Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986 / Edition 1 available in Paperback
Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986
|Publisher:||The University of North Carolina Press|
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About the Author
J. Todd Moye is assistant professor of history and director of the oral history program at the University of North Texas.
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Let the People DecideBlack Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986
By J. Todd Moye
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
So the Delta problem is how all these folks-aristocrats gone to seed, poor whites on the make, Negroes convinced mere living is good, aliens of all sorts that blend or curdle-can dwell together in peace if not in brotherhood and live where, first and last, the soil is the only means of livelihood. -William A. Percy, Lanterns on the Levee
The modern American civil rights movement was the accumulation of thousands of community-sized movements for social, political, and economic justice in thousands of urban and rural areas throughout the United States, particularly in the former Confederacy. In communities throughout the South where whites and African Americans had coexisted for decades, if not centuries, a range of personalities, circumstances, and concerns coalesced in the decades following the Second World War. African Americans worked together in these years to establish their rights as American citizens and concerned members of local communities, building on decades-long local traditions of activism. As this organization proceeded, so too did white southerners' collective efforts to preserve a hierarchical society that benefited them in a myriad of economic, political, and psychological ways.
This study examines African American civil rights organizing and white resistance to it in the rural community of Sunflower County, Mississippi, in the forty years following the end of World War II. By studying organic biracial communities like those of Sunflower County over long periods of time, historians can better understand and explain the dynamics of power that have been at the center of the most important social movement in this nation's history. I share the conviction that "more attention must be concentrated on the origins, process, and outcome of the civil rights struggles in local communities before the movement and its consequences can be fully understood." A major goal of this work is to examine the ways that the men and women of Sunflower County shaped and reacted to events on the local level, operated within a political culture unique to the state of Mississippi, and altered their goals and strategies in response to "national" civil rights events and policies over time.
Students of American history make a critical mistake if they believe there to have been one civil rights movement. This examination of the movements that developed in one southern community demonstrates that the class differences that developed in African American communities over time profoundly affected the goals and strategies of the movements they created, as did varying forms of white resistance and long-term changes in the community's economic system. These and other variables make it difficult to generalize about the civil rights movement in one southern community, much less the region or nation as a whole. By the same token, white reactions to change were not of one piece over time.
Community studies deepen our understanding of the mid-twentieth century's struggles for civil rights. They help to explain how and why thousands of Americans felt compelled to join movements for social change throughout the country in the decades following the end of World War II. How and why did thousands of black and white Americans organize, and in some cases risk their lives and livelihoods, for the cause of equal rights for African Americans? How and why did thousands of white southerners organize to maintain the status quo of racial segregation and inequality? How did these movements change American society and politics, and in what ways did the nation resist change? This examination of the movements that emerged from a Mississippi Delta community suggests a few answers to these questions.
Sunflower County lies flat in the middle of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta in the northwestern corner of the state of Mississippi. Throughout its modern history, Sunflower County has had more African American than white residents. The county was established as a political entity only in 1844, which meant that the white farmers who first came to Sunflower County's fertile soil intending to organize large plantations with large servile labor forces were allowed no more than a few years of legalized slavery.
Even so, the planters who established dominion over giant tracts of Sunflower County land also found ways to control huge pools of labor after emancipation. The exact demographics of that labor force have varied throughout the years, but the county's total population remained more than 60 percent African American throughout the period covered in this study. Until 1964 or thereabout, these planters maintained control of the majority within a sociopolitical system that supported their uncontested control of local government and vital resources. Yet while Sunflower County was the site of an oppressive racial regime, it was also the birthplace of a powerful resistance culture.
The experience of Sunflower County may not have been normative for the South as a whole, but biracial communities throughout the region had much in common with Sunflower County during this period. In many rural communities throughout the South, the formation of a black middle class was effectively hindered until after the civil rights movement's heyday. This was certainly true of Sunflower County, where in 1960 more than two-thirds of the total population was black and the average income of an African American was lower than the federal poverty line. Not a single black lawyer or doctor lived in the county seat of Indianola between 1956 and 1973. The model of community organization that middle-class blacks employed to change other towns and cities in the South in this period could not have existed in rural areas like Sunflower County.
Sunflower's traditional one-crop plantation economy hindered the development of an African American middle class. Before the late 1960s, in the unlikely event that a black male attended school through more than a few primary grades, he could hope to become a teacher or a minister (or an emigrant). No other career paths existed for black men in the Mississippi Delta, and the possibilities were even more limited for women. The absence of an established African American middle class made civil rights organizing in Sunflower County more perilous than it might have been otherwise. An African American middle class could have provided a buffer, an economic safety net, to civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s, even if the members of this hypothetical group had not participated in the movement directly.
