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Grass Roots Civil Rights

[clock] 11-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Autumn 1996
Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. By John Dittmer. Illinois. $2995
I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. By Charles M.Payne. California.$28.00.

The state of Mississippi has received more than its fair share of attention from America’s most talented humanists. The novels and stories of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty have explored the human condition in Magnolia State settings. Why Mississippi has enjoyed the spotlight has invited much speculation: beyond the accident of geniuses’ births, explanations have pointed to its violent racial exploitation, its preoccupation with its history, and its profound provincialism. Talented historians recently have examined Mississippi’s past and rendered powerful works. My short list of the best recent books in Southern history includes three “Mississippi” titles: Neil R.McMillen’s Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow, James C.Cobb’s The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity, and Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s The Literary Percys: Family History, Gender, and the Southern Imagination. Until now, however, most historians have neglected Mississippi’s experience during the civil rights era of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The most celebrated historical works on the Civil Rights Movement—especially those by David Garrow and Taylor Branch—have followed the career of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Montgomery to Albany to Birmingham, and then from Washington to Selma to Chicago and finally to Memphis. That path rarely detoured through Mississippi, and none of Dr. King’s most dramatic appointments took place there.

The works of John Dittmer and Charles M. Payne now have attended to that neglect, each with its own distinctive authority that has been recognized by the various book awards committees. Twice again Mississippi benefits from the literary spotlight.

Each book tells the same amazing story. Most activists for racial change would agree that white supremacy in Mississippi reached a higher level of intensity than in the other Deep South states. It was the worst of the bad, home of the most systematic and violent racial oppression in the United states.”Mississippi,” Dittmer concludes, “had no racially enlightened white political leadership, no locally influential voices of moderation in the media, no white ministerial associations pleading for racial justice.” The historian James Silver, a longtime professor at the University of Mississippi, declared in 1964 that the state was a “closed society” in which there was virtually no tolerance of dissent from extreme white supremacy. The white citizens’ councils of the 1950’s had their birth there and dominated state politics and state racial policies for a decade. When it became apparent in the early 1960’s that the councils’ tactics of economic coercion of black Mississippians were not stopping civil rights activism, the Ku Klux Klan stepped in and embarked on a terrorist campaign to kill, or at least drive out of the state, those people working for change. The Klan campaign culminated in the murder of three activists near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June 1964.

Although Mississippi’s bigotry represented to activists a seemingly insurmountable rock of hatred, African-Americans began after World War II to assault it. Black veterans of World War II—most notably, Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, and Medgar Evers—came home and began challenging the mistreatment of black Mississippians.”Why were we fighting?” Moore asked afterward in his Delta town of Cleveland.”Why were we there? If we were fighting for the four freedoms that Roosevelt and Churchill had talked about, then certainly we felt that the American soldier should be free first.” In 1951 Moore helped to found the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, which among other things encouraged blacks to register to vote. In 1955 an estimated 13,000 people came to one of its meetings. In 1954 Medgar Evers became Mississippi field director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and from then on he and his organization challenge the white supremacists. Such activism spurred the reaction that same year of the white citizens’ councils, and the subsequent murders of activists like Herbert Lee and innocent victims like Emmett Till combined with intensely ugly economic coercion to chill activism in the late 1950’s.

The 1960’s brought a resurgence of activism among black Mississippians—indeed, some of the most heroic work for justice that one can find in American history. New leaders emerged from the cotton fields and sharecropper shacks to demand the right to vote. They included Annie Devine, Victoria Gray, and the unforgettable Fannie Lou Hamer. The 1960’s also witnessed the arrival of a few outsiders, mainly under the organizational umbrella of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who were young and often fearless and who immediately connected to the local leaders. Chief among the SNCC leadership in Mississippi was Robert Moses, a New Yorker with strong bonds to the local people. In 1962 SNCC joined with the NAACP and the local arm of the Congress of Racial Equality to form the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a union that presented a solid phalanx of black insurgence to assault the solid wall of white racism. Starting about 1961, certain Mississippi communities became the foci of the struggle. Perhaps the most important of the local protest efforts took place in McComb during 1961—62, and in Greenwood during 1962—64.

In 1964 COFO organized the Mississippi Summer project to attract national attention to conditions in Mississippi. Among other things, that effort resulted in the Philadelphia murders and the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which did indeed rivet the nation’s attention on the state and its racial evils. After 1964, the Mississippi story is a tale of both triumph and turmoil: African-Americans were enfranchised starting in 1965 and they gradually gained political power, but they also experienced divisions over strategy and personality that left many activists disappointed about what had been accomplished. After 1965 the War on Poverty programs and the racial politics associated with their development left the struggle’s conclusion somewhat muddled and its meaning often ironic.

John Dittmer and Charles Payne rarely if ever disagree about the facts of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi. Neither do they diverge about who should receive credit for the victories won. If most of the earlier writing on the civil movement has dwelt on the heroics of King and his national strategy, these two works clearly demonstrate that “local people” led the movement for change and deserve the credit for what is better about Mississippi today. Each leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the civil rights movement in Mississippi was a mass movement, the work of all African-Americans in that state.

