Review: The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell

images-26“One day…you might find something worth dying for.” Michael Schwerner

On June 21, 1964, three young men were murdered because they worked for civil rights in Mississippi. It took more than forty years for anyone to be prosecuted for murder for their deaths. The ignorance and hate that fueled the plan to murder them remains alive in this country.

Many books have been written about the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner on a country road in Mississippi in June 1964. The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell (Scholastic Press, April 2014) is exceptional.

Mitchell begins the book with the hard truths that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were murdered, the victims of a cold-blooded, premeditated plot hatched and carried out by men that included law enforcement officers. They were murdered because they dared to attempt to help and encourage African Americans in Mississippi to register to vote.

Mitchell takes the reader through the events that led up to the murders and the frantic search for the men with impressive tension given that the outcome is known from the first page. Those familiar with the events will find new and tragic details, and perhaps a better understanding of the men who were murdered, and those for whom the events are entirely new will be glued to the page as the tension mounts.

Mitchell introduces each of the slain men, from childhood, through their family lives, and up to the events that led them to Mississippi in June 1964. His impressive research, use of informative details from their early lives, and focus on the events that shaped their respective characters and determinations to fight for civil rights helps to bring them to life, to give a more well-rounded picture of the boys and men they were, rather than focusing narrowly on the events surrounding their deaths. The book’s design adds texture to the narrative through use of photographs, images, and documents, including pictures of the men as boys with their families. And the tragedy of their deaths is made all the more outrageous given Mitchell’s focus on why they so bravely walked into the battleground that was Mississippi 1964, knowing full-well the danger they would be in.

With consistent and effective pacing, Mitchell provides sufficient details to allow the reader to feel like she better knows Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, and to understand the context and circumstances of their murders and the legal battles to bring their murderers to justice. Especially moving is Mitchell’s efforts to show the lives and relationships cut short by their murders – the injustice, the loss of their contributions to society, and most especially the pain and holes left in the lives of their respective families and friends.

Following the chapters that provide insights into the lives of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, Mitchell explores in depth the events following their disappearances, the investigations and repeated attempts to bring the murderers to justice, and, ultimately, the prosecution and conviction of Edgar Ray Killen in June 2005, forty-one years to the day that Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered.

An afterward further highlights the effects the murders had on the civil rights movement, without losing the focus on the men who died. Backmatter supports and rounds out the factual information and events detailed in the narrative.

Young readers may be outraged by the injustice or enthralled with the tension of the search and the exploration of the events leading up to and following the murders, but they will also be encouraged to consider what it means to devote yourself to a cause, to be determined to take action to make the world better. Perhaps they will even be inspired to pursue social justice in their own lives.

The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell is not the first book about these events for young readers, and it won’t be the last, but it is one not to be missed.

You are not forgotten James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.



2 comments for “Review: The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell

  1. KT Horning
    June 19, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks for this very timely review. I just heard Michael Schwerner’s widow, Rita Bender, interviewed on NPR this morning. What a remarkable woman — and she could have easily been in that car with the three who were murdered.

    The same NPR report also featured quite a bit on what race relations are like in Philadelphia, Mississippi, today, and how in some ways the spirit of the Freedom Schools is carrying on by people who are teaching today’s teenagers about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and the role their town and county played in that history.

    The healing and reconciliation that have happened there in the past fifty years is also an important part of the story, and it’s another thing I appreciated about what Don Mitchell covered in his book, in addition to the things you mentioned in the review here. It’s wonderful to have the biographies of the three slain men — as the author said, to know them as more than grainy photos on a missing poster.

  2. July 17, 2014 at 11:15 am

    While the overall events are well presented, it is unfortunate that in the introduction on pg. 9, the date of Medgar Evers’ murder is listed as June 11 rather than June 12. Young people who are being introduced to these major events are being given inaccurate facts, which should have been researched and edited BEFORE publication.

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