‘Freedom’ Looks at Civil Rights Fight in Mississippi


As recently as 32 years ago, Mississippi was run as a kind of autonomous, mini-apartheid state within the United States, and there was little the federal government could, or wanted, to do about it.

Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford’s film, “Freedom on My Mind,” for PBS’ “The American Experience” series, and the grand prize winner at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, calmly and clearly tells the story of how a grass-roots movement upended the Mississippi system that held blacks in political and economic binds nearly 100 years after the Civil War.

And to younger viewers in the ‘90s, saturated with media imagery of black-versus-white tensions, the film’s deeper story may sometimes feel like a fairy tale. It really was true that young, idealistic white students from around the country joined Southern black civil rights workers in 1964--and that, with a few hitches, they really did get along.


But before this bright, brief chapter in 1960s politics, things were of a bygone era for black people in the white-run state. Red Heffner, a white, middle-class supporter of civil rights, says the conditions were “like the 17th century,” with a people who were “just plain mean.” Blacks lived in dreadful shotgun shacks, were systematically denied the right to vote--even the right to sit at the lunch counter of their choice.

The newsreel footage here also shows that whites and blacks were living in separate realities. While whites insist that everyone gets along, activist Curtis Hayes describes how he used to go into the woods and beat on trees, imagining they were whites. The aptly named Bob Moses, an organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), arrived in Hayes’ town, and nothing was the same again.

Field and Mulford allow the veterans of this emancipation movement to bare their souls, and many of them describe a Saul-to-Paul spiritual “transformation.” Endesha Ida Mae Holland chuckles now as she talks about her old self as the town floozy, then amazedly tells how she was lifted out of a dead-end life, finding the courage to stand up to local police and accompany blacks to the courthouse for voter registration. Hayes shed his young anger for an impassioned focus, captured in archive footage of him leading his allies in gospel singing.

“Freedom on My Mind” is hardly a substitute for “Eyes on the Prize,” the definitive TV history of the civil rights movement. Rather, it’s a snapshot of a certain time and a certain place when four sets of forces came into dramatically high relief: Poor blacks empowering themselves; poor whites viciously fighting back; progressive young whites volunteering to go into what one describes as “a foreign country”; and a Democratic Party not quite ready in 1964 to bow to grass-roots power and push aside the old Dixiecrats.

Now, the Dixiecrats are in the GOP, the white progressives have grown a paunch, voting rights are a given and the shotgun shacks are still standing. History can be a sad and funny thing.

* “Freedom on My Mind” airs at 9 p.m. tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.