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From the Publisher"A wonderfully evocative work of history that is a welcome—and needed—addition to the literature on the civil rights movement."
— Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
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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.
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 handed equality, remains disturbingly current, broadly accepted, and distressingly reflective of not just popular but scholarly assumptions and framing of the movement. In fact, although historians and historical overviews typically offer a more complex version of the civil rights movement, collectively they have failed to adequately address or incorporate a new body of scholarship-particularly community studies of local movements-that has emerged in the past decade. Individually and collectively, local studies, especially, are contributing details and adding complexity to our understanding of the civil rights movement and providing the basis for reexamining important historiographical questions, especially those related to the implications of particular time and place; tactical and ideological differences and choices; gender and leadership; and the contours of white supremacy as a broad-based, national phenomenon. Despite the compelling findings of this relatively recent work, however, the outdated narrative of progress, with its overemphasis on sympathetic whites and top-down change and its denial of African American agency, continues to dominate among all but a few specialists.
Reorienting this broad-based misrepresentation is important. Few students today understand how open and pervasive white supremacy was before the movement. They regularly ask why African Americans living through Jim Crow did not more directly challenge the status quo and commonly assert that they would have acted more aggressively. Reflecting the lack of historical depth that nurtures such views, another student, after reading one of my articles on the Claiborne County, Mississippi, movement, asked why blacks had not voted for sympathetic whites. She and others are just not aware of what may seem obvious to scholars and those who lived through the premovement era-that most blacks simply were not allowed to vote. As this suggests, students and the general public typically do not understand the extent of black disfranchisement or the white power structure's ability to retaliate against black activism. This lack of understanding is exacerbated by the persistence of the triumphant narrative that most people absorb as movement history and by the accompanying assumption that our nation has actually confronted and solved the problems generated by segregation and white supremacy.
While historians engage over competing emphases and try to realign popular conceptions so they more closely match scholarly findings, those who still live in the communities most directly affected by the southern civil rights movement often hold onto competing interpretations. For many whites in the Claiborne County, Mississippi, community I write about, especially those who lived through the movement as adults or children, the movement is "that old mess," something they do not want to think about, talk about, or examine. When pushed, they describe it as a hurtful time that damaged race relations and destroyed much that was good about their community. In contrast, Claiborne County African Americans who experienced the movement celebrate it, especially the feelings of possibility and togetherness that it engendered. However, they also point to stubborn and persistent problems, especially in terms of employment, public education, and continuing racial divisions, what they see as the movement's unfinished business. Almost forty years after the mass movement began in Claiborne County, there is little immediate hope for developing a shared understanding of the past. In fact, whites tend to see contemporary problems as stemming from the movement, while blacks see them as resulting from white determination to preserve the status quo.
This community study of the black freedom struggle in rural Claiborne County, Mississippi, extends roughly from Reconstruction to the present, with an emphasis on the post-Brown decision civil rights movement. Through this detailed history, I hope to address all of these audiences and versions of the movement by telling the story of a community and the people in it, including those who actively fought for full citizenship and those who struggled to sustain white supremacy. In the process, I explicitly engage with a number of historiographical debates, especially those related to chronology, the role of self-defense in a movement widely framed as nonviolent, the importance of economic boycotts, the implications of organizational and leadership styles, and the intersection between national change and local activism. This is a complicated and sometimes messy history that highlights and explores the primacy of African American activism, the forces driving change in the racial status quo, divisions between and within the black and white communities, issues of leadership and strategy, and the tenacity of white supremacy.
As a community study, this history offers insight into the movement and U.S. history generally, but it is also, fundamentally, about this particular place and the generations of people who have lived and died there, people whose lives typically centered around family, work, and church. In the midst of the daily demands of life, they also battled in large and small ways, and in arenas that ranged from the U.S. Supreme Court to the grocery store line, over definitions of citizenship and what it should mean for people on a day-to-day basis. African Americans insisted on dignified treatment and full inclusion in the community's public life, while whites clung to paternalistic notions of black inferiority and defended inherited privilege. In rural communities like Claiborne County, where lives were intertwined and most people knew each other, the civil rights movement generated both minor and dramatic shifts, many of them vividly illustrated by apparently mundane interactions between people going about their daily lives. In this close picture and these details, we see some of the problems of the dominant movement narrative and the ways that it is only part of a fuller, richer, and more complex story.
Excerpted from A Little Taste of Freedom by Emilye Crosby Copyright © 2005 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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|Ch. 1||Jim Crow rules||1|
|Ch. 2||A taste of freedom||15|
|Ch. 3||Adapting and preserving white supremacy||28|
|Ch. 4||Working for a better day||43|
|Ch. 5||Reacting to the Brown decision||64|
|Ch. 6||Winning the right to organize||79|
|Ch. 7||A new day begun||91|
|Ch. 8||Moving for freedom||101|
|Ch. 9||It really started out at Alcorn||118|
|Ch. 10||Everybody stood for the boycott||128|
|Ch. 11||Clinging to power and the past||148|
|Ch. 12||Seeing that justice is done||169|
|Ch. 13||Our leader Charles Evers||189|
|Ch. 14||Charles Evers's own little empire||207|
|Ch. 15||A legacy of polarization||224|
|Ch. 16||Not nearly what it ought to be||241|
|Conclusion : what it is this freedom?||255|
|Epilogue : looking the devil in the eye : who gets to tell the story?||269|