Only 30 years have passed since the epochal Mississippi Voter Registration Project of 1961-64, but that's been time enough for the events to almost disappear from America's consciousness, for the civil rights movement's successes in dislodging blatant segregation to be forced into near oblivion by the extent of the problems between the races that still remain.
So it is an especial tonic to see "Freedom on My Mind," winner of the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury prize, a spirited evocation of a struggle whose enormity we have largely forgotten. Co-directed by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford, this lively documentary underscores how dramatic that battle was, how much was accomplished, and how terrifyingly difficult it was to do.
Unlike public television's "Eyes on the Prize," this is not a general survey of the period but a passionate and personal oral history. It intercuts strong contemporary footage and the pointed singing of spirituals like "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round" with the still-vivid memories of the people the movement transformed, people who unhesitatingly put their lives at risk because of the power of what they believed.
"Freedom" is structured around the recollections of 10 civil rights veterans, but especially evocative are the memories of Mississippi natives like Curtis Hayes of McComb, so infuriated at racism as a child he used to "hit trees, pretend they were white folks." Or sharecropper's daughter L.C. Dorsey, now a Ph.D. in public health, who remembers that her illiterate father had such faith in education he would daily walk her to the school bus stop, shotgun in hand.
Most stirring of all, however, are the memories of Endesha Ida Mae Holland of Greenwood, raped by her white employer on her 11th birthday and afterward a teen-age prostitute. When the civil rights organizers came to town, Holland was first excited at the possibility of "turning tricks with them." But the movement instead became "the beginning of me finding myself," unlocking the possibility of a new kind of life, though it was a life that was to come at a considerable personal cost.
For Mississippi in 1961 was, in one observer's words, a place where "blacks were free in name only," where men could be lynched for "eye rape" and segregationists outdid each other in boasting of their devotion to racial separation. The state, says Bob Moses, was "a little South African enclave within the United States."
Soft-spoken, thoughtful and deeply charismatic, Bob Moses was one of the leaders of the voter registration project, and the experience, especially the loss of life involved, was such a wrenching one for him that he rarely discusses it in public. Moses' wise and careful comments here, putting the past in perspective, are one of "Freedom's" strengths.
The idea behind the movement to register a half-million disenfranchised black voters was that it was the best way to pull a reluctant federal government into the fight for equality. The struggle almost immediately became a brutal one, as segregationists fought back with deadly force and the black community responded with remarkable acts of ordinary heroism that commanded national attention.
To further focus the country's attention, the movement's leadership decided on the controversial strategy of calling on white college students from out of state to help with the work. The idea, as one veteran puts it, was that "if you want to bring law to the South, you have to bring the people the law covers," and that meant Northern whites.
To its credit, "Freedom" does not try to hide the difficulties that strategy caused as people who had never mingled before began to try. And the film's strongest section is a careful look at the rarely examined and traumatic conclusion to the voting rights project, the attempt by the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to unseat that state's segregationist Dixiecrat delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Believing, naively as it turned out, that they had the moral force to "take on the system at the highest level," the MFDP ran up against the machinations of Lyndon Johnson. Apparently fearing that seating the rebels would jeopardize his election chances with the rest of the South, Johnson effectively stymied their movement and in the process, insists Bob Moses, did damage that is still being played out.
"The Democratic Party lost a group of young black people, disillusioned a generation of young white people, and missed the chance to capture the attention and the energy of the generation that set the tone for the '60s," Moses poignantly points out. The result was "a polarization we're not out of yet. It's one of the great tragedies of this country." It is a sobering and provocative conclusion to a stirring piece of documentary work.
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It features a serious treatment of racial and social issues.
'Freedom on My Mind'
Released by Tara Releasing. Directors Connie Field, Marilyn Mulford. Producers Connie Field Marilyn Mulford. Screenplay Michael Chandler. Narrator Ronnie Washington. Cinematographers Michael Chinn, Steve Devita, Vincente Franco. Editor Michael Chandler. Music Mary Watkins. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
* In limited release at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles (310) 478-6379.