Black Bodies in the River
Searching for Freedom Summer
A rhetorical interrogation of the pervasive claim that unidentified Black bodies were discovered during investigations into one of Freedom Summer's most widely known events
Nearly sixty years after Freedom Summer, its events—especially the lynching of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner—stand out as a critical episode of the civil rights movement. The infamous deaths of these activists dominate not just the history but also the public memory of the Mississippi Summer Project.
Beginning in the late 1970s, however, movement veterans challenged this central narrative with the shocking claim that during the search for Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, the FBI and other law enforcement personnel discovered many unidentified Black bodies in Mississippi’s swamps, rivers, and bayous. This claim has evolved in subsequent years as activists, journalists, filmmakers, and scholars have continued to repeat it, and the number of supposed Black bodies—never identified—has grown from five to more than two dozen.
In Black Bodies in the River: Searching for Freedom Summer, author Davis W. Houck sets out to answer two questions: Were Black bodies discovered that summer? And why has the shocking claim only grown in the past several decades—despite evidence to the contrary? In other words, what rhetorical work does the Black bodies claim do, and with what audiences?
Houck’s story begins in the murky backwaters of the Mississippi River and the discovery of the bodies of Henry Dee and Charles Moore, murdered on May 2, 1964, by the Ku Klux Klan. He pivots next to the Council of Federated Organization’s voter registration efforts in Mississippi leading up to Freedom Summer. He considers the extent to which violence generally and expectations about interracial violence, in particular, serve as a critical context for the strategy and rhetoric of the Summer Project.
Houck then interrogates the unnamed-Black-bodies claim from a historical and rhetorical perspective, illustrating that the historicity of the bodies in question is perhaps less the point than the critique of who we remember from that summer and how we remember them. Houck examines how different memory texts—filmic, landscape, presidential speech, and museums—function both to bolster and question the centrality of murdered white men in the legacy of Freedom Summer.
"In this moving and gripping account, Davis W. Houck expertly unveils the complexity of historical memory surrounding the 1964 Freedom Summer Project. In Houck’s very skilled hands, Black Bodies in the River takes the reader on a difficult, but essential, journey that reveals the tensions between who we remember as a society—and who we forget. This brilliantly conceived book is a powerful indictment of racist violence and its enduring legacy in the United States."- Keisha N. Blain, coeditor of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619–2019 and author of Until I am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America
"Black Bodies in the River is an extraordinary and riveting look at one of the most awakening moments in civil rights history that shocked a nation. Separating fact from fiction, Houck's rhetorical analysis of a widely spread urban legend that surrounds Freedom Summer is a tour de force to be reckoned with. Readers will be captivated and enlightened as the inconvenient truth unfolds."- Keith A. Beauchamp, filmmaker of The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till
"In this book Houck does the nearly impossible: gives voice and story to the pervasive menace of things that cannot be known or seen, merely felt and feared. He makes the hidden history of the South—of Mississippi itself—become fact and vision. This is an essential work of scholarship and humanity."- Wright Thompson, author of The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business
"A master storyteller, Houck has jumped headlong into the much-reported and historicized 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi with a brilliant and critical twist—interrogating the truth behind the reported discovery of up to two dozen nameless Black bodies in rivers, bayous, and back roads during the FBI’s search for the corpses of three murdered civil rights workers—two white and one Black. We follow Houck as he digs deep into archives, revisits old and new interviews, and walks the landscape to reveal the complicated forces that shape the history and memory of that summer, and the real violence and the spectre of it that birthed a movement. Why does that matter? We feel satisfied to repeatedly laud the three martyrs while misleadingly invoking faceless Black bodies. Why can't we, Houck asks, tell an authentic story and hold fast to the richer, deeper truth? An extraordinary book!"- Kate Clifford Larson, author of Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer
"The myth of countless black bodies in the river cannot drive out the myth of white supremacy—only an engagement with reality can do that. . . . [Houck] goes to the heart of the events themselves. Our society needs more historians and journalists dedicated to such work."- Guy Lancaster, Arkansas Review
"Davis W. Houck’s small book raises big questions about Freedom Summer."- Julie Buckner Armstrong, Journal of Southern History