Recent scholarship on the American civil-rights movement has begun to focus on those events, organisations and individuals - in states and localities - that formed distinctive patterns in the larger mosaic of the nationwide African-American freedom struggle popularly identified with the charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King. Nowhere was that struggle more bitterly fought and contested than in Mississippi's "closed society" of the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1964 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee together with the Congress of Racial Equality, working under the auspices of the Council of Federated Organisations mounted a voter registration campaign, involving hundreds of northern college students (90 per cent of them white and more than a third female) that aimed to educate and enfranchise black Mississippians. The costs were high. Before the end of "Freedom Summer", student activists had been the victims of arson, bombings, beatings, and police arrests - while the murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney provided the campaign with its first martyrs.
In this gracefully written and subtly nuanced account, God's Long Summer, theologian Charles Marsh, a white Alabaman who spent his childhood in Mississippi, traces the interwoven lives and formative experiences of five individuals who played important roles in the Freedom Summer campaign. His hypothesis is that in Mississippi both the proponents and opponents of civil rights were animated by fervent religious convictions - which deserve serious examination and exegesis.
Fannie Lou Hamer is perhaps the best known of Marsh's cast. The last of 20 children of impoverished black Mississippi sharecroppers, Hamer left the cotton fields in 1942 "to work for Jesus" in the civil-rights cause. Fired by her employer and tortured by police for her bid to register as a voter, Hamer joined the SNCC and was the commanding voice and presence of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in its vain attempt to unseat the all-white Mississippi delegation at the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. In all her endeavours for the underprivileged and dispossessed, Hamer was animated by "an indefatigable belief in Jesus as a friend and deliverer of the poor", to which she gave voice in stirring renditions of freedom songs and anthems derived from African-American spirituals.
Equally devout in his religious convictions was Sam Holloway Bowers, elected in 1964 as imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Bowers viewed Hamer and her followers as betrayers of "Jesus the Galilean" and directed four years of terrorism against civil-rights activists, culminating in his conviction for involvement in the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. Presented here as the embodiment of the "violent extremities of Christian nationalist zeal authorised by the empowering convictions of faith", Bowers - in Marsh's apposite phrase - was "the Kurtz at the heart of darkness of the anti-civil rights movement" in Mississippi. A persuasive orator, Bowers openly boasted that "a jury would not dare convict a white man for killing a nigger in Mississippi".
Less extreme, but no less resolved in his opposition to racial integration or political rights for black Mississippians, Dr Douglas Hudgins, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Jackson, believed (with most of his fellow white Protestant clergymen) that "the purity of the white church must be guarded with the same vigilance given the protection of (Southern) white feminine virtue". Indifferent either to the sufferings of black people or the repressive tactics of the upholders of the racial status quo, Hudgins became the leading advocate of a "deracinated piety" grounded in anti-modernist fundamentalism and pledged to the attainment of spiritual and personal "purity".
Edwin King, the mischievous white chaplain of historically black Tougaloo College, staged confrontations between integrated groups of church "visitors" and ministers of Hudgins's ilk, seeking to engage them in dialogues on race and religion. His appeals fell on deaf ears, alerted King to the fact that racial "moderates" were at one with extremists in their resolve to maintain lily-white congregations, and propelled him into active roles in the Summer Project and the MFDP.
Cleveland Sellers, a black member of the SNCC, emerged from the Freedom Summer and other campaigns convinced that civil-rights legislation had not resolved the related issues of caste and class oppression, and was increasingly drawn to proposals for black separatism. Convicted for his alleged participation in the 1968 student protest at South Carolina College in Orangeburg (which resulted in the killing by police of three students and the wounding of 33 others), Sellers, now a history professor at the University of South Carolina, embraced Black Power ideology. Black Power rhetoric, which offered "liberation without reconciliation", was as racially exclusive in its visions as were the White Citizens' Councils or the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. It was the antithesis of the spiritually derived integrationist and evangelical beliefs of Fannie Lou Hamer. In embracing Black Power, the SNCC "became the closed society writ small" and hastened its own demise.
God's Long Summer is a work of humane engagement and dispassionate scholarship. The lives of five very different participants in Mississippi's Freedom Summer are paradigms of those of countless others involved in the civil-rights struggle, who derived their attitudes and actions from religious faith and conviction.
John White is reader in American history, University of Hull.
God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights
Author - Charles Marsh
ISBN - 0 691 02134 1
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £18.95
Pages - 6