Just as important, a black middle class could have broken down racial stereotypes and white expectations of black behavior by example alone. Whites' expectations of blacks' behavior-coupled with whites' assumption that they knew what was best for both communities and that they alone deserved to act on their assumptions-was the essence of what whites characterized as a "paternalist" social order. This system barred more than half the county's citizens and taxpayers from voting, defined them as unequal in the eyes of the law, and denied them the ability to participate on an equal basis in the region's economic life. When African Americans acted in ways other than those that had been prescribed by whites, the system sanctioned-even encouraged-violent reprisal.
When a small handful of black professionals, teachers, and farm owners asserted themselves as American citizens who deserved equal rights of citizenship in the early 1950s, whites in the county seat of Indianola formed what they called the Citizens' Council. The name they chose is significant on more than a rhetorical level. Throughout the period studied here, black civil rights organizers and white segregationists appropriated and reappropriated a claim to good citizenship. The Citizens' Council movement matched black organizing stride for stride. Chapters modeled after Indianola's Citizens' Council cropped up across Mississippi and, indeed, throughout all of the former states of the Confederacy and beyond. Contemporaries referred to the Citizens' Councils as "white-collar Klans," groups of respectable leaders of communities who came together to defend what they would have called the Delta's "paternalist" social system even as they crushed black civil rights activities through outright domination. The Citizens' Council movement had several unintended consequences, however. Among other things, by reminding African Americans of how economically vulnerable they were, the council made it more likely that if a civil rights movement was to take root in Sunflower County, it would first be a radical, poor peoples' movement and not a moderate, middle-class movement.
At least three distinct though interconnected civil rights movements developed in Sunflower County between 1945 and 1986. A movement led by the county's tiny group of black professionals and farm owners materialized in the years surrounding the Brown decision of 1954. It was quickly beaten back by white segregationists who used any and every form of intimidation available. The second movement, the major challenge to the hegemony of white planters in the Delta's socioeconomic system, was organized by young African American and white idealists in the mid-1960s and revolved around the charismatic personality of a farm worker named Fannie Lou Hamer. This was a poor people's movement, and its participants defined it as a human rights struggle as much as a civil rights movement. A third, cross-class movement coalesced in the 1980s around the issue of leadership in Indianola's public school system.
For eons, during rainy seasons the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers and their tributaries spilled into a forested, diamond-shaped plain in the northwestern corner of what is now the state of Mississippi. Bounded by bluffs at present-day Memphis, Tennessee, to the north and Vicksburg, Mississippi, to the south, by the Mississippi River to the west, and by a line of hills to the east, the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta formed a basin that collected those floodwaters. In the places where the first white settlers could scratch clearings in the forests and keep the rivers under control, they found improbably fertile soil. The floods had deposited much of the topsoil of what is now the midwestern United States into this basin. (In fact, some whites in the region still say, "That's one thing those damn Yankees can't take back from us-all that topsoil." Some of them are joking.) In a few places, this loam reaches a depth of dozens of feet, and many heavily farmed patches of the region have never had to be fertilized. This diamond-shaped plain is technically known as the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, not to be confused with the alluvial delta at the mouth of the Mississippi River south of New Orleans. But to all Mississippians, many southerners, and generations of African Americans throughout the United States, the northwestern corner of Mississippi is simply "the Delta," with no further specification needed.
Sunflower County is in the center of the Delta. It stretches approximately sixty miles from its northern to southern border and appears on a map to be tall and thin. Along the area's dry riverbeds and creek beds lie the most productive and expensive farmlands, where the sandy deposits from centuries of floods are deepest. The rich deposits drain water easily and are ideal for the cultivation of cotton, traditionally the Delta's cash crop. Where swamps have been cleared, the soil is closer to a thick clay, known locally as "gumbo." For decades, marginal cotton operations scraped by on gumbo plots, but in recent years, entrepreneurial Delta farmers have begun to utilize the clayey soil to better purposes: the quality of water retention that makes gumbo marginal at best for cotton production makes it perfect for large-scale catfish farming. There are countless gradations of soil in between sandy loam and gumbo. Sunflower County encompasses all of these soil types and includes several microclimates. As a saying in local farming circles puts it, "As Sunflower County goes, so goes the Delta." Historically, when conditions have been good enough that most of Sunflower County's farms prospered, the rest of the Delta could count on flush times; but in the years in which a majority of the county's microregions produced bad crops, the Delta as a whole faced economic catastrophe. The political entity of Sunflower County has a relatively short history. The 1850 U.S. census, the first to canvass the people of a delineated Sunflower County, counted 348 white men, women, and children, and 754 black slaves. Most of the whites had come from the hill country of Mississippi; a few others hailed from Virginia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Of the 102 white heads of families, 11 came from the northern United States, and 4 heads of household were foreign-born. Together, these whites brought the majority of the population, enslaved African Americans, with them. Aaron Forrest, the brother of the Confederate cavalry general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, cleared one of the first tracts in the county with the labor of slaves, whom he reportedly kept locked up at night in cages.
