Interview: Bruce Watson

Bruce Watson

In the summer of 1964, several hundred white college students—nearly half from Ivy and other top schools—risked their lives by joining with young blacks on a civil rights crusade in Mississippi. Led by Bob Moses, 25, the soft-spoken black field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), they registered black voters and opened schools. “I’ve waited eighty years for you to come,” the gray-haired son of a slave told one volunteer. Bruce Watson recreates the story of that historic summer–including the search for missing volunteers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, whose bodies were later found buried under a dam–in Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy, just out in paperback. A 1976 graduate of UC Berkeley, Watson earned a master’s degree in American history at the University of Massachusetts.  He has worked as a factory hand, a journalist, a bartender, an office temp, a Peace Corps volunteer, and an elementary school teacher.  His books include Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, one of the New York Public Library’s “25 Books to Remember in 2005”; and Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, The Murders, and The Judgment of Mankind, which was nominated for an Edgar Award.  Watson writes frequently for Smithsonian and other publications.

RWR: Why is this story important?

Watson: The story of Freedom Summer is vital to understanding the grassroots orientation of the civil rights movement.  Too often, that movement is encapsulated in the heroism of two people — Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.  Not to take anything away from them, but the Movement was so much deeper and broader.  The sit-ins and Freedom Rides, the Birmingham movement, the Selma march in ’65 are often the next level of understanding many arrive at, but Freedom Summer shows us yet another side of the Movement.  It teaches us about SNCC and its incredibly heroic organizers who sought out the toughest territories, who worked not to claim the spotlight but to shine it on ordinary people, and who, at least until 1966, welcomed whites into the movement.  Freedom Summer suggests that we do not need to wait for another MLK or Rosa Parks in order to work for change.

700 students volunteered.

RWR: Who dreamed up Freedom Summer?

Watson: No one is sure who dreamed up the idea but it probably stemmed from [liberal activist] Al Lowenstein’s observations of parallel elections in South Africa.  He returned from that divided country with the idea of bringing Northern students to Mississippi to help with a parallel election SNCC called the Freedom Vote.  That was in the fall of ’63 and opens my book.  From there, the idea grew to bring hundreds of students south the next summer.  Bob Moses threw his support behind the plan and, over strong opposition, SNCC went ahead with it.


RWR: What was your biggest challenge in writing the book?  The biggest surprise?

Watson: The biggest challenge and the biggest surprise both came from the amount of violence in Mississippi that summer.  I had not known of the daily beatings and attacks, and when I read them in the long list carefully compiled by COFO (The Council of Federated Organizations) I was numbed.  It was like reading a police blotter.  Man beaten with bicycle chain.  Volunteer slugged.  Church burned.  Day after day.  The challenge was to present the violence without soft-pedaling it, but at the same time not have the book numb readers.  I managed to group the violence into portions of each chapter while keeping a focus on the hope and courage of the volunteers who were persisting in spite of the danger.


RWR: Where did the money for Freedom Summer come from? Were foundations involved?

Watson: Contributions came from large and small donors.  But although SNCC was skilled at fund-raising, donating to that “radical” group wasn’t something major foundations were likely to do.  The National Council of Churches bankrolled the training in Ohio and took a lot of flak for it.  Harry Belafonte gave fund-raising dinners.  SNCC had a group called the Freedom Singers who toured the country in a beat-up station wagon giving benefit concerts.  SNCC put ads in The New York Times and elsewhere and donations from $1 up came in from all over the country.


RWR: You dedicate the book to the volunteers of that summer. What makes such volunteers special?  What were your impressions of those you interviewed who have now grown old? Are they still idealists?

Watson: Actually, the book is dedicated not just to Freedom Summer teachers and volunteers but to “all the teachers and the volunteers giving of their time, compassion, and spirit.”  My mother was a teacher for 27 years, I taught for 10, and I know how vital and difficult the work is.  Volunteers in general are special because they go beyond our market-driven economy to give of themselves.  Freedom Summer volunteers were still more special because they made that commitment in the face of violence and murder.  I interviewed 50 for the book, including Bob Moses and other SNCC veterans.  All remain idealists, but embattled and wizened idealists, and nearly all are still engaged in some kind of work for social change, whether it’s law, teaching, politics, or writing.


RWR: What is Bob Moses doing now?

