A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi

A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi

by Emilye Crosby


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In this long-term community study of the freedom movement in rural, majority-black Claiborne County, Mississippi, Emilye Crosby explores the impact of the African American freedom struggle on small communities in general and questions common assumptions that are based on the national movement. The legal successes at the national level in the mid 1960s did not end the movement, Crosby contends, but rather emboldened people across the South to initiate waves of new actions around local issues.

Escalating assertiveness and demands of African Americans—including the reality of armed self-defense—were critical to ensuring meaningful local change to a remarkably resilient system of white supremacy. In Claiborne County, a highly effective boycott eventually led the Supreme Court to affirm the legality of economic boycotts for political protest. NAACP leader Charles Evers (brother of Medgar) managed to earn seemingly contradictory support from the national NAACP, the segregationist Sovereignty Commission, and white liberals. Studying both black activists and the white opposition, Crosby employs traditional sources and more than 100 oral histories to analyze the political and economic issues in the postmovement period, the impact of the movement and the resilience of white supremacy, and the ways these issues are closely connected to competing histories of the community.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807856383
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 11/21/2005
Series: The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture
Edition description: 1
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Emilye Crosby is professor of history at the State University of New York-Geneseo.

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A Little Taste of Freedom

The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi
By Emilye Crosby

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2005 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-2965-3


The early histories of the civil rights movement tended to be national in scope, with a top-down perspective that focused on major events, national organizations and leaders, significant legal decisions, and obvious political shifts. This perspective continues to shape the prevailing popular view and even much of the scholarship that portrays the civil rights movement as a reformist, interracial crusade where nonviolent protesters exposed the evils of segregation and convinced the country, especially well-intentioned white northerners, to live up to its ideals of freedom and democracy. This version of the movement is particularly egregious in popular culture, especially the still-influential 1984 movie Mississippi Burning, and in the education of middle and high school students. One of my students captured this perfectly with a short synopsis at Geneseo's 2004 Martin Luther King Day observance when he said, "One day a nice old lady, Rosa Parks, sat down on a bus and got arrested. The next day Martin Luther King Jr. stood up and the Montgomery Bus Boycott followed. And sometime later King delivered his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech and segregation was over. This is how the story was taught to me."

Even more pernicious than this simplistic characterization of the movement that denies the agency of Rosa Parks and the thousands of African Americans in Montgomery whose thirteen-month boycott highlighted the possibilities of mass action is the Mississippi Burning rendition of movement history. Although the movie might be dismissed by some as irrelevant or extreme, this "wrongheaded attempt at a sympathetic portrayal of the movement," which features a heroic federal government defeating firebomb-throwing redneck white men while African Americans stand by as passive victims who are handed equality, remains disturbingly current, broadly accepted, and distressingly reflective of not just popular but scholarly assumptions and framing of the movement. In fact, although historians and historical overviews typically offer a more complex version of the civil rights movement, collectively they have failed to adequately address or incorporate a new body of scholarship-particularly community studies of local movements-that has emerged in the past decade. Individually and collectively, local studies, especially, are contributing details and adding complexity to our understanding of the civil rights movement and providing the basis for reexamining important historiographical questions, especially those related to the implications of particular time and place; tactical and ideological differences and choices; gender and leadership; and the contours of white supremacy as a broad-based, national phenomenon. Despite the compelling findings of this relatively recent work, however, the outdated narrative of progress, with its overemphasis on sympathetic whites and top-down change and its denial of African American agency, continues to dominate among all but a few specialists.

Reorienting this broad-based misrepresentation is important. Few students today understand how open and pervasive white supremacy was before the movement. They regularly ask why African Americans living through Jim Crow did not more directly challenge the status quo and commonly assert that they would have acted more aggressively. Reflecting the lack of historical depth that nurtures such views, another student, after reading one of my articles on the Claiborne County, Mississippi, movement, asked why blacks had not voted for sympathetic whites. She and others are just not aware of what may seem obvious to scholars and those who lived through the premovement era-that most blacks simply were not allowed to vote. As this suggests, students and the general public typically do not understand the extent of black disfranchisement or the white power structure's ability to retaliate against black activism. This lack of understanding is exacerbated by the persistence of the triumphant narrative that most people absorb as movement history and by the accompanying assumption that our nation has actually confronted and solved the problems generated by segregation and white supremacy.