One of the first white settlers in the northern part of the county described a wilderness that rivaled the wildest products of Joseph Conrad's or William Faulkner's imaginations and a justice system that probably met the myth of the "Wild, Wild West" as well as or better than any parts of the American West ever did. In 1886, a farmer in the central part of the county reported that a wildcat had killed fifty of his pigs, and another farmer killed a nine-foot-long panther. The editor of a local newspaper called for a bounty on bear hides. Sunflower County's earliest white inhabitants weren't much more civilized than the native fauna, either. Contemporary sources tell us that lynching was horrifically common, and as soon as the Yazoo Delta Railroad extended into new towns, those municipalities had to pass ordinances that prohibited shooting firearms from trains.
For centuries, Sunflower County was heavily forested; much of its land was covered by swamps and canebreak. The heavy cover meant that enormous amounts of capital and labor-and millions of dollars in government assistance-would be required to make the county farming country. Its geographic features have ensured that only the men who could obtain the massive amounts of credit and control of labor that it would take to clear the wilds of the Delta would reap the land's vast potential for profit. That simple fact created a rigid, racist social system and has social consequences even today.
Gigantic tracts of land, some of them so flat that they seem to the naked eye to defy the curvature of the earth, had been cleared for cultivation by the middle of the twentieth century.
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What People are Saying About This
Contemporaneous news coverage of the civil rights movement and subsequent histories largely ignored rural hot spots like Sunflower [County] while lavishing attention on big cities like Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala. Now those long-standing oversights are gradually being corrected as books like Let the People Decide, J. Todd Moye's valuable history of black activism in Sunflower, begin to add new richness and complexity to what otherwise seems like an all-too-familiar story.Chicago Tribune
Sunflower County evokes powerful memories for all veterans of the black freedom struggle in Mississippi. Todd Moye has journeyed into the heart of darkness that is the Delta, returning with inspiring stories of courage and hope. Let the People Decide is an outstanding local study, an important addition to the historiography of the civil rights movement.John Dittmer, DePauw University
Offers another crucial piece in the puzzle that is the overall history of the Civil Rights Movement. . . . A thorough representation of a community central to the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.The Journal of African American History
[Moye] provides a splendid, original, and balanced account of the form and function of civil rights in one of the most racist [counties] in Mississippi. . . . This gracefully written study covers all aspects of the civil rights movement while shedding valuable lights on the racist mentality that prevailed during the period. For all these reasons, Let the People Decide adds significantly to the growing body of literature on the civil rights movement.Journal of Social History
Increases our understanding of the American civil rights movement's complexity and addresses historiographical issues concerning its origins, aims, longevity, and class composition.Journal of American History
Let the People Decide is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the civil rights movement. Well written and thoroughly researched, its poignant analysis demonstrates how blacks in Sunflower County, Mississippi, built and sustained a successful challenge to white supremacy and Jim Crow. Moye provides a much-needed perspective on race and politics, not only in the South, but in the nation as a whole.Curtis Austin, University of Southern Mississippi
A fascinating story that seeks to deepen our understanding by exploring both sides of the [Civil Rights] movement, examining the dynamics of the rural struggle, and extending the time-line of the civil rights era in the 1980s. . . . A vivid portrait of a complicated era.North Carolina Historical Review
[An] important book. . . . Puts the civil rights saga in a new perspective.American Historical Review
Moye's narrative skills prove equal to the task of capturing the civil rights saga of this archetypically Deep South country. Highly recommended.Choice
Let the People Decide reveals in intimate detail the battle for civil rights in Sunflower County. This important and well-written book not only illuminates events in a single county but also resonates with events across the South and the nation.Pete Daniel, author of Lost Revolutions