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Mississippi Blues is a blog about film, media technology, politics. And the blues. It is part of the Passage Film website. See: www.passagefilm.se

Black Power in Mississippi

Civil Rights - race relationsPosted by K Moorhead Tue, December 27, 2016 22:57:04

Black Power has southern roots. To win our fight for multiculturalism and progressive economics in the era of Trump, progressive whites must embrace black power too. It's how we won in the past and it's key to an American multi-cultural progressive future. This story was originally written for the Daily Kos website and has been lightly edited for this post.

I come from Mississippi and the 60s. It shaped the way I see society and formed my political outlook. If you are born with even an ounce of empathy, Mississippi either breaks you body and spirit, or spits you out like the whale did Jonah, leaving you breathless, waiting, ready to spill your story at the gates of Nineveh. Mississippi is about struggle more than anything and it’s given me something to say about the conflict America will face in the coming Trump era.

It’s no accident that Mississippi gave the world the blues, country music and Elvis Presley, along with five of America’s best writers: William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Margaret Walker, Eudora Welty, and Richard Wright. It’s that collision of empathy and struggle.

Annie_Devine_copyright_.jpgAnnie Devine in 1997 interview, one of two I did with her.

Mississippi also gave us with some of the finest freedom fighters our country has seen. Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, Annie Devine, Aaron Henry, Winson Huston, Unita Blackwell, Robert Moses and many more. I’ve interviewed all the ones named here except for Mr. Evers and Ms. Hamer, both of whom died before their time, casualties of Mississippi hate.

They fought white men even meaner and nastier than Trump and his kind, and they did it in a police state, because that’s what Mississippi was. We had our own secret police created by an ex-FBI man (the Sovereignty Commission), we had a one-party state controlled by the all-powerful White Citizens’ Council, and we had private media working with that one-party state to supply the propaganda needed to keep it all in place. Mississippi was outside of democracy, without freedom and mostly absent of basic human decency. Despite the odds, the Mississippi Movement won freedom for all of Mississippi and in the process helped bring down the legal framework of segregation throughout America. It was African Americans who took the brunt of the damage meted out by our corrupt and wicked apartheid system. But those fighters freed me too, along with countless other whites who longed for something better.

Victoria_Grey_copyright.jpgVictoria Gray Adams in 1997 interview where she talked about the Mississippi Congressional Challenge.

There were thousands more of those freedom fighters from the 1960s, mostly unknown and unsung. And there were tens and tens of thousands more from the movement struggle of the 1860s to 1870s. For the most part, their names are lost to history, but the work done back then lifted us from the devil times of slavery and for a brief but blazing moment my State was at the cutting edge of progressive America. Most people know it as “The Civil War” and “Reconstruction”. But those labels don’t do justice to what was accomplished by some amazing and courageous people, who built their freedom on the hardness of their suffering. I now think of it as Mississippi’s lost eden. But it wasn’t for nothing, it created a space for African American civil society to flourish in the South. And those years became the templates for the civil rights struggles to come.

African_American_Memorial_copyright.jpgAfrican American Civil War Memorial at U and Vermont, N.W. in Washington, D.C.

These stories of the past, and the lessons that come from them are important, because our future is always built on our past. I have a friend who is a specialist in community development and when he comes into a new community to work with them, he always seeks to find their “usable past”. Those historical moments where the community came together to achieve a collective end-result. And he builds his research and advice on what he finds.

The Civil Rights Movement is part of our “usuable past” and there’s a lot to learn just from the Mississippi Movement. Especially now with Trump as our President-elect, Trumpism an official political movement, and white supremacy again on the march. Here are some of my thoughts. It’s not an exhaustive list, and its not meant to be a conclusive summing up of the Mississippi Movement, which would be both impossible to do and arrogant if one made that claim. These are simply a few of my take-aways based on the interviews and research I’ve done over the years.

A. Creative participation in the Democratic Party was essential to achieving the goal of equality, freedom and economic justice in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s.

It still is.

To accomplish its goals, the Movement allied itself with the Democratic Party, but it was a complicated thing since the party included a large block of segregationist Southern Democrats. In Mississippi blacks were blocked by law from participating in the all-white Democratic Primaries. Since there was no functioning Republican Party, this froze them out of political participation. Furthermore, very few blacks could vote because of both legal hurdles and local customs that deprived African Americans of all their rights.