Each work has its special strength. Dittmer, who is professor of history at DePauw University after many years teaching at Tougaloo College in Jackson, provides a tightly written narrative that pulls the reader along quickly from 1946 to about 1968.For the chronology of what happened and the internal politics of the movement, one could hardly wish for anything more or better. Readers will appreciate that Dittmer attempts at the end to tally the successes of the movement: it brought a much greater civility and openness for all black Mississippians; better economic opportunities for middle-class African-Americans; and large reduction in the terrorism that had previously filled their lives.

Payne, professor of sociology and chair of African-American studies at Northwestern University, is less comprehensive and chronological but more expansive in his interpretive efforts. His work is heavily centered on events in the Delta town of Greenwood. He is quite explicit about the differences between what happened in Mississippi and what has been written about civil rights activism before now. He believes it is healthy to direct our attention away from the dramatic conflicts in Birmingham or Montgomery that captured the imagination of the national media and toward the dirt roads of the Mississippi delta. He also directs our attention away from charismatic ministers and toward the small town and rural activists, many of them women. Indeed, he shows time and again that ministers were not the leading activists but sometimes the opponents of the struggle. He emphasizes that it was mainly a secular revolt, led by small businessmen and small farmers and sharecropping women—many times because the local preachers were too timid to risk their position.

Payne even directs our attention away from the young people of the 1960’s—though he doesn’t ignore them—toward the old people of that decade, who fought white supremacy because they simply decided not to be afraid any longer. I’ve Got the Light of Freedommakes the powerful observation that at some level the success of the Civil Rights Movement came from the proof that white Mississippians, regardless of violence and intimidation, simply could no longer terrorize black Mississippians into accepting segregation. Once whites saw that a lot of blacks could not be frightened, the civil rights movement was won.

Payne is also convinced that the Civil Rights Movement was a revolution that began much earlier than many writers have previously thought. He goes back even further than Dittmer, to the 1930’s and early 1940’s when the leading activists of that day—Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Miles Horton are singled out—were setting the pattern that later, more famous people would follow. In the most white supremacist place in this country, some African-Americans were fully in revolt by the 1940’s.

Payne and Dittmer insist that the Civil Rights Movement was in fact many local revolutions, which is a message that should speak to present concerns., Today’s best opportunities to advance the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement probably exist in our local communities. Payne quotes Robert Moses, speaking in recent years: “Everything starts at your doorstep. Just get deeply involved in something.” That’s what Moses and thousands of others had done in Mississippi in the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s. If, as they say, all politics are local, so are all efforts for human rights and racial justice local efforts. It is a powerful message that can give hope even during times of apparent national indifference to matters of racial justice.

If, however, one assumes that these local efforts have been happening in communities in Mississippi—and in others throughout the South—since the 1940’s, why do we not live in a more just society? And, why did the Civil Rights Movement reach a climax, of sorts, in about 1965 and then become ineffectual as an agent of change after that? Both Dittmer and Payne have thought about these hard questions. Dittmer deftly traces the internecine conflicts of the Mississippi movement, and he reveals the strains between local efforts and the national civil rights organizations, especially the NAACP.Local people simply had different strategies and often different goals from the national civil rights organizations. Even acknowledging that, however, still leaves a question about why local activism was less effective after 1965.Why did protest work so well for a time but then why did it seem to stop yielding changes?

Payne implies that much of the responsibility for the later ineffectiveness lay with the media that interpreted activism for the public. The leading newspapers and the television networks liked the dramatic confrontations between protesters and hard-core segregationists, arranged by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and interpreted for the nation by Dr. King, which in 1964 and 1965 pushed the U.S.Congress and the President to make fundamental revision of the laws governing treatment of African-Americans. Payne argues in essence that American journalism covers violence and conflict adeptly but cannot report on equally important events that lack visual drama, and he is doubtless correct. Much of the important work of local activism is dull to watch.

In his penetrating bibliographic essay called “The Social Construction of History,” Payne observes that much of the writing of civil rights history has shared the media’s preference for the dramatic conflicts, especially those with King at center stage. He finds these works “hegemonic,” imposing on the reader a set of “normative” values that were not usually shared by African-Americans in revolt in the civil rights years. Those normative values were the ones identified by Gunnar Myrdal and others—liberty, equality, democracy. But even readers who agree with Payne about the importance of studying the local people might dissent from the seemingly casual dismissal as “normative” the democratic values of the American creed.

One could argue in fact that civil rights activists at all levels embraced a broad definition of liberty and equality; that Dr. King persuaded some African-Americans—not the fearless local people featured in these books but the millions weighed down by generations of oppression—that liberty, equality, and democracy were their natural rights; that for a short time in the 1960’s King and other activists persuaded enough white Americans that our racial practices so contradicted our democratic values that we had to change. But as Professor Payne no doubt would quickly point out, some Americans have a very narrow definition of equality, and after 1965 it became more difficult, and soon impossible, to persuade a majority that more change was called for. Indeed, by the late 1960s, the loudest demands were for no more civil rights reforms at all. Thus the direct-action protests of the 1960’s ceased to bring big changes—at any level, local or national—even though racial injustice still existed. Since then, local people have continued to struggle, perhaps sustained at times mainly by the memory of an earlier time.


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