Local People

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John Dittmer. Local People The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1994. 530 pages. $28.00


SUMMARY

Mississippi, the home of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker and Richard Wright represented the epitome of racial injustice to the rest of the country in the 1960’s. John Dittmer describes injustice, violence and hatred but he also found determination and heroism during the tumultuous years of civil rights activism. Dittmer emphasizes the participation of the local African-American residents of Mississippi who fought discrimination and the improvement of their opportunities.

White Mississippians charged that outsiders came to the state to cause trouble. How right they were. According to Dittmer, as well as Sitkoff, activism in Mississippi involved members of civil rights organizations based outside the state. This included an alphabet soup of groups such as the NAACP, SNCC, SCLC and CORE. One of the principal purposes of these groups was to obtain national support. White prejudice and resistance, confrontation and violence shocked the nation and the world. It often appeared the stated goal of a demonstration was known to be futile. Demonstrations were aimed at winning sympathy and support as well as federal government attention.

The activists were nothing if not creative. The saga of the Mississippi Freedom Party is a unique effort to affect the political process. They took pre-school children to Washington to lobby Congress. (374) They occupied the Greenville Air Force Base.

Hostile white reaction included ‘local ordinances and state laws’ (137) to block and punish activism, economic retaliation with loss of jobs and closing of businesses, the establishment of the White Citizens Council and a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Dittmer describes numerous acts of violence, from murders, including that of Medgar Evers and the 3 civil rights workers, bombings and destruction of property to beatings and shootings. Verbal abuse was mild compared to physical danger. Many workers and Mississippi blacks were jailed, some even to the dreaded Parchmen prison. As Dittmer comments, ‘both the Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan made a mockery of the law.’ (423) No moderates or religious groups were ‘pleading for justice.’ (423)--Mlinhart 15:02, 21 Feb 2006 (EST)


COMMENTARY

Throughout the period of activism in Mississippi, the fact that multiple organizations were involved in the struggle resulted in at the very least, confusion; and at the worse, rancor and infighting. Each organization developed its own priorities, techniques, approaches and methodology. Dittmer regards the NAACP as a moderate group appealing to more established blacks and less willing to initiate confrontational incidents. Dittmer portrays more radical groups such as SNCC and CORE as seeking a broader base and willing to work with the poor and the desperately poor. Dittmer calls the SNCC and CORE organizers ‘the catalyst for the movement.’ (424) They were ‘independent of the local white dominated economy.’ (424)

Neither Dittmer nor Sitkoff address finances extensively. The outside activists were paid, legal representation was apparently readily available and resources were available for other expenses. In most cases, bail money was apparently paid by the civil rights organizations. It would be interesting to know more about this aspect of civil rights resistance. Charts and tables showing various statistics would be helpful. How many outsiders came to Mississippi? What was their source of funding? How much did they spend? What kind of salaries did they make? Like Sitkoff, Dittmer reports many incidents that tend to mask the big picture.

Dittmer demonstrates the role of white students in Mississippi was more complicated than it appeared. Often there was a gap in the educational and financial background of student volunteers and civil rights workers and resentments developed. Students working in offices were sometimes better qualified than those who directed their work. The gap between students from prestigious universities such as Yale and the Mississippi poor was significant.

Dittmer, like Sitkoff claims a personal connection with Mississippi since he taught at Tougaloo College and his intimate knowledge of the state is evident as is his sympathy with ‘those who shared a commitment to bring racial justice’ (435) He has little sympathy with prejudiced or indifferent Mississippians caught up in the turmoil of the 1960’s.

‘The majority of the SNCC and CORE field secretaries in Mississippi were black men.’ (126) Over time, women became deeply involved and prominent and women even ran for Congress. Women participated in mass meetings, led marches and spent time in prison. According to Dittmer, ‘the movement did not eliminate gender discrimination…it came closer to the ideal of an egalitarian movement than had any major social movement in the nation’s history.’ (197)

Students, including high school students, were involved in Mississippi resistance. It appears children were used, despite the dangers, to garner sympathy and support and perhaps in hopes of reducing confrontation. Neither Dittmer nor Sitkoff criticize the use of children.

Not only were race relations absolutely terrible but economic conditions were desperate for many Mississippi blacks. The poll tax was an economic strain for many. A report by a group of physicians on the appalling condition of poor children shocked Congress and the public. Civil rights leaders, although not always correct in their assessment of the national scene, were politically sophisticated and able to garner the assistance of individuals such as Joseph Rauh. Like the desperate Americans described by Cohen those pressing for civil rights in Mississippi sought to influence Washington for the kind of government leadership described by Leuchtenburg. They were often unhappy with government response. They felt the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were too cautious. They had no tolerance for the realities of Democratic politics where legislation depended on a Congress with a strong Southern bloc. They were unhappy about the federal government’s reluctance to exert force. Only the federal government had the power to improve the conditions in Mississippi.

Dittmer believes the movement won ‘significant victories in Mississippi.’ (425) More than ’60 percent’ of eligible blacks were registered to vote and federal program had ‘brought some improvement to the lives of the black poor.’ (425) The black middle class made ’significant gains’ (426) and there was ‘a substantial reduction in the use of terror.’ (426) By 1992, there were 825 elected black officials. (425)--Mlinhart 15:02, 21 Feb 2006 (EST)

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