Yet the national Democratic Party was still the most open to African Americans, a natural consequence of President Truman desegregating the army and fighting for the 1948 Civil Rights act along with JFK’s eventual support of Civil Rights. Enter President Johnson, an ally of the segregationist Democrats, who to everyone’s surprise not only continued Kennedy’s Civil Rights ideas but turned them into law. Furthermore Goldwater had shown that the conservative wing of the Republican Party was hostile to Civil Rights and preferred to leave the South in its segregationist tyranny.

There was really no option to working inside the Democratic Party, dysfunctional as it was. In Mississippi, the Movement solved the dilemma by creating their own political party, The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). They held elections, selected candidates and demanded seating at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City to nominate Johnson for President — seeking to replace the racist “Regular Democrats” of Mississippi. Johnson wanted to keep the southern segregationists inside the Democratic Party but he didn’t want to lose the black or white liberal vote. So he offered a “compromise” of two non-voting seats to the MFDP. They refused the compromise and the whites walked out as well, insulted at the indignity of being asked to share seating with fellow black citizens.

Fanny Lou Hamer captured the nation’s attention with her testimony before the Convention Credentials about the brutality in Mississippi. She later explained why they turned down Johnson’s deal — capturing the feelings of everyone in the Movement:

We didn't come all this way for no two seats, 'cause all of us is tired.

Most people think the story ended there, with the MFDP turning down a bad deal. But that was only the opening move in the long game the Mississippi Movement was playing. Even though most blacks were legally barred from voting, they had held their own primary and demonstrated their electoral strength. When the MFDP candidates were not allowed onto the November ballot either, they petitioned the U.S. Congress to challenge the seating of Mississippi’s white Congressmen, citing a violation of the 14th Amendment. They argued that their own candidates should be seated instead. These were Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray and Annie Devine.

The Congress refused to seat the women, but they also decided to investigate the election of the white Mississippi Congressmen. These investigations revealed for all that democracy in Mississippi was a fraud. And 149 Congressmen voted against seating the Mississippians. Not enough to turn them out, but it sent a loud and clear message to the white power-structure in Mississippi. Victoria Gray told me that in her opinion, the Mississippi Congressional Challenge was the turning point for Mississippi, the moment where whites realized that if they didn’t change, they would lose their power altogether.

The Mississippi Congressional Challenge was also a key motivation to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Selma March often gets all the credit for this, and it was important. But Selma was only one event in the long chain of Movement actions that resulted in the 60s legal victories against America’s apartheid system. The Mississippi Congressional Challenge came just before Selma, and it resulted in the Congress already knowing what kind of abuses were occurring in Mississippi and the South. That is why “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge resonated with the nation, it was part of a larger context.

Lesson 1:

What the 60s Movement learned through trial and error, was that protest has to be part of a context to be understood. A protest is not a stand-alone event. Successful protests are always part of a larger story.

Lesson 2:

By forming their own party — the MDFP within the framework of the larger Democratic Party — the Mississippi Movement demonstrated their own power and showed they could challenge the white power elite of both the State and the nation. When they lost at the Democratic Convention they kept at it. In the end they didn’t get what they asked for, the seating of their three Congresswomen. But they did help win passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the Congressional Challenge also forced white Mississippi to implement it. In the end, it was African Americans voting that changed Mississippi. Nothing else.

Lesson 3:

Creative involvement in the Democratic Party was — and still is — essential. I’m going to refer you to Denise Oliver Velez here, because she wrote on this subject on the Daily Kos website:

'Each One Teach One:' A call for partisan, community political education and action

She has far more experience in political engagement than I do, and she has a lot to say about it. It’s an incredible read. Put it on your To Do List.

Lesson 4:

In Mississippi we know something about gaining and then losing. And then gaining again. You don’t want that struggle. But you know you have to meet it when it comes. And that’s the place America finds herself today. We shouldn’t be here. But we are. Trump is not our nightmare — he’s our struggle. If we fight together we will beat him and replace him with our President and our program in 2020. After all, in this election we got two million more votes than Trump and counting . . .

“Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”

B. Voting determines the type of society we live in. It all comes down to each individual being able to exercise their right to vote. Voting is power when exercised as part of a larger movement.

Although I said above that Mississippi produced Robert Moses, he came from Harlem. But he made his mark in Mississippi working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — SNCC — on their Mississippi project to register black voters. It was hard, dangerous work and people were murdered, simply because they wanted to vote. It was also frustrating because Mississippi law made it extremely difficult to register voters.

SNCC tried different tactics and strategies. But after years of failure they began mass registration attempts, busing people to Courthouses to register. When they were turned down en mass, it made a bigger impression than when single voters were turned down.

African Americans also learned the hurdles they would have to jump through (such as memorizing the Mississippi Constitution) and made the attempt. The goal at that stage wasn’t to achieve power through the vote — that was just the dream that kept people going — it was to show the corruptness of the system that took taxes from people and then denied them the right to decide how that money was spent.

When a critical mass of people became involved in the registration efforts, the country started to see Mississippi for what it was and realized that if laws were changed, African Americans would take advantage of the opportunity. The goal of SNCC and the other movement organizations was to keep the pressure on. The door cracked open with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. But it wasn’t until Washington sent Federal Voting Registrars into Mississippi that African Americans were able to vote in significant enough numbers to change political outcomes. The first State race where that was apparent was 1971, when the “moderate” Bill Waller became Governor, beating out his openly racist challengers. By the late 1970s Unita Blackwell — a SNCC activist — had become Mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi. Although it was the County Seat, it had no running water or paved streets or sewage in the black neighborhoods. Unita Blackwell used Federal Grants and local tax increases to give the African American residents of Mayersville the services they had long paid taxes for, but never enjoyed. Voting matters.

Lesson 5:

You have to have both short-term tacts and long-term strategy when those in power deny or suppress the right to vote. If the opposition has put hurdles in place to suppress voting, learn the rules and circumvent the hurdles in the short term — while fighting to change voting laws in the long-term. The obvious example is Voter ID. We aren’t going to get rid of Voter ID anytime soon in many of the States that now use it. So we need tactics to ensure that every Democratic voter understands the system and has properly registered and has the proper ID.

Lesson 6:

Elections aren’t about feelings. They are an exercise in power. “Bernie or Bust” voters who looked to the 1964 Convention rejection of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party as a validation of their own hurt feelings 52 years later missed the point. Bernie Sanders himself — on the other hand — understood what he was about and campaigned hard for Hillary. It’s no accident that Bernie was part of the 60s Movement in Chicago and saw his campaign as an exercise in progressive power and saw the election of Clinton as the next stage in the process. Voters who think elections are about personal expression and vote for quixotic alternatives might as well just admit they want the Republicans to win.

Lesson 7:

You need lots of foot soldiers. And you need something to keep spirits up when the odds are long and the fight is hard. Good songs help a lot. In Mississippi it was This Little Light of Mine, a gospel song adapted for the movement.

Augusta Hicks who was an associate and friend of Fannie Lou Hamer, was one of those foot soldiers and unsung heroes in the Mississippi Movement.

This is an eight minute edit of the interview I did with her, in which she sings one of the Movement standards, This Little Light of Mine and talks about voter registration.

C. When the going is tough, organizations have to work together. United we stand, divided we fall is true of nations and movements.

The Movement victories were hard to come by, and the whole process took years. Decades. It didn’t just happen. And there was a lot of conflict to sort out. Different people with different ideas and different tactics and different goals. But despite differences there were four major organizations that came together in Mississippi: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Leadership Conference, The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP and SNCC. Together they formed COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations, to operate in Mississippi.

Mississippi wasn’t just a hard case, it was the hardest, meanest, most brutal, nastiest place in the United States for most of the African Americans who lived there (there are both individual and local exceptions to this characterization but I feel the generalization holds). It wasn’t a good place for white allies either. Mississippi was an actual police state, which was the source of much of the meanness. I’ve read enough of the Sovereignty Commission Files (our secret police files) to see how meanness was instigated and coordinated. Bobby was my best friend when I was young. I found his father in those files, reporting one of his workers for “integrationist thinking”. The man was harassed by local police and then fired by my friend’s father. A man who had always been very nice to me. There are thousands of stories like that in the files. Mississippi was also filled with black informants, working for the Sovereignty Commission. So there were no secrets from the State.

