A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi

A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi

A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi

A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi

Synopsis

In this long-term community study of the freedom movement in rural, majority-black Claiborne County, Mississippi, Emilye Crosby explores the impact of the African American freedom struggle on small communities in general and questions common assumptions that are based on the national movement. The legal successes at the national level in the mid 1960s did not end the movement, Crosby contends, but rather emboldened people across the South to initiate waves of new actions around local issues.

Escalating assertiveness and demands of African Americans--including the reality of armed self-defense--were critical to ensuring meaningful local change to a remarkably resilient system of white supremacy. In Claiborne County, a highly effective boycott eventually led the Supreme Court to affirm the legality of economic boycotts for political protest. NAACP leader Charles Evers (brother of Medgar) managed to earn seemingly contradictory support from the national NAACP, the segregationist Sovereignty Commission, and white liberals. Studying both black activists and the white opposition, Crosby employs traditional sources and more than 100 oral histories to analyze the political and economic issues in the postmovement period, the impact of the movement and the resilience of white supremacy, and the ways these issues are closely connected to competing histories of the community.

Excerpt

The early histories of the civil rights movement tended to be national in scope, with a top-down perspective that focused on major events, national organizations and leaders, significant legal decisions, and obvious political shifts. This perspective continues to shape the prevailing popular view and even much of the scholarship that portrays the civil rights movement as a reformist, interracial crusade where nonviolent protesters exposed the evils of segregation and convinced the country, especially well-intentioned white northerners, to live up to its ideals of freedom and democracy. This version of the movement is particularly egregious in popular culture, especially the stillinfluential 1984 movie Mississippi Burning, and in the education of middle and high school students. One of my students captured this perfectly with a short synopsis at Geneseo's 2004 Martin Luther King Day observance when he said, “One day a nice old lady, Rosa Parks, sat down on a bus and got arrested. The next day Martin Luther King Jr. stood up and the Montgomery Bus Boycott followed. And sometime later King delivered his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech and segregation was over. This is how the story was taught to me.”

Even more pernicious than this simplistic characterization of the movement (that denies the agency of Rosa Parks and the thousands of African Americans in Montgomery whose thirteen-month boycott highlighted the possibilities of mass action) is the Mississippi Burning rendition of movement history. Although the movie might be dismissed by some as irrelevant or extreme, this “wrongheaded attempt at a sympathetic portrayal of the movement,” which features a heroic federal government defeating firebomb-throwing redneck white men while African Americans stand by as passive victims who are . . .

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