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50th Anniversary (In Celebration?)

Mississippi Freedom Summer

by NORMAN POLLACK

Looking back a half-century, I don’t ask myself, “Was it worth it?” At the time we felt the exhilaration, commitment, dedication, knowing the civil rights movement was America at its finest, a small but highly meaningful step in the cause of humanity in which we were privileged to participate. America was doing to its black population, and had been throughout the course of the nation’s history, what it is presently doing to the world: tearing down democracy into shreds, brutalizing people, retarding their growth, superimposing on their lives a paradigm of superiority to which they must, on pain of death, economic dislocation, degradation, readily conform. What we did to ourselves we then projected on the world at large.

Mississippi circa 1964 was Vietnam then, Iraq and Afghanistan later: the steady administration of lascivious force, purposeless humiliation–because we had the power to do so—of others, for systemic ends lost sight of in the long-term obfuscation of meaningful societal conditions and political vocabulary used to describe them. The equation of democracy and capitalism in which they became reciprocally defined, yet democracy wholly subsumed within capitalism, incapable of modifying and in fact extending it, became the overriding political-economic-ideological context through which democracy itself has been transvalued into its opposite: a highly unequal, authoritarian society. So goes Mississippi 1964, so goes America before, then, and since. Democracy is therefore consonant with both the characteristics and practices of capitalism, without sufficient internal criticism to alter what has been an indissoluble connection: characteristics (a hierarchical class system, poverty for a significant number the structural given) and practices (war, intervention, massive “defense” budgets, surveillance now on a heretofore undreamed of scale). These developments in both cases have been conflated into a mush of miasmic false consciousness to the extent that hierarchy, poverty, war are treated as by definition inherently present in democracy. They are democracy in action, capitalism the presiding matrix lost sight of in the process. We have then the reification and presumed cross-fertilization of democracy and capitalism, an unshakable ideological nexus, which historically gives license to the idea of Exceptionalism, an artifice of induced social myopia mentally chaining Americans to the aggressions, at home and abroad, done in their name.

***

In celebration? Why the question mark? Nothing can tarnish the quest for social justice it was not only our privilege but solemn obligation to follow. That was then, now is now. Was it worth it? Emphatically yes. But if I knew Barack Obama would be the seeming culmination of the civil-rights struggle, I would have persisted (there was no other choice!), yet turned sharply in criticism once it became apparent (as I did) of the BETRAYAL of the dream. Racial solidarity, that which accounts for most blacks giving Obama a free pass, indeed, taking pride in his and presumably their “arrival,” so to speak, is a particular form of false consciousness. Perhaps understandably, it is rooted in the historical dynamics of racial oppression, so that cheering on one’s own is perfectly natural. Yet, in this case it proves debilitating, a misplaced trust in the hope a black president, by distilling the knowledge and even the experience of the cruelties directed against the race, would champion social justice for all, generalizing conditions of oppression as a MANDATE for realizing across-the-board equalitarianism in the social order.

This did not happen. Instead, Obama has reversed the historical process of societal democratization. Not only has he taken personal flight from a black identity, except when it suited his political purposes, but he has taken flight from the implied social contract upon which his election was predicated, that of (in the image of Dr. King) promoting the welfare of working people and the poor, an emancipation from politically-economically constructed hardship beyond race as such and related to systemic foundations having relevance to war and intervention, as well as reducing inequitable domestic policies intensifying wealth-concentration, corporate dominance of public policy, environmental spoliation, etc. His direct contribution (the reversal I spoke of) to advanced capitalism, the fact of, and symbol for, the retardation of human promise and potentiality in the material and moral development of the world community, not least the American struggle to maintain global supremacy without concession to an international system based on a de-centered power framework and widening popular expectations and aspirations, places America on continued defensiveness at home.

