Justice  /  Film Review

“Freedom on My Mind”: A Symphony of Voices for Civil Rights

This 1994 documentary brings the passions and agonies of Mississippi’s voter-registration drive into the present tense.

Although the events covered by “Freedom on My Mind” had already been extensively reported in the media and studied academically, the film’s dramatic arc feels unplanned, as if Field and Mulford discovered it in the course of their interviews—as if asking, listening, and learning guided them in the selection and deployment of archival footage and the composition of voice-over narration. The screen-bursting presences of many of the participants are as important as the information they dispense; the interviewees bring history to light—and to life. Their testimonies infuse the film with an inner life that’s hard to find in observational news reporting. Intercut with startling archival footage, the interviews lend an extra dimension, that of time, to those scenes, not simply commenting on them but pulling history into the present tense.

The premise on which both the movie and the movement are based is the impact of Jim Crow on the daily lives of Black people and Black communities in Mississippi. In detail, the interviewees relay how segregation entailed much more than separation in areas like housing and schooling—it was a thoroughgoing project of subjugation that denied Black people financial opportunity and political representation and that, at root, was predicated on fear. L. C. Dorsey, a sharecropper turned organizer who later earned a doctorate and became a writer, says, “You learn how to negotiate your life with white folks, and I guess you also learn the fear associated with them, of how much power they actually held over you, how they could determine whether you continue to live or whether you die.” The practice of lynching is only one trace of that systematically sustained vulnerability. Endesha Ida Mae Holland, from Greenwood, Mississippi—who also eventually earned a doctorate and became a professor—tells of being raped, at the age of eleven, by a white man. She didn’t inform her parents, “because they couldn’t do anything about it but get killed if they said something,” but she and other girls would talk in secret, because “it happened very, very frequently.”