Sunday, March 28, 2010

Spies of Mississippi

Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destory the Civil Rights Movement
by Rick Bowers

published by National Geographic
128 pages

Publisher's Description:

The Spies of Mississippi is a compelling story of how state spies tried to block voting rights for African Americans during the Civil Rights era. This book sheds new light on one of the most momentous periods in American history. Author Rick Bowers has combed through primary-source materials and interviewed surviving activists named in once-secret files, as well as the writings and oral histories of Mississippi civil rights leaders. Readers get first-hand accounts of how neighbors spied on neighbors, teachers spied on students, ministers spied on church-goers, and spies even spied on spies. The Spies of Mississippi will inspire readers with the stories of the brave citizens who overcame the forces of white supremacy to usher in a new era of hope and freedom—an age that has recently culminated in the election of Barack Obama.

My Comments:

Bowers has written a very interesting, matter-of-fact expose of the secret commission that was formed to prevent integration from coming to Mississippi. I was shocked to learn how government agents conspired to persecute, imprison, and even murder NAACP organizers and volunteers. I was already aware of the murders of Medgar Evers and the three volunteers who came to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 to register voters, but only from movies (Ghosts of Mississippi and Mississippi Burning) so it was enlightening to read the facts without any filtering from Hollywood. The movies are old enough that young readers may never have heard of these men.

I had never heard the stories of Aaron Henry, who was elected president of the Mississippi branch of the NAACP and then punished by being tied to a garbage truck; or of Clyde Kennard, who after repeatedly applying to the all-white Mississippi Southern College (Ole Miss) was arrested and put in a maximum security prison on phony burglary charges. Now I wonder whether these compelling civil rights figures will ever get their due on screen.

The copy of Spies of Mississippi that I got a hold of is an uncorrected proof, so I tried to ignore things like misspellings and bad punctuation. Hopefully, these have all been fixed in the final version of the book. The illustrations, photographs, index, and bibliography were all absent, as well. I think that these elements are critical with nonfiction, so I was happy to stumble upon the National Geographic booth at PLA last Thursday, and find a copy of the finished book on display.

There are some relevant historical documents included at the end of the book, like copies of checks made out to prominent African Americans who spied on the NAACP, as well as a section of color photographs in the middle. I only wish that the illustrations were integrated a little more smoothly into the overall design. The design of this book is a little more "adult," for lack of a better word, which I think will appeal to many teens who don't want to look like they are reading a picture book. For readers like me, who love the slick paper and big colorful photos of National Geographic magazine, the design may not be as appealing. I realize that this is largely a matter of personal preference.

The bibliography at the end is extensive, but the tiny text and lack of contextual information (for instance, there is no organization of sources under headings like "for more information about...") make it not so user friendly, so I was a little disappointed with it. I also wish there had been some sidebars to explain some of the things that weren't detailed in the main text, like how Agents X, Y, and Zero got their names and who they might have been. Maybe the answers to these questions are not known, but they are worth asking.

* This is an official nomination for the YALSA Nonfiction award, which will be announced in January.*

Those are my thoughts. What are yours?

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