Spirit and Velocity
Reviewed by Barry E. Lee
Vol. 16, No. 2, 1994, pp. 28-31
Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, by John Dittmer (University of Illinois Press, 1994, 530 pages).
John Dittmer’s Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi traces the struggles of black Mississippians, aided by national civil rights organizations, to break the death grip of white supremacy. The author unearths the origins of the Mississippi movement in the post-World War II period and the preceding decades. While admitting that to affix dates is arbitrary, the book closes “the movement” in 1968 with the demise of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party after its failure to impact the platform of the Democratic Party at its national convention in Chicago.
Dittmer’s thesis is that the Mississippi movement was made possible by three elements: the courage and commitment of local activists like Medgar Evers, Amzie Moore, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine; the energy and enthusiasm of young SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) organizers; and the reputation of the state as a fortress of racial oppression which made service there a badge of courage. The key ingredient in the movement was the willingness of local people to act on their own behalf while also welcoming outside help. These factors combined to generate the strongest and most far-reaching civil rights activity of the period, easily surpassing the sister movements in southwest Georgia and all of Alabama—Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham included. While citing the volume of change that occurred as a result of the movement, Dittmer reminds the reader of the limits of those changes; black Mississippians still remained largely in abject poverty, attended segregated schools, and lacked any real political power statewide even with 250,000 registered voters.
Dittmer is uniquely qualified to synthesize the Mississippi struggle. The DePauw University history professor has published other works on the Black South, including Black Georgia in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920. In addition, he taught history at Tougaloo College from 1967-1979, giving him a close and personal view of many of the events detailed in his book.
Local People has special, personal significance for this reviewer, a Delta native who was born in Indianola. In chapter three, Dittmer mentions the name of Dr. Clinton C. Battle, head of the Indianola NAACP. My parents purchased our home from Dr. Battle and my mother stills lives there. Reading about Medgar Evers brings back memories of his visits to our home to chat with my father. My maternal grandmother has been associated for decades with the Gulfside Methodist Assembly, a black-run retreat center in Waveland used by SNCC in late 1964 to hammer out its future goals, programs, and structure. I have spent part of nearly every summer since my birth in 1957 visiting my grandmother, who continues to live in Waveland.
Several features combine to make Dittmer’s book valuable. First, Local People is well researched and easy to read. The author used the papers of key organizations (SCLC, NAACP, CORE, VEP) and individuals (Ed King, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Burke Marshall). An example of how Dittmer’s extensive research enriched his work comes in chapter two, through a story about the lunacy of segregation. Jim Crow, Dittmer writes, was designed to “keep the Negro in his place” and “the place” varied according to the circumstances. When letter carrier Carsie Hall delivered the mall at the Heidelberg, the class of hotels in Jackson, he entered the building through the front door and rode the main elevator. But when attorney Carsie Hall came to the Heidelberg to take the bar exam he had to enter through the rear door and ride the freight elevator.
Also buoying the book’s content are scores of interviews with the people who made the movement. The oral history component provides a depth and scope unrivaled by written sources. Dittmer blends this wealth of sources into a portrait that is both easy to read and fascinating, making his Local People accessible to a broader audience.
Second, the author keeps the influence of national civil rights organizations and other outside influences in proper perspective. Too often, writers and producers portray the Mississippi movement as the sole property and/or brainchild of organizations like SNCC or CORE, failing to credit locals for laying the foundation for outside help. A number of historical works pretend that SNCC and CORE came to the state and “saved the day” for the locals who had no clue of how to champion their own causes. Dittmer avoids this mistake.
A third feature of Local People is its effort to acknowledge that women carried out something more than secondary roles in the movement. Many male historians tend to trivialize the contributions of women in the civil rights era. Early in his book, Dittmer points out that although their numbers were few prior to the 1960s, women’s roles were significant. Most notable were Ruby Stutts Lyells, president of the Negro State Federation of Women’s Clubs, and Mary E. Holmes, the only female officer of the 1953 Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP. Dittmer also highlights women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine, crediting Hamer with much of the spirit and velocity of the movement, both locally and nationally. In addition, the author made clear that the motivation for the sexual relations between black men and white women during the summer of 1964, exaggerated by some female writers, belongs to both parties.
