”

At the time, Mississippi brazenly imposed absurdly difficult voting-qualification tests on Black people, and even physically blocked courthouse doors to prospective Black registrants. The SNCC, the N.A.A.C.P., and other civil-rights groups joined forces as the Council of Federated Organizations, in an effort to organize voter registration for Black people throughout the state. A key part of that mission involved bringing in white volunteers, from outside the South, to help. “If a young Black from Mississippi were to get arrested, put in jail, that’d be that,” a white volunteer named Marshall Ganz explains. “But if one of us got arrested or put in jail, well, there’d be Senator So-and-So on the phone and Congressman So-and-So on the phone, the New York Times calling, and that’s what it meant to really bring the law to the South.” As Pam Chude Allen, a white woman who was then a student at Carleton College, recalls, her involvement would get members of her family and neighborhood to pay attention to what was happening in Mississippi; and, as Len Edwards, another white activist, notes, “the Mississippi summer was a media summer.”

The encounters proved transformative for Black and white activists alike. Holland says that she and the other local Black activists had never eaten at a table with white people before the volunteers arrived, and that she’d never addressed white people—even children—without the honorific “Miss” or “Mister.” Dorsey was struck by the behavior of whites—“how they were courteous and polite, and how they didn’t talk down to you; there was no fear associated in talking to them.” The SNCC came up with a plan to organize “freedom schools” along with the voter-registration drives. The volunteers brought books “by the truckloads,” Dorsey says; Holland remembers reading a book by Richard Wright and thinking, “Well, do you mean Black folk can actually write books?” For Dorsey, this educational element was vital in the Black community’s project of “overcoming the low self-esteem” that had been its legacy. The schools were a new education for white activists, too. Allen taught “Negro history” at a freedom school, and recalls, “I went to one of the best liberal-arts colleges in the country, and I did not know this information.” Another white activist, Heather Booth, mentioned that she “grew up believing that the police were your friends”; the Black activist Victoria Gray Adams responded, “Well, dear, I never, ever, at any time thought the police was my friend.”

The group’s voter-registration drives were dangerous, and the Black activists knew it; they even organized, with their white comrades, a sort of martial-arts training. Just how dangerous it was soon became clear, when three voter-registration workers—James Chaney, a Black man from Meridian, Mississippi, and two white men from New York, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—disappeared. (Their bodies were found six weeks after their disappearance.) Addressing a meeting of activists shortly after the men went missing, Moses proceeded from the assumption that the three men were dead and, as Ganz recalls, that other volunteers would likely die in the course of the summer—a foreboding that, fortunately, proved wrong.

Throughout the documentary, Field and Mulford display a practical wisdom, an ethical aesthetic, in their approach to filming their subjects, who are interviewed not on the neutral ground of studios but in spaces of their own—homes, offices, or other settings where, to all appearances, they feel at ease, and which reflect their lives and activities. It’s as if those spaces are themselves part of the history that the movie unfolds. “Freedom on My Mind” conveys an earnest sense of actual and personal encounters, of people revealing their personalities along with the passions and agonies of their experiences both before and during the civil-rights movement. It also, with its multiple voices intertwined in what it’s tempting to call a chorus of soloists, emphasizes the essential collective nature of activism—the complex negotiations and the intense interpersonal relationships, the wide spectrum of calculations and emotions from which practical politics are forged. This is particularly the case when the focus moves from Mississippi to New Jersey, specifically Atlantic City, where the Democratic National Convention was held in August, 1964. The campaigners mounted an extensive grassroots campaign in order to challenge the Party’s official all-white delegation with an alternative group of delegates, representing what they called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

The effort involved meetings that rose from precinct to county to state levels and led to a showdown on the national stage. In Atlantic City, the movie sheds a light on the intricacies of backroom power at the highest levels of American politics. These are embodied by the attorney Joseph Rauh, who represented both the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the United Auto Workers, and who bears fascinating yet appalling witness to the compromises that emerged from that historic effort—and the calamitous consequences of business as usual. It’s startling when Moses, as visionary as he is charismatic, describes the Democratic Party’s need, in 1964, to “lay the foundation for building another base” in lieu of the “white, Southern, racist” one that had long sustained it—a new base that would enlist and empower young activists (Black and white, poor and not) in the Party. He draws a distinct line from the failure of that effort to what he calls the country’s enduring “polarization.” The story that he tells is a surprise, one that differs sharply from the familiar, optimistic myth that culminates in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Moses’s tragic vision appears all the clearer now, thirty years after this film was made: the polarization has only intensified and threatens to take the country back to the injustices that prevailed sixty years ago. ♦

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