This is one of Simon's few protest songs, in the commonly understood sense of a political statement in verse. It discusses a particular incident-- in this a case, a racist crime. Given the specificity of the information mentioned in the song, I thought I could find an article on the incident itself. The Freedom Rides were a recent, well-documented event, I reasoned, so if there was a death associated with them, I should be able to find something about it.
I was wrong. After a half-hour's research online, not only could I not find an article on or mention of a "23"-year-old "Freedom Rider" who was "shot... dead," I could find no mention of a death of any Freedom Rider whatsoever. This is not to minimize the brave sacrifices of the Freedom Riders or their pain, let alone their indelible contributions to the history of civil rights. It is simply to say that I could find no record of one of them having been killed. Again, I am glad that none of them died, if that is the case. But the fact of a Freedom Rider having being killed not being the case, the song takes on a different tinge.
I did find many mentions of a Corporal Roman Ducksworth, an African-American MP officer who, while on leave to visit his sick wife, was killed by a police officer. Yes, he was shot, but fully half of the articles I found on him indicated that he may have been "mistaken" by the officer for a Freedom Rider. Had he certainly been one, it is more likely that the cause's organizers would have claimed him, rightly, as a martyr in some definitive way. Further, he was not accosted by a "mob," but seems to have been killed by this particular officer, whose name is also known.
Another possibility is that Simon conflated the Freedom Rider idea with the martyrdom of another activist in some other aspect of the cause. This could be one of the three young men -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner-- who were registering voters in Mississippi when they were killed by anti-rights racists. However, they were lynched, not "shot," and while they all were in their early 20s, none was "23."
It is the case that Goodman was a friend of Simon and Garfunkel's, and a classmate of Simon's at Queens College. There is even a record of the song being dedicated to him, even if the details of the case were changed for the sake of song itself.
The fact of Goodman and Schwerner being Jewish, like Simon, is immaterial, as he only speaks of one victim in the song... aside from the fact that Simon's consideration of this man as a "brother" must transcend all such designations, or the song itself must lose some moral power and import.
I would not focus so much on the issue of the source of the song's story were it not for three things: One, most other such songs-- from Dylan's "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," to Neil Young's "Ohio," to Springsteen's "41 Shots"-- are based in actual, historic incidents. Two, the number and specific nature of the details of our song seems to indicate an actual incident being discussed. Three, why would Simon discuss the death of a Freedom Rider if none had actually been killed, while so many other civil-rights workers-- both leaders and followers-- in other areas of the movement, had? Once the fictional nature of the incident was known to its contemporary listeners, surely it would let some of air out of the song's proverbial tires.
[A 2016 biography of Simon indicates that the song was written in 1963, a year before the Chaney/Goodman/Schwerner killing. If anyone reading this knows of the specific incident Simon did mean, please share what you know. Thank you. ]
All of that said, let us now treat the song as a work unto itself, and discuss the references of other elements of its story.
The song begins with the assertion of brotherhood on the part of the speaker with the subject. The song then explains that the reason we are talking about this person is that he died, and very young. This-- and the dramatic way the duo sings "... day he died"-- is to effectively "hook" the listener into wanting to find out what could have caused his early demise.
We learn the "brother" is a Freedom Rider. The Freedom Riders were righteous souls who braved violence to test the Supreme Court's then-new laws desegregating interstate transportation in the mid-1960s. Yes, readers, at one point in our great nation's recent past, simply riding a Greyhound bus was a provocative, political act that could-- and did-- get one beaten with sticks and pipes by one's fellow Americans, then jailed by the local police for having given these citizens the trouble of doing the beating.
Next, we learn that, as a Freedom Rider, he was not warmly received. The brother is cursed, then told two contradictory things: he can leave "this town," or he can remain... permanently. "Go home, outsider/This town's gonna be your buryin' place." The "gonna" and dropped "g" of "burying'" may to be an attempt to capture the dialect of the South, or perhaps imply the ignorance of the racists involved.
So far, the song is an accurate depiction of the events the Freedom Riders encountered. Next are two more factual elements. There is the image of the brother "singing on his knees." Certainly, the Freedom Riders prayed, both for the fulfillment of their cause and for their personal safety. But although that is the metaphor presented, that is not only what is likely meant. The Freedom Riders used Gandhi's methods of passive resistance, singing protest songs while sitting, forcing their opponents to be the sole violent participants in their altercations. In one incident I just read about, some Riders were tossed out of jail because the guards could not stand their constant singing!
"An angry mob trailed along" does not logically follow... how does one "trail" someone "on his knees," who is not moving? Rather, this must refer to the racist mobs who followed the Freedom Rider's buses wherever they went, meeting them at each bus depot with fresh rounds of violence. In at least one case, a bus's tires were slashed, then the entire bus burned.
The next line-- "They shot my brother dead"-- is, as discussed above, the place where the song may break down, with regard to recording a factual incident. [Again, if anyone knows of any Freedom Rider having been killed for his activism, I would appreciate knowing and will certainly revise this essay based on that information.]
But it is the next line where Simon, for all his sometime lyrical floridity, shows how excellent a writer he is. This thought calls for economy of phrase and word choice, and Simon adapts his style and delivers a line of gunshot directness: "...he hated what was wrong." Racial hatred is wrong, and whether it is important enough to kill over, it is certainly important enough to die over.
The song closes with two more thoughts. One is that "tears won't bring [his brother] back." The implication is that mourning is not useful-- what is needed now is action, something that will assure that such tragedies don't happen again. The undercurrent urges the listener into activism. (Decades later, Simon will reconsider somewhat, opining, in "Cool Cool River": "Sometime, even music/Is no substitute for tears.")
This song, an elegy (poetic eulogy), ends with an epitaph, again delivered with forceful clarity: "He died so his brothers could be free." He was a martyr for civil and human rights.
Yes, he died for your freedom, too, listener! If it hasn't been obvious thus far, Simon now makes it plain. Whether or not this fallen man was the speaker's-- or audience's-- biological brother is irrelevant. The point is that all men are brothers in spirit. The victim's "brothers" are not the speaker and his other siblings, but all Americans and indeed all humans, all of whom deserve freedom.
Were any Freedom Riders killed in the cause of civil rights? Perhaps not. But from civil rights generals from Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Medgar Evers, to footsoldiers like Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, many did indeed "die... so their brothers could be free." And that is a truth, everyone laments, which did certainly occur.
Note: In the 1980s, Simon would travel to South Africa to use music to combat more racism, the oppressive system known as "apartheid." One of his collaborators there on the resulting 1986 album, the landmark Graceland, was Joseph Shabalala. In 1960, Mr. Shabalala founded the vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which the album would help bring to international acclaim. One of the ensemble's original founding members was Joseph's brother, Headman Shabalala, who gave the group some of its famous particular vocalizations. In 1991, Headman was returning from a family event when his car was pulled over by an off-duty security guard, who shot him in the head and killed him.
He, too, was our brother.
Next song: Wednesday Morning 3 AM