Magazine article Poverty & Race

Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi: Film Highlights Long Threads in Civil Rights History

Magazine article Poverty & Race

Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi: Film Highlights Long Threads in Civil Rights History

Article excerpt

Like the episode on Mississippi of the classic film series Eyes on the Prize, the Television Academy-Award-winning Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi skillfully weaves together interviews with civil rights activists, archival film footage, and original historical research to portray the key period of civil rights history leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This history is worth recalling in the wake of the presidential election of 2016, in large part the result of decades of voter suppression which threatens to usher in a new period of Jim Crow.

Even in the wake of the civil rights victories of the 1960s, including representation of Blacks in county and state-level politics, the film's setting of Holmes County remains one of the poorest counties in the United States, with more than half of households having incomes under $21,000 a year (approximately half the state median of $41,000 a year, itself the lowest of all 50 states). Holmes County, like most of the Delta region, voted overwhelmingly against Donald Trump in the 2016 election. But Mississippi remains a reliably Red state, where Republicans dominate the state government and hold both U.S. Senate seats and three of four of the state's seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The themes raised in Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi, in our view, have relevance both for interpretation of the centuries-long history of racial injustice and the resistance against it in the United States and for our country in the critical next years of the 21st century. In particular, we are convinced that both past and future need to be analyzed paying attention not only to the successes or failures of specific organizations and institutions, but also to personal and family networks that cross generational, geographic, racial, cultural, and other social boundaries.

This film, narrated by Danny Glover, is also distinctive in several ways that make it a particularly valuable resource for researchers, students, and social justice activists alike:

* While touching on the historic events which received national attention (Freedom Summer, the murders of civil rights activists Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner; the 1964 Democratic Convention, and President Lyndon Johnson's legislative initiatives on civil rights), its focus is the small rural community of Mileston, in Holmes County, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta just under 80 miles north of the state capital Jackson. And it gives priority to local activists who seldom feature in the national narrative.

* In particular, it highlights the critical roles of Black landowners, in Holmes County as around Mississippi, as the indispensable support base for the movement through providing housing for activists on their farms and armed defense for the organizers of non-violent demonstrations and voter registration drives. Unlike Blacks living on plantations or otherwise dependent on whites for paychecks, landowners had achieved some level of independence and were willing and able to step up as leaders.

* It also reveals links to earlier history, including a little-known initiative of the New Deal, which established the Mileston farmers on good Delta land from a white plantation foreclosed at the height of the Great Depression. On the hill country on the eastern side of Holmes County, other farmers traced their land ownership back over a century. One of these was Robert Clark, whose great-grandfather purchased the land from his former master. In 1967, Clark became the first Black elected to the Mississippi legislature since Reconstruction, and served 36 years, retiring a Speaker of the Mississippi House.

The authors of this review share a common interest in these connecting threads, through different personal connections to the role of the interracial Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) in the region in the decades preceding the 1960s civil rights movement. Honey's latest book, Sharecropper's Troubadour, recounts the life and legacy of John L. …

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