A Conservative’s Ode to Freedom Summer

by Michael Potemra

I grew up hearing, often intoned in a near-incantatory rhythm, the names of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney — three true heroes of the civil-rights movement who risked, and lost, their lives trying to get blacks registered to vote in segregated Mississippi. The Freedom Summer project of 1964 sent white kids down south to advocate for integration. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were just such white kids, a couple of young Jewish men from New York; James Chaney was a young black man from Mississippi. On the night of June 21, 1964, all three of them were murdered shortly after being released from the custody of local police.

As someone who was born less than a month before that event, I to this day find it incredible that such a thing was possible in my lifetime: Less than five decades ago, some people in our country were willing to commit murder to prevent blacks from voting, and thought that that tactic would actually work to prevent integration and respect for civil rights. We know now, of course, that it didn’t succeed — but that sure wasn’t clear at the time.

Prominent conservative writer William Tucker has written a play called Freedom Summer, about this breathtaking and heartening turning point in our nation’s history. The Freedom Summer initiative came shortly before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed, and a year before the Voting Rights Act: Those kids went down to Mississippi — and others, already in Mississippi, stuck out their necks — before they knew that the good guys were going to win. Tucker’s play is a moving account of some people who were heroes, at a time when America was in desperate need of heroes.

This story was very well-known when I was a boy, and today’s young people need to know about it too. There’s a lot of racialist, tribalist thinking in America today; we can all learn a lot from some of the better angels of our nation’s past.

You can learn more about Bill Tucker’s play here. It has already been produced in various venues, and ones hopes it will be produced in more, during next year’s 50th-anniversary commemorations. (For an hour-long DVD of the play, you can send $10 to Acting Out the Past, 160 West Main Street, Stony Point, NY 10980.)