Witness gaping holes in the social safety net, the fact of, and symbol for, societal deterioration beyond the question of promise and potentiality, reaching out to a proliferation of failures and wrongdoing, as in the fraudulent character of counterterrorism, to shield the government from discovery of its support of domestic corporatism (beginning with monopolization in the industrial and financial sectors) and its conduct of foreign aggression (simultaneous and twin confrontation with Russia and China, requiring a still more distorted capitalist formation, preponderantly weighted to the military). A nation engaged in the massive surveillance of its own people, is hardly a success story. Yet, with the foregoing in mind, the black community (I think inexcusably) and much of white America (which may be par for the course) give Obama a shield of protection–a persistence of false consciousness–of one who has disgraced every fighter, black and white, for a democratic society.

I therefore celebrate the past, Mississippi Freedom Summer, not the present, as represented by Obama, a totalitarian leader who happens to be black (and uses his racial identity skillfully), hand-and-glove with the military and intelligence communities, and comprador, both in objective and social-mental position, except that he is an American intermediary working for American capitalism in the continued promotion of American global hegemony. The conversion of POTUS into CEO of US, Inc., leaving much of America, notably, the black community, behind. This disjunction between Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Obama Administration, in which blacks have been co-opted by a black president, becomes an important object lesson in the use of liberalism for the purposes of social control, liberalism, as the façade for the absorption of dissent through rhetorical blasts of humanitarianism while keeping the power structure intact and solidifying its consolidation still further.

Let me here flesh out what may seem a hidden and certainly controversial premise. Rather than asking that all individuals and groups be free to go their own way (e.g., bottom social groups free to identify with upper groups, even when it is shown that this is harmful to and destructive of their class interest), I submit that oppressed groups have not the luxury of neutrality or false consciousness, as a standard of behavior, which otherwise simply renews their bondage. Instead, they must stand for human freedom, starting with their own or at least not aid and abet its destruction. That is as much a societal as a moral proposition.

I expect persecuted minorities to be in the forefront of human freedom, the very struggle for which they have served as victims and therefore most qualified to know the costs in social-cultural degradation and the most interested party in seeing the rectification of injustice, inequality, and debasement borne out in, and burdens to be lifted from, their lives. Not so, any longer—as though the world had entered a phase of psychopathological reading of victimhood, persecuted now becoming persecutors—not of course the whole black population in America, but the detached group succeeding, against their own people, to join the ranks of oppressors. Obama, more than a servant of power, reveals the mindset of ruling groups to the degree that arm-twisting is not necessary: a true believer of monopoly capital, in power at its sufferance, yet encouraged by his record to be a somewhat independent source of power (knowing full well his sympathies and intentions), and executor of an increasingly broadly-defined militarization of hegemony itself. Trade, finance, IMF, all fine, all traditional methods in seeking market and investment penetration and the extraction of vital raw materials, but, for Obama, not enough. The military component, whether as outright war, intervention, regime change, espionage, subversion, has become self-fulfilling, a coup de grace signifying forcing American capitalist expansion down the throats of the rest of the world.

***

Have I strayed from Mississippi Freedom Summer? Only to make the points, first, that there is an absolute disconnect between that experience and Obama’s presidency, and second, that his presidency is an enlarged version of Mississippi at that time, his drone assassinations the functional analogue of the murder of Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman—the arrogance of power which confers the “right” to act with impunity. Their murder is what Mississippi was about then, and what America is about now, a raw core of violence, no longer directed against blacks alone, but as a seething cauldron of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, mixed with a fatal slavering over power converted into authoritarian submission to the powerful (think Stealth bombers in halftime football flyovers), crystallized in the super-patriotism of red-baiting (by whatever name—for it is a generic societal malady—and promiscuous expansion of targets).

