Class and Politics in the Mississippi Movement: An Analysis of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Delegation

By Draper, Alan | The Journal of Southern History, May 2016 | Go to article overview

Class and Politics in the Mississippi Movement: An Analysis of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Delegation


Draper, Alan, The Journal of Southern History


A NEW GENERATION OF CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORIANS HAS BEGUN TO subvert the top-down, uplifting narrative that characterized the earlier literature. These scholars not only have extended the standard movement time line of Montgomery to Memphis both backward and forward but also have tried to shift the spotlight from the black elite who led the national organizations that tried to influence policy in Washington, D.C., such as Roy Wilkins at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to shine on equally deserving, lesser-known, and more often lower-class activists in local communities. In contrast to a prevailing civil rights literature that consisted "mainly of studies of the major national civil rights leaders and their organizations," historians are digging deeper into local struggles against racism to rescue these brave activists from oblivion. (1) They lament that most scholarship on the movement gives credit to famous, national civil rights leaders at the expense of the grassroots, local activists who, according to David J. Garrow, were "the actual human catalysts of the movement, the people who really gave direction to the movement's organizing work, the individuals whose records reflect the greatest substantive accomplishments.... [and] who had the greatest personal impact upon the course of the southern movement." (2) Their pointillistic histories describe how before, and even after, legislative victories were secured in Washington, local people in remote southern communities had to win civil rights county by county, town by town, and even swimming pool by swimming pool.

But the advantages of the bottom-up perspective go beyond merely restoring credit to those who have been overlooked. Such studies also have "laid a foundation for reshaping movement history" and "demand a rethinking of what and who we think is important." According to Emilye Crosby, "studying ... the movement's local indigenous base fundamentally alters our picture of the movement and its significance" and "call[s] into question many of the top-down generalizations introduced and reinforced by studies of national leaders, major events, and pivotal legal and political milestones." (3) Clayborne Carson contends that a local perspective broadens our sense of the civil rights movement to include leaders and groups that "displayed a wide range of ideologies and proto-ideologies, involving militant racial or class consciousness" that went beyond "King's Christian-Gandhianism." (4) As J. Todd Moye writes, "The way civil rights historians tended to frame their narratives placed well-educated African Americans with good, stable jobs at the center of the stories." But as a result of the new, local bottom-up history, "scholars now understand the civil rights movement to have been more female, more grass roots, less philosophically nonviolent, and less pulpit-directed than they understood it to be thirty years ago." (5) Jeanne Theoharis asserts that a "history focuse[d] on the specific--on a locality, an organizer, or a campaign"--has started "to map the black freedom struggle in new and important ways," including "question[ing] the most basic aspects of the story--who led and undertook these movements, what the movement was actually about, where it took place, when it happened, and why people engaged." (6) Charles M. Payne summarizes all the ways the new civil rights scholarship requires scholars to rethink critical issues such as "the top-down and triumphal underpinnings of the narrative; the overemphasis on the South as a site of struggle; the extent of nonviolence; the character of white resistance, including the idea that it was mostly a problem of the South; the continued marginalization of women; the chronology; the role of liberals; the equation of Black Power with the end of the movement; the separation between civil rights history and labor history; and the related tendency to underemphasize the economic goals of the movement. …

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