Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America

Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America

Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America

Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America


"The thirteen essays in this important collection examine grass-roots struggles for racial justice throughout the United States from 1940-1980...Read together, these essays remind us that activism changes people as much as society." - Journal of American History

"The essays in Groundworkassert individually and collectively that at the root of any national movement for change are local activists working from the bottom up to change their communities first, then the world. This excellent and invigorating collection is crucial reading in an election year." - Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and author of America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans

"A major contribution to the ever expanding historical literature of the modern African American freedom struggle. This book brings together outstanding examples of detailed and thoughtful studies of northern as well as southern local movements." - Clayborne Carson, Professor of History and Director, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, Stanford University

"Brilliantly conveys the vibrancy and creativity of community-based movements that transformed America's racial and civic landscape in the decades following World War II." - Patricia Sullivan, author of Freedom Writer: Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights Years

"Required reading for anyone who wants to understand what the Civil Rights Movement actually was - a national movement conceived and executed by local people in cities and towns across this country. They are the people who made the movement that made Martin Luther King, Jr.--not the other way around." - Julian Bond, Professor of History, University of Virginia, American University, and Chairman of the NAACP

"This work demonstrates again and again how local movements complicate the standard civil rights narrative of nonviolence, black power, busing, and the nature of leadership." - Tracy E. K'Meyer, Associate Professor US History, University of Louisville

"These essays enrich understanding of the valiant struggles to make real the promise of a more democratic US." - CHOICE, highly recommended

Over the last several years, the traditional narrative of the civil rights movement as largely a southern phenomenon, organized primarily by male leaders, that roughly began with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has been complicated by studies that root the movement in smaller communities across the country. These local movements had varying agendas and organizational development, geared to the particular circumstances, resources, and regions in which they operated. Local civil rights activists frequently worked in tandem with the national civil rights movement but often functioned autonomously from- and sometimes even at odds with- the national movement. Together, the pathbreaking essays in Groundworkteach us that local civil rights activity was a vibrant component of the larger civil rights movement, and contributed greatly to its national successes. Individually, the pieces offer dramatic new insights about the civil rights movement, such as the fact that a militant black youth organization in Milwaukee was led by a white Catholic priest and in Cambridge, Maryland, by a middle-aged black woman; that a group of middle-class, professional black women spearheaded Jackson, Mississippi's movement for racial justice and made possible the continuation of the Freedom Ride


Much of what is important in John Dittmer's approach to the civil rights movement is present on the first page of his book Local People. the time is July 1946, two years after the Supreme Court struck down the all-white primary, one of Mississippi's favorite devices for systematically disenfranchising its black citizens. Despite warnings of bloodshed and retribution, several thousand blacks across the state tried to vote in the 1946 primary. in Decatur Medgar Evers and a group of his friends, all veterans of the late war against fascism, put on their uniforms and marched to the courthouse, determined to vote like Americans. There they were met by a group of fifteen or twenty white men just as determined that they would not. the white men were armed, so Evers and his friends went back to get their guns. Again they drove to the courthouse, found the mob still there, and decided not to contest the issue further that day.

That brief vignette does some important work. It locates the “beginnings” of the movement story in the years surrounding World War II, revising the more traditional assumption, among both scholarly and popular audiences, that all that really mattered happened between the midfifties and mid-sixties, the Montgomery to Memphis framework. Much of the initiative that made the movement possible, much of the tactical innovation, and much of the persistence came from select local people like Evers and his friends. No national organization nor charismatic leader suggested that they try to register. As far as we know, they were acting on their own sense of what it meant to be a citizen, a sense undoubtedly strengthened by their service in the war. It is also significant that the incident concerns voting. As the Mississippi movement entered a new phase in the 1960s it maintained a focus on voting rights, and this was at the insistence of indigenous leaders like Amzie Moore who maintained that desegregating lunch counters and the like might be fine in other places but it made no sense in Mississippi.

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