Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Dr. Charles Payne: Chronicling the Unsung Heroes

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Dr. Charles Payne: Chronicling the Unsung Heroes

Article excerpt

Dr. Charles Payne: Chronicling the Unsung Heroes.

The real leaders and founders of the civil rights movement were not who the public generally thinks they were, says Dr. Charles Payne, professor of African American Studies and Sociology and Urban Affairs at Northwestern University.

"The real leaders were not the ministers and leaders of the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King -- they were the grass-roots everyday people we have not heard about, says Payne, in his book "I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle" -- for which he recently received the Lillian Smith Book award.

Payne modestly says he has not written anything that has not been said before but he does say he has focused attention on things that "maybe" did not receive sufficient attention before.

Says Payne: "For me there are two main points: to try to tell the story of the movement in one of the most dangerous states -- Mississippi -- from the bottom up...and not pay so much attention to national organizations and national civil rights leaders. And to make the central question `what do local people contribute to the movement for their own liberation?'

"So the book tries to emphasize the role of local Black Mississippians over the college students who came in from the North, of poor people over middle-class leadership and of women over men.

It also focuses on the development of tribalism within the movement -- Northerners vs. Southerners. college educated vs. non-college educated and the expulsion of whites by the radical right and such organizations as the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

In the early 1960s the leadership at the local level was clearly disproportionately female. Payne explains. The groundwork for the movement in Mississippi was laid by women such as Ella Baker. who was active in SCLC before the 1960s (and later SNCC) and Septima Clark, who founded the citizenship schools and did a lot of work for the Southern Regional Council.

"It's no accident that Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer comes out of Mississippi, because there was a conscious effort in Mississippi to find people who had leadership talents," says Payne.

Before the mid-sixties the ministers were the ones very frequently in the Black community who led the vocal opposition to the movement. But the participation changes starting with the voting rights bill of 1965, Payne says.

I think it is important to give the proper credit to the local grass-roots folks, explains Payne, because it is important to develop a cadre of local folks to carry on the work after all the national attention was gone. …

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