Watson: Moses continues to direct The Algebra Project, an inner-city based higher math enrichment program he founded in the 1980s.  It has since spread to a dozen or so cities.  For a long time, Moses went with it, demonstrating his “hands on” curriculum that makes algebra more understandable, and above all, modeling the idea that math matters.  In the 1980s and ’90s, he spent a lot of time back in Mississippi, working with teachers and students.  Now, at 75, he is a professor emeritus at Florida International University in Miami.  But he still goes to many conferences, both on education and on civil rights.

Bob Moses

RWR: How did you first make contact with that summer’s volunteers?  Were all the people involved in the story (law enforcement, etc.) willing to talk?

Watson: Making contact was pretty easy.  I put out a message on the SNCC Listserve, then consulted lists of volunteers on the Civil Rights Veterans website (  I never had anyone say they didn’t want to talk to me, including an 82-year-old sheriff from the 1960s with whom I spoke in Cleveland, MS.


RWR: The stories of four particular volunteers serve as a thread for your book.  Why?  Did you plan from the start to do that?

Watson: When you have a story that has hundreds of characters, it can become baffling and impersonal.  So I decided to focus intermittently on four (at first I was going to do six).  I was very lucky to find the four I did, not just because of their diverse backgrounds and experiences in Mississippi but because all were very patient and cooperative, and three of the four turned out to have letters and journals from that summer.


RWR: Congressman Barney Frank, who was a volunteer that summer, told you: “I am prouder of being there than of anything else in my life.”  How common is that feeling among volunteers when they look back on their lives?

Watson: I think almost all volunteers, especially as they get older, are enormously proud of having stood up for justice against incredible odds.  They may have come away that summer feeling they accomplished little, but they have come to see the long arc of justice that MLK talked about, and take much pride in having been so brave and socially conscious at such a young age.


RWR: The volunteers did not register as many voters as they had hoped. Nor did they unseat Mississippi’s all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.  So was Freedom Summer a success?

Watson: I think it was a success, as much for the notoriety it brought Mississippi as for any concrete accomplishments.  Because of the three murders that happened on the first day of summer, the media spotlight lit up Mississippi throughout the summer and beyond.  Prior to Freedom Summer, only the most drastic crimes, such as the gunning down of Medgar Evers in ’63, made national news.  I know because I looked on newspaper databases for the murder of Herbert Lee, the murder of Louis Allen, and the starvation tactics against blacks in the Delta, and they were far from front page news.  After Freedom Summer, Mississippi’s violent resistance to civil rights was never again ignored.  It even came out in movies such as “In the Heat of the Night,” and in stereotypes that the state is, alas, still trying to live down long after they no longer apply.

They disappeared the first day.

RWR: You call the summer’s legacy “embattled.”  How so?

Watson: Not everyone in SNCC favored bringing students down, fearing the grassroots aspects of their work there would be swept away by white students taking charge.  To some extent, they were right, and some who opposed the summer still think it would have been better to have “gone the other way,” as one told me.


RWR: You’ve been widely praised for telling this story in a vivid, evenhanded way.  Yet one major reviewer said you make a hero of Bob Moses.  How do you respond to that?

Watson: Guilty, as charged.  First of all, I have no problem with making heroes out of those who deserve it.  We need heroes and history is a better place to find them than sports or Hollywood.  And historical heroes need not be found solely on battlefields or in politics.  Secondly, although many a hero has turned out to have feet of clay, I have never heard the slightest suggestion that Bob Moses has ever been anything less than a genuine American hero.  His soft-spoken, self-effacing style prevents him from being better known, but all Americans should learn of what he and SNCC did.


RWR: Your last three books have been about critical moments for the American left—the 1912 textile strike, the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and now Freedom Summer 1964.  Whence your interest in such subjects?  Each story has been told in other books: what do you bring to them as a writer and historian?

Watson: I take exception to the idea that my books are about ”progressive” or “leftist” moments.  I think the moments I have focused on are quintessential American stories.  That they have been neglected by all but the left or progressives says much about who tells history in our society.  I am drawn to them because I’m one of those old-fashioned Americans who took what they taught us about the nation’s ideals quite seriously.  In the 1980s, I spent three and a half years as an expatriate, quite angry at America and what it had become.  I was in the Peace Corps for the latter 2 1/2 of those years and as I prepared to return, I decided to dive into American history to find “a usable past.”   My dive led me to times when our nation’s values have been held up against the prevailing wind by courageous Americans who thought liberty and justice should be, as the saying goes, for all.  These people provided more than just heroism, however.  They made for great stories.

-Joseph Barbato

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