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Book Review

by Jo Freeman

We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi
by Tracy Sugarman
Syracuse University Press; 2009, 332 pp.

In 1964 a 43-year-old illustrator named Tracy Sugarman joined several hundred young, mostly white Northerners in Mississippi for Freedom Summer. He made over a hundred drawings, shot over a thousand photographs, and took extensive notes. He published one book about this experience in 1966. Now hes published another.

Sneakers is a series of sketches, some in pen and ink and some in words. The 55 chapters are full of detail, with lots of dialogue and atmosphere. They are supplemented by 61 illustrations. The subject of the sketches (both types) varies. Some are about people, some about places, and some about events. Their purpose is to give the reader a sense of what it was like to be there, or to know that person, at that time. "That time" is not just 1964, but the span of years since.

Sugarmans entry into the civil rights movement came in 1963, when a friend brought SNCC worker Charles McLaurin to his house in Connecticut for a little rest and relaxation. The reportorial artist gave him a camera to "get some pictures of what is really going on" and they stayed in touch. Joining the "kids" in Mississippi in 1964 was a big step for a family man. He did it partially from a need to make a difference and partially from a professional impulse to record history. At the training in Oxford, Ohio, that took place before dispersal he reconnected with McLaurin, and joined him in his Sunflower County project. A quarter of the book details his experiences that summer.

A year later his son worked in a summer project in Arkansas while the artist returned to Mississippi to reconnect with the people he had met; the next section describes some of them. These included Fannie Lou Hamer, who became a personal friend, and a local white couple with whom he had established cordial relations in 1964 after the wife asked him some questions out of curiosity. The latter is definitely a "curiosity." Sugarman says he knows of no other local Mississippians who befriended a civil rights worker and hes probably right. The standard response of the small towns of Mississippi to local whites who invited civil rights workers into their homes just to talk was to run them out of town.

In the third section Sugarman describes the roads different people in the summer project took after 1964, including his own, that of the white couple, local blacks, SNCC and summer workers. In 1978 Sugarman and his wife began a documentary on Fannie Lou Hamer, who had died the year before. Never Turn Back: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer took five years to complete.

The vignettes continue in part IV, recounting his trip to Mississippi in 2001. In his descriptions of local people he tries to assess what changed in 36 years and what didnt. Sugarman sees Mississippi as a "candid mirror for much of America." Much has changed — and much hasnt. Its still a "work in progress."

Sneakers is a lyrical book, written like a novel. It has ambiance, captured in extensive detail while putting the reader into the scene and catching the emotions of those present. Since its not a novel, think of it as the print version of a docudrama. Dont read it for the history, which is a little rough around the edges, but for the experience.

©2009 Jo Freeman for

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