I present into evidence of the whole rotten picture of racial injustice, which in combating, these young men gave their lives, this affidavit I gathered from the files of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) in Jackson, Mississippi, the nerve-center for Freedom Summer, Bob Moses, director, impressive, more so for his quiet manner of strength—and always, for me, an example of everything Barack Obama is NOT. The torture of Fannie Lou Hamer as a cry of anguish down the years to the present White House, where Obama sits in majestic splendor and military pomp (the presidential helicopter parked in the background for Rose Garden photo-ops), and Bob Moses’s unflappable persona, made me realize that from day one in the full operation of the Administration (from Treasury to national-security advisers to CIA) a useful base for comparison had been created, showing the magnitude of Obama’s betrayal of black America and, in comparison of other black leaders and activists, from Paul Robeson and A. Philip Randolph to Dr. King, all of whom never flinched in advancing the cause of all PEOPLES, how gross his dereliction of duty and abdication of responsibility on behalf of authentic social-democratic change had been and continues to be.

In the lexicon of American radicalism, as I once learned from research into Populism, where this image stands out, Fannie Lou Hamer’s name is or should be Million. She stands for the barbarous treatment of a whole people, and projecting forward, for all those tortured in black-hole prisons worldwide under US auspices, as well as those daily ground-down in fear and poverty in consequence of America’s claims of global hegemony. Mrs. Hamer, the preceding June [1963], was returning from a voter-registration drive in South Carolina on a Continental Trailway’s bus to her home in Mississippi. Other members of the party got off at the bus station (facilities in interstate commerce had already been desegregated) and had been denied admission to the “white side”—here the affidavit continues: “I got off the bus and asked them ‘what happened.’ They said that there were some policemen and highway patrolmen in there. Annelle [Ponder] said policemen with billy-clubs told them to get out of there.” They tried to get their badge numbers, “when all five of them were put in the patrol-car, which I think was the highway patrolman car, he also was the one giving orders.” (To anyone familiar with the South, the State Highway Patrol, in spiffy military dress, had state-after-state been the leading Authority figures in every way Gestapo-like.)

When Mrs. Hamer left the bus, she was descended on and ordered by a county-deputy into his car: “’[Y]ou are under arrest.’ I was going into the car when this [Earl Wane] Patric [the county-deputy] ‘kicked me’ into the car. While driving me to the jail, they were questioning and calling me ‘bitch.’” In the cell, “I could hear screaming and the passing of licks. Pretty soon, I saw several white men bringing Annelle Ponder past my cell—she was holding onto the jail walls—her clothes all torn—her mouth all swelled up and her eyes were all bloody—one eye looking like itself.” Then came Mrs. Hamer’s turn: “After a while they came for me,” three men including the highway patrolman. I should mention, Mrs. Hamer was 46, had infantile paralysis as a child, and was being led away by America’s finest. First, the preliminaries, questioning her, “ask[ing] her why I was demonstrating—and said they were not going to have such carryings on in Mississippi.” Did you see Dr. King. “I said I could not be demonstrating—I had just got off the bus—and denied that I have seen Martin Luther King. They said ‘shut up’ and always cut me off. They then asked me where I was from. I said Ruleville. They then left—saying they were going to check it out.”

Here I falter, but go on with the description, wishing the account could be crammed down the throat of every faithless leader and national-security flunkey, black and white, but especially Obama and Susan Rice, for using liberal humanitarianism for bring about the same kind of suffering. They returned, one stating: “’You damn right you are from Ruleville. We going to make you wish that you were dead bitch.’” The speaker, John Bassinger, state highway patrolman. What follows, a scene of extreme degradation, blacks ordered to beat Mrs. Hamer (not unlike accounts in the Nazi concentration-camp literature): “When I was brought to another cell I saw two Negroes who were in their 20’s or a little younger. John Bassinger—he said ‘take this’ talking to the youngest Negro. John Bassinger had in his hand a long 2 feet black jack—made out of leather—wider at one end, and one end being filled with something heavy. The young Negro said: ‘You mean for me to beat her with this?’ John Bassinger said ‘You damn right’—‘If you don’t you know what I will do for you.’”

