Don Mitchell got his start as a legislative assistant for national security in the office of Senator John Glenn, about whom he then wrote a biography for young people, Liftoff: A Photobiography of John Glenn, which was followed by Driven: A Photobiography of Henry Ford (both National Geographic, 9–12 years). His new book The Freedom Summer Murders (Scholastic, 14–17 years) shows his meticulous attention to details culled from primary and secondary sources as he recounts the events in a fluid, readable style.
1. What got you into researching the Freedom Summer murders?
DM: My interest in this case goes back many years. I was aware of the Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner murders from an early age. At my high school in Kettering, Ohio, I took a course in black history and learned about this case in more depth. When I went on to attend Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I frequently studied at the university’s Western Campus, which used to be the Western College for Women. It’s a beautiful, tranquil place. I often thought of the Freedom Summer volunteers who trained there in 1964. When I was casting about for a new book idea several years ago, I realized the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer was approaching and I decided it would be a good time to explore this important story.
2. With so many saints and sinners in the story, how did you maintain an objective point of view?
DM: It was challenging at times. The “bad guys” in this story were often pretty bad, and the “good guys” were often quite admirable. How do you survive in an environment where the entire social, political, and legal order are designed to deny you justice, equality, and dignity? And when the police are the bad guys, what chance does anyone have? Nevertheless, I felt a strong obligation to tell this complex, compelling story as fully and objectively as possible and to let the facts speak for themselves.
3. A lot of your research was based on firsthand interviews with people close to the events. Did you attempt to interview any of the perpetrators or their family members? Or was there anyone you wanted to interview who refused to talk?
DM: No and no.
4. It’s hard to look at the photos of the smirking defendants at the 1967 trial. Did any of them ever express any remorse?
DM: To the best of my knowledge, none of them expressed remorse.
5. What do you think today’s teens can learn from the young activists who participated in Freedom Summer fifty years ago?
DM: It’s my hope that young people will be inspired by the selfless example of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner — and the many other Freedom Summer volunteers — to try and make the world a better place by fighting against injustice, fear, ignorance, intolerance, hatred, and inequality. That fight never ends.
From the June 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.