Monday, 20 October 2008

Behind the Songs: Here's to the State of Mississippi

"For underneath her borders, the devil draws no line
If you drag her muddy river, nameless bodies you will find
The fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes
The calender is lyin' when it reads the present time"
--Phil Ochs, "Here's to the State of Mississippi" (1964)

We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi

We Are Not Afraid is a story of high drama, indeed, true crime, replete with outsize heroes and villains, as well as a definitive account of the civil rights campaign in Mississippi that stands today in retrospect as a veritable beacon of brotherhood. The authors' meticulous retelling of the murder of civil rights martyrs Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney is a triumph for its sheer readability, for its pace, and for its suspense.

But most remarkable, perhaps, is the book's recapturing of those times in 1964. It was an amazing time, when whites, a majority of them northern college students, converged on Mississippi to help blacks win their voting rights and access to public places. Cagin and Dray marvelously re-create the environment and circumstances of the Mississippi Summer Project and freedom summer, the sit-ins, the terrifying encounters between southern blacks and the white police. It meant the opening up, finally, of the last redoubt of prejudice, Mississippi.

The great distinction of their work is its quality of definitiveness, one's sense that the massive research and interviews the authors conducted have eventuated in not only a great story but an essential history. Here is, after all, a story of success, the belated triumph of the American constitutional system to secure for blacks the guarantees of equal protection under the law, due process, the Bill of Rights, and most fundamentally, the ballot.

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