Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Grass Roots Civil Rights

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Grass Roots Civil Rights

Article excerpt

Local PeopIe: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. By John Dittmer. Illinois $29.95

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. …

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