Author Bruce Watson Speaks at LSU Honors Convocation
By Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College
BATON ROUGE – Bruce Watson spoke to a group of more than 200 LSU students on Wednesday, Aug. 24, as part of the third annual Honors College Convocation.
The author and historian spoke about his latest book, “Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy,” as well as the problems facing American government and society today.
“Freedom Summer,” which was chosen as the Honors College 2011 Summer Shared Read, revisits the pivotal civil rights struggle that occurred during the summer of 1964, when about 700 volunteers fighting for equality were harassed and persecuted while attempting to register voters and end a century of Jim Crow.
Watson, who described himself as “a New Englander by residence and an American by choice,” said that before he first visited the South, he knew nothing about it – except for clichés he learned from “Gone with the Wind” and “The Beverley Hillbillies.”
“I was steeped in these stereotypes that you’re justifiably sick of,” he said. “Despite all of my travels to 30 countries and my pride in them, I had no idea of the South’s wonderful tradition of eccentricity, it’s refreshing pride, humor, and honesty … I’d never surfed a radio dial awash in sin and salvation – I did not know the South.”
Watson said that such ignorance is the biggest threat to American democracy today.
“Very few Americans reach outside their own communities … We don’t know our history and culture, [so] when it comes to knowing one another, we survive on stereotypes and insults,” he said. “Democracy has always been a conversation, but these days the conversation resembles something you might hear on Bourbon Street at 2 a.m.”
His speech focused predominantly on the importance of connecting, which he views as the best way to solve America’s current problems and for its citizens to understand one another.
“‘Freedom Summer’ changed this stubborn country forever, and change came the only way change ever comes – by connecting,” he said.
Despite the tremendous technological advances that have taken place over the last 50 years in the field of communications, Watson believes that meaningful communication is in danger. He remarked that the Internet, a potentially powerful medium for discourse, too often becomes a source of distraction and diversion, and television also poses a serious threat.
“In spite of what you’ve been told your whole life, this is not a dangerous, chaotic, mean world, [which is how] television presents it,” he said. “Unless you reach out, you won’t realize that TV is a fright show, a mirror held up to the extremes of human behavior.”
Watson stressed that despite the stories of beatings and shootings in Mississippi, the volunteers of ‘Freedom Summer’ went anyway. They learned to walk beside their fears, and as a result, brought about change.
“When we try to connect across class or cultural barriers, the first reaction is to become childlike … like children, we sometimes recoil at what we see, and we often turn and run,” he said. “This is a human reaction, but one that must be fought, just as the volunteers of ‘Freedom Summer’ fought it.”
Since the volunteers of ‘Freedom Summer’ bravely went forth in the midst of extreme violence, Watson’s book takes an unflinching look at the beatings, murders, and hate crimes that they encountered.
“The violence was hard to read, hard to look at, but the way people transcended it was very inspiring,” he said. “[Dealing with] the violence was the hardest part … I had to present it as a constant without making it constant in the book, since ‘Freedom Summer’ is so much more than that.”
Although he worries about the lack of connection in our modern-day culture, Watson stressed that he believes in today’s college students and graduates and pointed out that they are volunteering in greater numbers than ever before.
“It’s been very interesting and inspiring to me to see this program,[the Honors College,] and people who are really studying ‘Freedom Summer,’” he said. “It was a key event, but its lessons are longer lasting.”
For more information on the LSU Honors College, visit http://www.honors.lsu.edu/.