I was a kid of eleven when what has come to be known as “Freedom Summer” caused the Deep South to make history, and on some fronts, not exactly in a manner that could be considered positive. There are numbers of ways the summer of ’64 can be viewed, as is always the case with a controversial period in time. There is no greater challenge for a people who have had seasons of intensely “negative PR” to “just let the story be the story.” I think it’s accurate to say that the 700 students who boarded those buses to make sure people could register to vote were willing to put their lives on the line. In most people’s books, that is considered a virtue, even if they don’t agree with the premise of young private citizens from outside the state being the ones who did what they could to help make and then uphold the law that would ensure that everyone could vote.
Alabama Public Television recently broadcast a retrospective multi-episode documentary that interviewed several of the original Freedom Summer college-kids-now-grandparents, both black and white, who faced down bus bombings and the inside of jail cells. It was refreshing, candid and complicated. For me personally, it reminded me of the idealism that was so prevalent that summer, something I remember well, and hope has not been too badly bludgeoned now that I am the regular recipient of AARP’s latest mailbox ad campaign.
A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with Mayor Marks about the possibility of doing a “Pub Point” on Freedom Summer, and he encouraged me to write it. I asked him what, as a young man, caused him to change his thinking about all that was going on. At the time he was about the same age, 19 or 20, but unlike them, he sported a flat top haircut. He paused for a moment and said thoughtfully, “I think it was the times, and I think it was just time.” I think that’s a fair assessment of what most often happens amongst what the law refers to as “reasonable people” when they are confronted with injustice.
For me, though, the proof of just how far we have come occurred recently at the Farmer’s Market, and it was courtesy of jazz great Dave Brubeck, albeit indirectly. I have an Athens Now client who happens to be male, and if you want to get into labels and quotas, he is the following: African American, Christian, Democrat, conservative, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, and loves jazz. He was at the Market at the same time I was. He happens to share my last name, and to my knowledge we are not kin. I refer to him as BFAM, which stands for “Brother From Another Mother.” He calls me SFAM, the only difference being the S, which is for sister. I had played for him a Voxer audio clip on my iPhone of some friends who have a music school in Texas. The clip was a total improv jam session, starting off with a fierce Miles Davis vibe, and then beautifully resolved into the familiar Brubeck theme song, “Take Five.” That is one difficult piece of music to play, largely because it is in 5/4 time, and in my view, has only a few contenders for being considered the greatest jazz piece ever written.
Turns out it is one of his favorites, too, so I told him I would go ask Cool Bone, the brass jazz group that was playing that day at the Market, if they could do it. Perhaps that was unfair of me, because it is tricky, and they hadn’t had a chance to practice it. We both greatly appreciated their “on the spot” effort and thanked them for it. Next to where the jazz band was playing was a voter registration booth, always a sign that democracy has not utterly died despite the best efforts of a few. Then we talked about just how cool it is that it is 50 years later, we are standing next to each other in the market, listening to live jazz, and people of all colors are being given the chance to vote without fear, with no one giving any of it a second thought. I have already chronicled from firsthand experience how careful the Probate Judge’s office is to protect our rights to vote, but from where I stand, it’s 50 years later and it’s Athens, Alabama. We have come a long way, and still need to get down the road a piece.