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Tue June 24, 2014

'Freedom Summer' And 'The Watsons': Powerful TV About A Civil Rights Journey

Originally published on Mon June 30, 2014 2:15 pm

As part of NPR's "Book Your Trip" series, TV critic Eric Deggans looks at a different kind of summertime journey, described in two books that became TV shows: PBS's documentary Freedom Summer, debuting tonight, and The Hallmark Channel's The Watsons Go to Birmingham.

When I was a kid in the mid-1970s, friends around my Indiana hometown talked about summers "down South" like they were heading to Disney World.

The trip was an annual, comforting ritual for black families up North with roots in the Deep South.

But there was a time, just a decade earlier, when traveling down South could mean taking your life in your hands if you were black.

"Spending a summer in Mississippi taught me a lot about this country," says volunteer Karin Kunstler in the first moments of PBS's American Experience documentary Freedom Summer. "My high school social studies teacher taught me that we all have rights. Mississippi summer taught me that we didn't all have rights."

Kunstler was one of more than 700 mostly white student volunteers who headed to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to challenge segregation. Freedom Summer tells the tumultuous, emotional story of that journey, using archival photos and fresh interviews with the participants to re-create one of the most dangerous summertime trips of that time.

Volunteers rode buses from Ohio to Mississippi, where they would live with black families scattered throughout the state.

At first, they felt a joyous excitement known as a "freedom high," says Freedom Summer author Bruce Watson. But then, reality hit home.

"There was a lot of singing, a lot of freedom songs being sung on the bus, until they reached Mississippi," Watson says. "And then, in most cases, the buses were met at the state line by highway patrolmen, who had known, of course, that they were coming. And many volunteer[s] told me that at that point, when they crossed the line, the singing stopped and it got very serious from then on."

Once in Mississippi, volunteers faced another journey, learning to live in the crushing poverty and strict segregation suffered by their hosts.

"It's 100 years of Jim Crow ... that insisted that black people defer to whites in a way that was really shocking to everyone from the North," says Watson. "Black people had to get off the sidewalk if a white person approached; black people were never called by Mr. or Mrs., they were always called by their first name or just 'boy.' All of these things, the degradation and poverty, was really startling to the volunteers, even though they had been told about it."

Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress, was a law student in 1964 who helped develop training programs for Freedom Summer volunteers.

"It's very different, even for a black kid ... going [down South] in '63 or '64," says Norton. "Because then you're going with the civil rights movement in hand. So you're going critical of the environment ... which is something you might not have done in the 1950s."

Norton also saw racist violence up close, when she tried to rescue noted activist Fannie Lou Hamer from a Mississippi jail.

"When I asked to see Miss Hamer, this storied woman leader of the civil rights movement in the South that she was to become, she had been beaten unmercifully by a black trusty," she says. "And [the white prison guards] told him, if you don't beat her [hard enough], we'll see just how you beat her and we're going to beat you even harder."

But even the worst violence, the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, didn't keep volunteers away.

For a less violent, more personal journey, viewers can watch the Hallmark Channel's adaptation of The Watsons Go to Birmingham. It's a story about an unassuming black family caught up in the civil rights struggle while visiting relatives in Alabama — a perfect metaphor for the bitttersweet experience of traveling south back then, according to the book's author, Christopher Paul Curtis.

"When people would discuss about going south, there would be almost this idyllic tone to what they were saying," Curtis says. "And you know that's not quite true, when people are being lynched and you can't have certain jobs and take care of things like that. But I think it's human nature ... [to] gloss over the bad things and remember the good."

In one scene, the parents must tell their children how rules for travel are different in the deep South than in their Michigan hometown, noting they'll be traveling during daylight and exercising care about where they make rest stops.

Curtis says he based such scenes on information he got from older relatives who once traveled in the segregated South. "When African-American people would travel from the North to the South, you had to do a lot of planning beforehand," he adds. "There were actually books that told black people where they could stop, that gave restaurants that were either black owned or would serve black people."

The contrast between both shows is telling. The Hallmark Channel movie features a family who joins the civil rights struggle, almost by accident. PBS's Freedom Summer shows volunteers who deliberately challenged injustice.

