BOOKS: Freedom’s Light
Reviewed by Jacqueline Rouse
Vol. 18, No. 1, 1996 pp. 15-16
I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by Charles M. Payne (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 525 pages).
In grasping the tradition of organizing in the state of Mississippi during the decade of the sixties, Charles Payne seeks to analyze two components: how a large group of people “who were historically dependent, mostly apolitical, and vulnerable to violence,” were moved to become activists in changing the conditions in their lives. And, how a new generation of young civil rights workers became carriers of the tradition of organizing in rural Mississippi. Payne forces us into the deep piney woods and hilly terrains of southern Mississippi, in order for us to appreciate the longevity of resistance by a cadre of undaunted “race” men and women. By acknowledging these new “movement centers,” he provides an essential link in the evolving historiography of the modern civil rights movement.
Drive-by shootings, firebombs, rattlesnakes thrown onto front porches, homes and crowds shot into, cars forced from rural and state roads–the “horrific terror of the system of Jim Crow” in Mississippi. Payne pulls us into the thicket of terrorism in order to release us into the safety of strong local independent leadership. Furious and free from economic reprisals from the local whites, these independent farmers, self-employed veterans, Pullman porters, entrepreneurs, and a few private professionals, organized community leagues, councils, and youth chapters of the NAACP.
In the sixties the community organizing witnessed the arrival of young idealistic workers like Bob Moses, James Lawson, Lawrence Guyot, and Hollis Watkins. Via written introductions, Vernon Dahmer, Amzie Moore, C.C. Bryant, E.W. Steptoe and others adopted, nurtured, groomed, and when appropriate, introduced these fresh voices to their neighbors and friends. Intrigued by the new declarations about their “rights,” the elderly and teenagers offered themselves to test the limits of repression. Nightly rallies served to encourage and inspire. Faith in “simple justice and common decency” was re-enforced by testimonies, prayers, and spirituals.
Still many African American Mississippians would become committed to “dat mess” only after the arrest or attack on a relative, neighbor, friend, or leader. Mothers joined after teenagers were expelled from schools or arrested for protesting. Brutal murders often increased the number of local activists. Southern white racists be-
came aware that further violence provoked retribution, and the successful boycott of downtown white merchants.
The flood of violence brought little federal intervention. Though supposedly worried about a tarnished national image, state officials were locked into the Southern code of behaviors, as civil rights workers continued ti be beaten and murdered. So, the leaders of the movement in Mississippi decided that the state would host Freedom Summer of 1964.
White civil rights workers came into the state with SNCC in the early sixties. For Southern white civil rights workers their commitment often severed ties to heritage and kin. But some black workers feared that the presence of large numbers of white students would strip self-esteem and political empowerment from poor rural black. Their presence could exasperate internal tension. But, Moses and Fanni Lou Hamer reminded SNCC that it could not practice discrimination. After all, hundreds of white students would surely bring the national media and federal protection, they argued.
The “coming of age” of statewide activism seems centered in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and its national challenges to the Democratic Party in 1964 and on the floor of Congress in 1965. The Great Society came into the state in the mid-sixties via the Head Start Program. Payne clearly recounts the pain inherent in growth. Now that the shootings, Killings, evictions and the loss of employment attached to activism had begun to diminish, the black middle class and “progressive” whites joined forces to control federal monies earmarked for community projects.
Reaping the harvest from others’ struggles, these newcomers and “reformed” old-timers, quickly became the contacts for Washington. Tension abounded over the administration of new programs, the independence of previously dependent rural folks, the lack of access to power, the role of white volunteers, and the disrespect new workers had for poor black people. Long tine workers became angry at the lack of inclusion and the new agendas set by those with little or no history in the struggle. Feelings of betrayal and delusion forced some to leave the state and even the country.
The book’s success springs from a vivid appreciation of the drive for justice in the pre-Brown era. Though recent studies of this modern civil rights era have begun to explore the lives of “local people,” Payne’s gift is the names and purposes he assigns to the masses. Not only do we come to know C.C.Bryant, but we understand the courage and aggressive actions his generation took. We can appreciate how Gus Courts could not be intimidated by violence for standing for righteousness for all of his life. Names omitted from history are not only included, but we are able to make the connection of the fundamentalism of their actions. They organized not only around the ballot and citizenship, but they carried young men on sporting outings, sponsored local chapters of the Boy Scouts, youth chapters of the NAACP, singing groups, oratorical contests, and numerous other activities which would groom another generation to be proud and committed to the black villages and hamlets of the Jim Crow South. Their national affiliations with the NAACP sparked Ella Baker and Septima Clark to direct the new arrivals in the 1960s to them in order to continue that tradition. Payne helps us to understand what I call our “ancestral mission”.
For these young members of SNCC would come to appreciate their new environs and to understand they were of, not merely in, communities who would hold them accountable for their race work. Thus, Payne’s major strength, and the significance of this exciting work, is realizing the history of long term local community-based organization in the black Jim Crow South compared to short term community mobilizing by national leaders or organizations in this modern period.
Payne excels in the attention he gives to the growth of black nationalism in SNCC after 1966 and the varied women who joined this liberation struggle, particularly Susie Morgan, Lula Belle Johnson, and Laura McGhee. Through his work may be a companion piece for some in the recent barrage of works on this modern period, I believe this work accomplishes a sense of connectiveness with the period and its people. Payne’s work isn’t merely another scholarly search for the indigenous people. He claims, names, and gives them voice with professionalism, respect, and sensitivity. I’ve Got The Light of Freedom will bring respect from colleagues and peers, but moreover, it will most likely generate a sense of gratitude from the subjects of this narrative. For being able to make that leap, Charles Payne should be very proud of this award winning book.
Jacqueline Rouse is associate professor of history at Georgia State University. She is author of Eugenia Burns Hope: Southern Reformer, published by University of Georgia Press, 1989, and a contributing author to Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia.