I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle

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Overview

This momentous work offers a groundbreaking history of the early civil rights movement in the South. Using wide-ranging archival work and extensive interviews with movement participants, Charles Payne uncovers a chapter of American social history forged locally, in places like Greenwood, Mississippi, where countless unsung African Americans risked their lives for the freedom struggle. The leaders were ordinary women and men--sharecroppers, domestics, high school students, beauticians, independent farmers--committed to organizing the civil rights struggle house by house, block by block, relationship by relationship. Payne brilliantly brings to life the tradition of grassroots African American activism, long practiced yet poorly understood.
Payne overturns familiar ideas about community activism in the 1960s. The young organizers who were the engines of change in the state were not following any charismatic national leader. Far from being a complete break with the past, their work was based directly on the work of an older generation of activists, people like Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry. These leaders set the standards of courage against which young organizers judged themselves; they served as models of activism that balanced humanism with militance. While historians have commonly portrayed the movement leadership as male, ministerial, and well-educated, Payne finds that organizers in Mississippi and elsewhere in the most dangerous parts of the South looked for leadership to working-class rural Blacks, and especially to women. Payne also finds that Black churches, typically portrayed as frontrunners in the civil rights struggle, were in fact late supporters of the movement.

This momentous work offers a groundbreaking history of the early civil rights movement in the South. Using wide-ranging archival work and extensive interviews with movement participants, Payne uncovers a chapter of American history forged locally, in places like Greenwood, Mississippi, where countless unsung black people risked their lives for the freedom struggle.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Not a comprehensive history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, this thoughtful study instead analyzes the legacy of community organizing there. Payne, who teaches African American studies, sociology and urban affairs at Northwestern University, notes that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), though grounded in youthful energy, gained much from the ``congealed experience'' of older leaders, such as Ella Baker and Septima Clark. Concentrating on the delta city of Greenwood, he offers useful profiles of local activists, showing that many came from families with traditions of social involvement or defiance. He also explores the disproportionate number of female volunteers, the older black generation's complex interactions with whites and the decline of organizing as the 1960s proceeded. And he notes that, despite an ideology of unity, black activists lost the capacity to work together. Photos not seen by PW. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Payne (African American studies, Northwestern Univ.) presents an illuminating examination of the Civil Rights movement at the local level, in this case Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1960s. As Payne deftly grafts Greenwood's struggle onto the larger movement, he challenges several widely accepted conclusions, such as overemphasizing a core cadre of male leaders while overlooking the important contributions of women and youth and the belief that the black church was an early leader in the movement. Much of Payne's information is culled from oral interviews with actual movement participants. The result is an important history of the Civil Rights movement at the grass-roots level that is reminiscent of Robert Norrell's Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee (Knopf, 1985). The excellent bibliographic essay is essential reading. Recommended for any library that collects Civil Rights materials.-Jonathan Jeffrey, Western Kentucky Univ., Bowling Green
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520207066
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/15/1997
  • Series: Centennial Book Series
  • Edition description: Older Edition
  • Pages: 506
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles M. Payne is Professor and Bass Fellow, African American Studies, History and Sociology, Duke University

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 Setting the Stage 7
2 Testing the Limits: Black Activism in Postwar Mississippi 29
3 Give Light and the People Will Find a Way: The Roots of an Organizing Tradition 67
4 Moving on Mississippi 103
5 Greenwood: Building on the Past 132
6 If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me: The Redefinition of Leadership 180
7 They Kept the Story Before Me: Families and Traditions 207
8 Slow and Respectful Work: Organizers and Organizing 236
9 A Woman's War 265
10 Transitions 284
11 Carrying on: The Politics of Empowerment 317
12 From SNCC to Slick: The Demoralization of the Movement 338
13 Mrs. Hamer Is No Longer Relevant: The Loss of the Organizing Tradition 363
14 The Rough Draft of History 391
Epilogue 407
Bibliographic Essay: The Social Construction of History 413
Notes 443
Interviews 489
Index 493
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