McAdam on Freedom Summer volunteers

2017-08-09

in History, Politics, Psychology

Therein lies their significance. For historical currents do not irresistibly propel themselves and everyone in their path. No matter what their broader structural or ideological roots, they both carry along and are carried along by people, who are not merely the passengers of history, but its pilots as well. In the end, social history is little more than the sum of countless individual choices aggregated over time. That it appears otherwise may owe to the fact that although we can do as we choose, we can seldom choose as we please. Ordinarily, people’s choices have the effect of reconfirming and reinforcing the “normal order of things.” What was remarkable about the Sixties was that large numbers of people began, through their choices, to challenge all manner of longstanding social, political and cultural arrangements. This process did not proceed in random fashion, however. Instead, as in all diffusion processes, the objects of change—attitudes about the war, styles of dress, tastes in music, etc.—spread outward in ever-widening circles from an initial core of innovators. The broader societal significance of Freedom Summer lies in the stimulus it afforded this process. Through its radicalization of many of the volunteers, the project created a nucleus of political and (counter) cultural pioneers who returned to their respective colleges and communities outside the South intent on “bringing the message of Mississippi to the rest of the nation.” Though it differed from volunteer to volunteer, that message variously embraced conceptions of the United States, politics, community, human relationships, and sexuality clearly at odds with mainstream values. In short order, these conceptions would attract a wide following, especially among those of the baby-boom generation. That these conceptions would, in turn, be supplanted by even more radical ones many times before the “Sixties wave” began to recede is of little importance. What is important is the role the volunteers played in the formative stages of this process.

McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. Oxford University Press; Oxford. 1988. p. 12–13

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