The Light of Freedom
Remarks by Charles M. Payne
Vol. 17, No. 3-4, 1995 pp. 19-20
Editor’s note: The following essay is an edited version of Professor Payne’s remarks at the Lillian Smith Book Awards luncheon held in Atlanta on November 3. His book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle was co-winner of the Smith Award for non-fiction.
Some very nice things have happened to me as a result of writing I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, but this is one of the nicest. The fact that the Lillian Smith Award comes from the Southern Regional Council, an institution rooted so deeply, so firmly in the history about which I am trying to write, makes it special for me. It also makes it special for me because I come wedged between two really remarkable pieces of scholarship.
The works I’m talking about specifically are last year’s winner, John Dittmer’s Local People, and this year’s co-winner, Adam Fairclough’s Race and Democracy. Those are just two startlingly good pieces of work. You have to read them together to see how they play off one another in order to fully appreciate them. One is clearly going to be for a long time the definitive work on the Louisiana movement, the other is clearly definitive on the Mississippi movement. I don’t see anything that can be produced in the near future that, taking the movement as a whole, can speak with such power. Again, I’m glad to be running in that kind of company.
What I think they have done, apart from the sub-stance of what they say about their respective movements, is ushered in a new methodology for studying the civil rights movement. It’s a framework of inquiry which is very different from what we’ve had before.
We are in the process of creating a stance in the scholarly world such that the people who actually made the history are being written back into it. It matters to those people and it matters to us that we understand the thousands of people it took–not simply the few celebrities and politicians and national civil rights leaders–to make that movement work. It matters that we understand the difficulties against which they worked, an under-standing which you don’t get if you simply look at a few national organizations and national leaders. It will be a long time before scholars feel comfortable sitting down and writing a top-down analysis of the civil rights movement again. The climate has changed.
It will be a long time before people write another serious work on the movement and not wonder: What were the Willie Peacocks doing? What were the Annie Divines doing? What were the Doris Jean Castles doing? What were the Lois Elliots doing? What were the people at the heart of the local movement doing? That question has been firmly established among scholars by the publication of these two books.
Professor Fairclough and Professor Dittmer also have established a climate in which we will not have segregated history. I actually think there are places in the world for segregated history, by which I mean books about black struggle which only talk about blacks. or books about the struggle which only talk about how whites were reacting to it and shaping the context of it. But part of the power of both of Local People and Race and Democracy is that they put those two things together. You see a dance between blacks and whites.
The publication of these two books also marks the end of what I think of as 1960s fetishism. It didn’t all happen in the sixties. John Dittmer’s book opens with a scene from the 1940s: Medgar Evers is just home from the war, he and his brother are going to register. Dittmer’s point is that if you want to understand Mississippi in ’63 when Evers was killed, you have to begin at least in ’46.
I learned as much about the Reconstruction period from Professor Fairclough’s book as I have from a great many books which are on Reconstruction. You cannot study the sixties as something in isolation from the long traditional African American struggle. And there are ways in which Connie Curry’s book might trump everybody on this one. Her Silver Rights [see Casey Hayden’s review in this issue of Southern Changes] takes one activist family from Sunflower County, Mississippi, and asks the ques-
tion–and answers in such lovely detail: How over a generation does this family shape for itself an activist family culture? If you go back to the 1890s and the grandparents and the great-grandparents of the children who entered the Mississippi public schools in the 1960s–How can you from see family strengths flowing from generation to generation? No one does that part of the story better than Connie.
When you take that long view you get a sense of the value of sheer persistence. People would knock their heads against walls that did not seem to be moving, but they kept knocking and knocking and knocking until they got the response they wanted. And in these times when so little that is positive seems to be happening, one hopes that there’s a moral.
Finally, I hope these books will also represent the end of direct-action fetishism. As Professor Fairclough says, the traditional framing of the movement is that it happened between Montgomery and Selma; nothing be-fore that and very little after it. But within that broad framing there is an even more common frame: the movement happened between the Freedom Rides and Selma. So it’s the first half of the sixties that really capture our attention, and for obvious reasons. There’s so much drama, there’s so much obvious courage, there are so many twenty-second sound bytes. There is simply so much that is dramatic, it covers up and buries any sense of the nondramatic–what was happening when David Brinkley was not there. What that means is a return to asking questions about indigenous organizations.
What did unglamorous fraternal groups, such as black insurance companies, contribute to the shaping of the movement? Nothing that makes the nightly news. You have to look deeply into the organizational roots of the black community to understand what made the dynamism of the early sixties possible.
Another aspect of the end of direct-action fetishism is that these books are paying far more attention to the late sixties, far more detail and attention to the question of what actually came out of the struggle. At the ground level, what did the desegregation of schools mean in Louisiana and Mississippi? And of course, you come up with a real mixed message. A substantial part of the black middle class in Louisiana gets destroyed by the desegregation of the schools. An awful lot of principals and teachers lose their jobs. The relationship between a great many black communities and schools in which they felt a sense of ownership, a sense of pride was severed. When you go through the role that the federal government played in undermining some of the most important community initiatives in the late 1960s, it’s still inexcusable and still barely understood. I refer you to Professor Dittmer’s discussion of the Child Development Group of Mississippi, and what Washington did to them.
It makes you cautious about getting into celebratory history. What I mean by celebratory history are those–and there were a lot of these last year for the thirtieth anniversary of Freedom Summer–in which some volunteer was going back to Sunflower County, Mississippi, or wherever it happened, and they were talking about “My gosh, we can eat at the Holiday Inn” and “My gosh, so-and-so’s child is now the police chief . . . and I just wouldn’t have believed that in nineteen–” And there’s a place for that; if you lived through those times and you go back after two or three decades, you cannot help but be impressed. But understand what it is you are saying. You are saying that after decades of hard struggle, after the loss of many lives, black people can now do things that all Americans have taken for granted since day one. I mean there’s something which you can celebrate, but you also have to be very cautions about over-celebration. You’re just getting to the starting line–that’s all that’s happening here. The more clearly you understand the ambiguous payoff of the movement that came in the late 1960s, the more firmly you can guard against celebratory history.
What is all of this going to mean? Darned if I know. It’s clear that scholars like Dittmer and Fairclough are calling for a longer view of the movement, a deeper view of the movement, a more complicated sense of what the movement was about. It’s absolutely clear to me that for most black Americans, I think for a great many Southerners, and great many Americans of a certain generation and period, the primary metaphor for social change in this century is the civil rights movement. That was a time when we think we got something done, a time when we think ordinary folks like ourselves were able to weigh in the scale of history.
If this scholarship is eventually going to have the impact that one hopes outside the academy, one other thing that may happen as we complicate people’s visions of one of their primary metaphors for how social change is made, is that they will be able to take more and more effective routes towards reaching for some kind of change. Their ability to analyze the situation and their ability to help us move out of that situation may be increased by these increasingly complicated analyses of how people have made change in the past. That’s a completely self-serving thing for a scholar to say, cause it implies that the work you do matters.
But it’s a thing that we can hope for. And it’s my sense that it is with just such hope and amid just such hope, the Southern Regional Council was born in the 1940s. So it seems appropriate for us to continue to renew our hope some fifty years later.
Charles M. Payne is Associate Professor of African American Studies, Sociology, and Education, and a fellow of the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research at Northwestern University.