The beatings began, Mrs. Hamer this place and time, whom else suffered death and broken bodies there before and after, elsewhere before and after, the untold story of racism, war, oppression?—and yet, if any choose to capitalize on Mississippi Freedom Summer at the half-century mark as in some public-relations, perverted, twisted way as to the greatness of America in how much “progress” has been made since then, remind them, starting with Obama, of the death and broken bodies caused by American war and intervention in the name of democracy and freedom. Throw the lie in their faces. She continues: “The young Negro told me to get on the bunk and he began to beat me. I tried to put my hands to my side where I had polio when I was a child—so that I would not be beat so much on that side. The first Negro beat me until he got tired. Then the second Negro was made to beat me. I took the first part of it, but I couldn’t stand the second beating.”

America, the majesty of the law, Mrs. Hamer’s crime, being active in voter-registration. She later ran for Congress on the Freedom Democratic ticket in Mississippi, the result a foregone conclusion. Her beating is almost exactly one year before the start of Freedom Summer, the movement of young people into the state requiring bravery beyond understanding, especially with the report of the three civil rights workers feared dead. When I arrived, we were instructed not to stand by a lighted window at night, the shade providing a silhouette for shooters; guns everywhere, displayed on the rear decks of cars, as the one circling our Freedom School over and over. When civil rights workers reported their rough treatment, FBI agents would interrogate them at COFO headquarters, treating them like criminals rather than victims. (In my cord jacket and tie I sat in on “interviews,” hoping my thirty-something respectability would hold these bulldogs at bay—actually not much.) So, what happened to Mrs. Hamer was preview and microcosm of what took place in the summer of 1964.

Let me go on with her affidavit: “I began to move—and the first Negro was made to sit on my feet to keep me from kicking. I remember I tried to smooth my dress which was working up from all of the beating. One of the white officers pushed my dress up. I was screaming and going on—and the young officer with the crew-cut began to beat me about the head and told me to stop my screaming. I began to bury my head in the mattress and hugged it to keep out the sound of my screams.” Is it any wonder that Freedom Summer took place, the training on campuses for nonviolence, the clergy coming in, the sense of absolute determination—little of the same urgency today, the same mobilization of conscience (I recently asked a gathering of ministers, where are you today, when issues of war and surveillance are so pressing?) now directed to staring down militarism beginning at the top, with Obama.

Mrs. Hamer, before being returned to her cell: “It was impossible to stop the screaming. I must have passed out—I remember trying to raise my head and heard one of the officers, ‘Bassinger’ who said that’s enough. He said get up and walk. I could barely walk. My body was real hard-feeling like metal. My hands were navy blue—and I couldn’t bend the fingers.” Later: “Then they got us [the others taken , beaten, one woman, ‘a hole in her head from her beating’]up one night to take our pictures and John Bassinger, who had taken the pictures, forced me to sign a statement which they already made me write, that I had been treated all right. That night was the following Monday night. I tried to write the statement in such a way that anybody would know that I had been forced to write the statement.” She closed this portion (the remainder of the affidavit referred to the beating of Lawrence Guyot, a field secretary of SNCC, her release secured by SCLC leaders, and the fact that she “had been fired from [her] Plantation job, Dee Marlow’s Plantation, Ruleville,” for attempting to register to vote): “The following Tuesday, we had our trial. There was no jury. We had no lawyer. We were charged and was found guilty of Disorderly Conduct and Resisting Arrest. When we were put in the jail…I told them that nothing is right around here. The arresting officer had lied and said that I was resisting arrest. I told them that I was not leaving my cell—and that if they wanted me, they had to kill me in the cell and drag me out.” And her final words here speak volumes for, Why Mississippi Freedom Summer: “I rather be killed inside my cell instead of outside my cell.”

This same choice the US offers the world, except that the inside-outside distinction becomes obliterated in the face of modern warfare. Mrs. Hamer puts the lie to Obama’s blackness, stripping him naked for the world to see an imposter, salivating over power, ANYTHING to serve America’s masters—to which we all are becoming enslaved. Freedom Summer should start circa 2014 with cleaning up totalitarianism here at home.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.