Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by John Dittmer Univ. of Illinois Press, Urbana, Illinois, 1994. $29.95 hard, $14.95 paper
These three excellent books represent a developing and welcome trend in civil rights historiography.
Previous histories have described the modern-day 20th-century civil rights movement from the top down — as a story whose main characters are Martin Luther King, Jr., and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Most have also described the development of the movement within a restricted time line — from the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education and the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott that introduced King and his espousal of nonviolent resistance to the passage of important civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965.
Under that time-bound restriction, the movement began suddenly out of nowhere in the middle 1950s; by the middle 1960s it had triumphed. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King and the active cooperation of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, segregation had been vanquished. The battle had been won.
In their books, Adam Fairclough, John Dittmer and Charles Payne expand that narrow time-line and enlarge the cast of characters to give readers a bottomup view of a movement which began far earlier than the middle 1950s. They place the federal government in perspective as an always reluctant participant, usually siding with segregationists and eager to avoid politically dangerous associations with Blacks.
In these books, the civil rights movement is rich in personalities, most of them sadly unknown to history.
All three authors also represent the growing genre of community studies — Fairclough and Dittmer closely examine the civil rights movement in the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, respectively, and Payne focuses his scholarly microscope on the Mississippi community of Greenwood.
All demonstrate convincingly that organized opposition to white supremacy in southern Black communities stretches far back through time. Each shows how early organizing, rather than protests alone, created a base for later movement activity and each convincingly illustrates the importance of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
But the NAACP isn’t the only organization fighting discrimination and harsh treatment in these narratives; voters’ leagues formed by returning servicemen after World War II, little-known organizations like Louisiana’s League for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights and the People’s Defense League, New Deal agencies like the Farm Security Administration, the Black press — these and many others are all part of the tale these authors tell.
Fairclough traces civil rights activity in the Pelican state from the founding of the New Orleans Branch of the NAACP in 1915 to 1972, and concludes with a look at present day Louisiana and an examination of the emergence of Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.
His story, while focused on Louisiana does not neglect larger currents that influence events in the state world wars, the Depression, anti-Communist witch hunts, and the cry for Black Power.
Fairclough’s NAACP is situated in a network of Black institutions including fraternal groups, businesses, professional associations, and labor unions.
Nor does he neglect to highlight the central role played by now-forgotten heroes and heroines of the early twentieth century — New Orleans Attorney A. P. Tureaud; the integrated Southern Conference for Human Welfare; federal judges J. Skelly Wright and John Minor Wisdom and many, many others. He reminds us that Louisiana Blacks faced a white opposition as brutal, fierce and unyielding as did their Alabama and Mississippi counterparts.
Dittmer’s aptly titled “Local People” is just that; the story of how Black Mississippians, against impossible odds, struggled from the end of World War II through the more celebrated modern movement of the 1960s.
His story, too, is filled with brave and unknown warriors, women and men, who dared to challenge racism in the nation’s most resistant state, persevering over decades of quiet battles against rampant terror, and the villains who resisted them with lynch mob justice and sophisticated political back stabbing.
The names and deeds, ugly and heroic, leap off the page — young returning WWII veterans Charles and Medgar Evers daring to try to vote in Decatur, Mississippi in 1946; a state court awarding a white woman $5,000 because a newspaper had wrongly identified her as “a Negro”; the celebrated case of accused rapist Willie McGhee, defended by a young New York lawyer named Bella Abzug; Dr. T. R. M. Howard, organizer of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, which brought 10,000 Blacks to Mound Bayou to hear newly elected Democratic Congressman Charles Diggs of Detroit; George Lee correctly predicting in 1955 that “someday the Delta would send a Negro to Congress”; Clyde Kennard sentenced to prison after he dared try to integrate Mississippi Southern College and many, many others.
Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963. Dr. Howard would be forced to leave Mississippi. George Lee was shot to death in Belzoni. Kennard contracted cancer in prison and died, but others carried the movement forward.
Dittmer details their efforts and shows how the Mississippi movement inched forward toward the climactic summer of 1964, when more than 1,000 white volunteers descended on the state for Freedom Summer.
That summer cost more lives — civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — and the lives of at least five more whose bodies were discovered during searches for the more prominent — and integrated — trio.
But Dittmer doesn’t make Freedom Summer the centerpiece of the Mississippi story; instead, it is an important chapter in a longer saga.
Using hitherto unavailable files from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the tax-payer funded opposition to the movement, he is able to reveal a sordid history of behind-the-scenes official interference in events, including paid movement spies and efforts aimed at subverting movement initiatives.
He also tells the story of the manipulation of Tougaloo College’s presidency by Brown University. Tougaloo was a movement center, a refuge from Mississippi’s racial storms, a safe haven that housed an interracial faculty — including Dittmer himself — and a student body which included many movement activists. Brown and Tougaloo had a cooperative arrangement which proved profitable for the small Mississippi school, securing support from Northern philanthropists. But Brown could not tolerate Tougaloo’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Brown’s President, Barnaby Keeney, managed to arrange the firing of Tougaloo President Daniel Beittel, who had encouraged students to take an interest in the world beyond their campus. Keeney also ended Tougaloo’s association with a movement-inspired literacy project and its involvement in Mississippi’s anti-poverty agency, which had long been a thorn in the side of the state’s congressional delegation and local white leadership. The Brown president was also on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) payroll, and while Dittmer makes no connection between the CIA and the withering of Tougaloo’s role in the movement, he does note that the CIA connection is illustrative of the tangled web of government/academic/philanthropic connections and the Black struggle which remain largely unexplored today.
While both write about Mississippi, Dittmer’s and Payne’s books are complementary.
Payne’s account of the movement in Greenwood includes early 1920s and 1930s activists like Septima Clark and Ella Baker. Neither-was a presence in Mississippi then, but each was beginning — Clark in South Carolina and Baker in New York — to shape a movement ethos. Both were tireless organizers and strategists. Working With organizations as different as the Highlander Folk School and the NAACP, they argued for a democratic mode of movement decision making, far different from the hierarchal, top-down leadership style typified by the NAACP and most Black organizations then (and now).
That style would be adopted by Mississippi movement stalwarts, like Cleveland’s Amzie Moore and the young militants from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Payne, Dittmer and Fairclough also argue convincingly against the movement leadership model commonly accepted by historians — male, clerical and middle class. Payne shows that the rural working class, sharecroppers and women provided the most militant and courageous leadership in Mississippi’s dangerous Delta, as elsewhere in the South, and that Black churches were reluctant late-comers to the freedom fight.
These books refute the standard King-centric and Kennedy-centric accounts. Without denigrating King and his important role, they shine a bright light on generations of activists. Without them the 1960s movement would have been impossible.
But, as Payne notes in a bibliographic essay, “It is still possible to write Blacks out of much history, to write women out, to write Southerners and working class people out, and still be taken seriously.”
Payne, Dittmer and Fairclough have made the history of the Southern freedom struggle more complete. Their books will make it difficult for any future scholar who tries to write the movement’s main actors out to be taken seriously.
Julian Bond is a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Governmental at The American University and a Lecturer in History at the University of Virginia.
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