While historians engage over competing emphases and try to realign popular conceptions so they more closely match scholarly findings, those who still live in the communities most directly affected by the southern civil rights movement often hold onto competing interpretations. For many whites in the Claiborne County, Mississippi, community I write about, especially those who lived through the movement as adults or children, the movement is "that old mess," something they do not want to think about, talk about, or examine. When pushed, they describe it as a hurtful time that damaged race relations and destroyed much that was good about their community. In contrast, Claiborne County African Americans who experienced the movement celebrate it, especially the feelings of possibility and togetherness that it engendered. However, they also point to stubborn and persistent problems, especially in terms of employment, public education, and continuing racial divisions, what they see as the movement's unfinished business. Almost forty years after the mass movement began in Claiborne County, there is little immediate hope for developing a shared understanding of the past. In fact, whites tend to see contemporary problems as stemming from the movement, while blacks see them as resulting from white determination to preserve the status quo.

This community study of the black freedom struggle in rural Claiborne County, Mississippi, extends roughly from Reconstruction to the present, with an emphasis on the post-Brown decision civil rights movement. Through this detailed history, I hope to address all of these audiences and versions of the movement by telling the story of a community and the people in it, including those who actively fought for full citizenship and those who struggled to sustain white supremacy. In the process, I explicitly engage with a number of historiographical debates, especially those related to chronology, the role of self-defense in a movement widely framed as nonviolent, the importance of economic boycotts, the implications of organizational and leadership styles, and the intersection between national change and local activism. This is a complicated and sometimes messy history that highlights and explores the primacy of African American activism, the forces driving change in the racial status quo, divisions between and within the black and white communities, issues of leadership and strategy, and the tenacity of white supremacy.

As a community study, this history offers insight into the movement and U.S. history generally, but it is also, fundamentally, about this particular place and the generations of people who have lived and died there, people whose lives typically centered around family, work, and church. In the midst of the daily demands of life, they also battled in large and small ways, and in arenas that ranged from the U.S. Supreme Court to the grocery store line, over definitions of citizenship and what it should mean for people on a day-to-day basis. African Americans insisted on dignified treatment and full inclusion in the community's public life, while whites clung to paternalistic notions of black inferiority and defended inherited privilege. In rural communities like Claiborne County, where lives were intertwined and most people knew each other, the civil rights movement generated both minor and dramatic shifts, many of them vividly illustrated by apparently mundane interactions between people going about their daily lives. In this close picture and these details, we see some of the problems of the dominant movement narrative and the ways that it is only part of a fuller, richer, and more complex story.


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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

A wonderfully evocative work of history that is a welcome—and needed—addition to the literature on the civil rights movement.—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

Crosby has delivered an intimate, complex portrait of racial struggle in a critical area of the Deep South. [A Little Taste of Freedom] will stand as a model for community-level studies of the civil rights movement for years to come.—Journal of American History

[A Little Taste of Freedom] makes a significant contribution to civil rights movement scholarship and to the 21st century African American nonfiction canon.—Dunbar on Black Books

This is a model study. . . . A riveting read. . . . A compelling reminder that in many local communities across the South, the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) marked the beginning, not the end, of demonstrations that are most associated with the civil rights movement.—Journal of Southern History

This is a marvelous book—a riveting story of black activism in the latter days of the civil rights movement and the most comprehensive account of race relations in a southern community I have come across in years. The chapter on armed self-defense in the black community expands our definition of 'nonviolence.' Her documentation of the cozy relationship between the state's most visible black leader and the segregationist Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission is eye-opening, to say the least. A native of Claiborne County, Emilye Crosby had access to local leaders across the board, black and white. Modestly titled, A Little Taste of Freedom is a big book, a major contribution to the new civil rights historiography.—John Dittmer, DePauw University

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