Dittmer also highlights the weaknesses of the significant parties. He concludes that in the 1950s, the timidity of white Mississippi moderates in challenging white supremacy resulted in a “bankruptcy of both moral and
political leadership at the most critical point in Mississippi’s history since Reconstruction” (p.69). Dittmer takes the luster off of the motives of white liberals with two stories. In the first case, Barnaby Keeney, president of Brown University, forced Tougaloo College’s board of trustees to fire its president, Daniel Beittel, before Keeney would lobby the Ford Foundation for grant money that Tougaloo needed. Beittel had adamantly refused to curb the civil rights activism of his students. The board fired Beittel, and shortly thereafter, Tougaloo received Ford funding for its educational program. But the school lost its prominence in the movement when Keeney helped terminate Tougaloo’s association with Bob Moses’ literacy project in the Delta and the college’s relationship to the Head Start program.
A second example involves the Voter Education Project, a project ofthe Southern Regional Council, funded by the Ford Foundation and other national foundations, in conjunction with the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Dittmer implies that the project was canceled because of displeasure that foundation funds were used for the Freedom Vote campaign instead of shepherding potential voters through the political mainstream. The author suggests that the white liberal establishment again put its own agenda ahead of the needs of the masses in Mississippi.
Nor does Dittmer hesitate in pointing out glaring weaknesses of the national civil rights organizations and its key leaders. He reveals that the NAACP often predicated its activities in the 1960s on the need to compete with rival organizations. Charles Evers, self-appointed field secretary after Medgar’s death, is shown as a self-serving egotist bent on establishing himself as “the leader” of the Mississippi movement. Evers attempted to personally profit from the movement by urging Natchez Blacks to boycott white businesses while at the same time purchasing a grocery store to pull in the business no longer going to white store owners.
Perhaps the most significant feature of Dittmer’s work is his approach. He avoids the pitfall of placing the activities of the 1950s and 1960s in a historical vacuum as if the preceding decades have no connection. Instead he
establishes historical continuity all the way back to slavery. He invests three chapters of the book in establishing those links.
Although Local People has numerous strong points, it is not without its faults. First of all, Dittmer has missed part of the significance of the Emmett Till murder. Not only did the public display of Till’s mutilated body at the Chicago funeral enrage blacks, but Moses Wright’s defiant “Thar he” response at the murder trial when asked to identify Till’s abductor was a watershed in movement history. “It was the first time in the history of Mississippi that a Negro had stood in court and pointed his finger at a white man as a killer of a Negro,” remarked Michigan Congressman Charles Diggs, who attended the trial (Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965, p. 48). Actually it was not the first time, but the act was rare and courageous enough to embolden an entire generation.
Dittmer also fails to give full treatment to the Freedom Rides. In addition to testing the Supreme Court’s ruling banning segregation aboard buses in interstate travel, the Freedom Rides were also designed to force the Kennedy Administration out of its “hands-off” posture. Dittmer explains the significance of testing the Supreme Court in its ruling, but fails to explore another of CORE’s key motives. James Farmer of CORE, which sponsored the Freedom Rides, reasoned that pro-segregationists would respond with such brutality that federal protection would have to be provided.
Dittmer must also be chided for minimizing the impact of many events outside of Mississippi. For example, he gives the reader little feel for the significance of the March on Washington. Not only did it help push through Congress the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but it also revealed the manipulations of the liberal establishment. Dittmer fails to mention how the Kennedy Administration helped turn the march from an angry demand for economic justice to a passive symbolic gesture. In addition, Dittmer sidesteps the impact of the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy. Although he does note the tragedies, the reader is left wondering how Mississippi dealt with them. Almost nothing is said about the influence of Malcolm X. Even though Malcolm never visited the state, his influence among youth was undeniable.
Although Dittmer dwells at length on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and its challenge to the regular Democratic delegates in Atlantic City in 1964, he understates the real significance of the event. The MFDP did not win its political challenge, but it gave poor black people who had never voted a new sense of power and dignity. They had taken on the most powerful politicians in the country on national television. Fannie Lou Hamer almost single-handedly wooed an entire nation into her corner. Had it not been for the trickery of President Johnson and his cronies, who knows what the outcome may have been.
In sum, Local People charts new territory in the chronicles of the Mississippi movement. Dittmer provides insightful analysis and pleasurable reading with an even-handed and sufficiently broad approach to his topic. The result is scholarship that does justice to the struggles and sacrifices of the people who made the Mississippi movement.
Barry E. Lee is a masters candidate in American History at Georgia State University and an Education Program Assistant at the Southern Regional Council.