But both TV programs also depict another important journey: how the nation was led away from segregation by people willing to take a dangerous stand for equality.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now, some reading that's inspired television programs. As part of NPR's "Book Your Trip" series, TV critic Eric Deggans looks at two books which became TV shows about summertime travel at a turbulent time. The documentary, "Freedom Summer," debuts tonight on PBS, while the Hallmark channel's "The Watsons Go to Birmingham" is available on DVD. Deggans says both shows offer an emotional journey into the depths of America's civil rights struggle.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When I was a kid in the mid-1970s, friends around my Indiana hometown talked about summers down south like they were heading to Disney World. The trip was an annual comforting ritual for black families up north with roots in the Deep South. But there was a time just ten years earlier when traveling down south could mean taking your life in your hands if you were black.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREEDOM SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Hear that freedom train a coming.

DEGGANS: PBS's "Freedom Summer" tells the story of a dangerous journey to challenge segregation.

KARIN KUNSTLER: Spending a summer in Mississippi taught me a lot about this country. My high school social studies teacher taught me that we all have rights. Mississippi summer taught me that we didn't all have rights.

DEGGANS: That's Karin Kunstler, one of more than 700 mostly white student volunteers who headed to Mississippi in the summer of 1964. They rode buses from Ohio to Mississippi where they would live with black families scattered throughout the state. At first, they felt a joyous excitement known as a freedom high, according to the author of "Freedom Summer," Bruce Watson.

BRUCE WATSON: There was a lot of singing - a lot of freedom songs being sung on the bus, until they reached Mississippi. And then, in most cases, the buses were met at the state line by state highway patrolmen who had known, of course, that they were coming. And many volunteers told me that at that point, when they crossed the line, the singing stopped.

DEGGANS: Once in Mississippi, volunteers learned to live in crushing poverty and strict segregation.

WATSON: Black people were never called by Mr. and Mrs. They were always called by their first name or just boy, and all of these things - the degradation, the poverty - was really startling to the volunteers, even though they had been told about it.

REPRESENTATIVE ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: For the white volunteers, and certainly for the sheltered blacks, this was not only an eye-opening but a shock.

DEGGANS: That's Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress. In 1964 she was a law student and civil rights activist who helped develop training programs for the Freedom Summer volunteers. She also saw racist violence up-close when she tried to rescue activist Fannie Lou Hamer from a Mississippi jail.

NORTON: When I asked to see, Ms. Hamer, this storied woman-leader of the civil rights movement in the South as she was to become, she had been beat unmercifully by a black trustee. And they told him that if you don't beat her, we'll see just how hard you beat her, then we going to beat you even harder.

DEGGANS: But even the worst violence, the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, didn't keep volunteers away. For a less violent, more personal journey, viewers can watch the Hallmark channel's adaptation of "The Watsons Go To Birmingham." It's a story about an unassuming black family caught up in the civil rights struggle while visiting relatives in Alabama. A perfect metaphor for the bitter-sweet experience of traveling south back then, according to the book's author, Christopher Paul Curtis.

CHRISTOPHER PAUL CURTIS: When people would discuss about going south, there'd be almost this idyllic tone to what they were saying, and you know that's not quite true when people are being lynched.

DEGGANS: In one scene, the parents must tell their children how rules for travel are different than in their Michigan hometown.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 1: (As character) We left at 5 a.m., so by the time we get to Tennessee, the sun will be up and we can travel in daylight.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 2: (As character) Travel in daylight?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 3: (As character) Just to be safe, traveling in the daylight in the South is what's best for us.

CURTIS: When African-American people would travel from the North to the South, you had to do a lot of planning beforehand.

DEGGANS: Curtis said black families couldn't risk pulling in to a whites-only gas station or restaurant on a long trip.

CURTIS: There were actually books that told black people where they could stop. They gave restaurants that were either black-owned or that would serve black people.

DEGGANS: The Hallmark Channel movie features a family who joins the civil rights struggle almost by accident. PBS's "Freedom Summer" shows volunteers who deliberately challenged injustice. But both TV programs also depict another important journey - how the nation was led away from segregation by people willing to take a dangerous stand for equality. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREEDOM SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) It's an uphill journey, but I'm on my way.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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