But there were oasis in the middle of this apartheid desert. Tougaloo College, a historically black private college opened its doors to movement activities and meetings. Many — but far from all — black churches did the same. And the Black Masonic Lodges were also often hot-beds of Movement Activity — and were seldom suspected of it.

By working together, the groups in COFO were able to share resources, information and leverage their individual power. It wasn’t perfect, there was always a lot of conflict in Movement organizations, but they got the job done. They could never have succeeded if they had tried to each go alone.

I didn’t mention two other groups that were crucial in this struggle, because they weren’t part of COFO.

Deacons for Defense and Justice & the Alabama “black panthers” (Lowndes County Freedom Organization).

The Deacons for Defense and Justice were an armed self-defense group in Louisiana and Mississippi, and they were key to success in several communities. The Civil Rights Movement is often portrayed as though nonviolence was its heart and soul. But nonviolence was a tactic only. At the local level most black families were armed, it would have been foolish not to have a gun. You just didn’t march with it. But during boycott campaigns it was necessary to have a way to defend black neighborhoods from the Klan in a more systematic way, and the Deacons of Defense did that. Emilye Crosby, a fine scholar who has advised me, has edited a book that includes this aspect of the Movement for those who are interested: Civil Rights History from the Ground Up: Local Struggles, A National Movement.

The other important group is the The Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Which was an Alabama group, not Mississippi. But when Kwame Ture — then known as Stokely Carmichael — was working for SNCC in Alabama, he began working with them. Their symbol was a crouching black panther. Their theme was black power. This is a succinct account from USA Today:

The Lowndes County Freedom Organization was formed in “Bloody Lowndes” in 1966, in response to the disenfranchisement of the overwhelmingly black population there . . .

Although 80 percent black, no black person had successfully registered to vote there for more than 60 years due to the violent reaction of white landowners . . . The LCFO, a local independent political party, registered black voters and gave them an option to the Alabama Democratic Party.

The group chose a crouching black panther as its symbol.

“Stokely (Carmichael) was working in Lowndes then with SNCC to register voters,” said Lowndes County Probate Judge John Hulett Jr. “They saw the panther symbol and liked it.”

In Mississippi black power emerged as a slogan during the Meredith March in 1966 because of Kwame Ture. Meredith was leading his own one-man March Against Fear when he was shot and badly wounded by a lone gunman. While in the hospital the other major Civil Rights organizations stepped in to complete his march from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, with Martin Luther King, Jr. as a key participant. Marchers were continually harassed along the way.

When Kwame Ture got tired of getting beaten up he expressed his frustration with nonviolence and delivered what most whites consider the first expression of “Black Power”. (It wasn’t, its just the first time the white media noticed). He described black power this way:

It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.

Meredith was released in time to join the March at its end. At his insistence (according to what he told me), the Deacons of Defense supplied security for the last part of the march. It was the only time Martin Luther King Jr. used a self-defense group in one of his marches.
James Meredith in 20121 interview I made with him.

The Meredith March was also the last point at which the 60s Civil Rights Movement was a fully united force. It subsequently splintered into its many different components.

That was probably necessary at that point. The classic 60s movement had been about changing laws — and the laws got changed. The next stage had problems that were harder to define and approach. But the big shift was that white liberals got scared by Black Power and that’s a damn shame. It set social progress in this country back by generations.

The liberals didn’t understand it, and they thought it was a problem. It wasn’t. White liberals already had all the things that the black power movement was asking for. It wasn’t a matter of giving up heritage or community or organizations. It was about sharing power equally. And it was a key part of the solution that was needed to create a more just, multi-racial America. “Black Power” is nothing more than a request for whites to surrender — or rather share — those powers they hold that don’t belong exclusively to them. We have many more racial and ethnic groups to include in this equation today, of course, and I don’t mean to exclude anyone. This analysis is based on a historic examination of that white-black power imbalance. Everyone should be at a multi-cultural table of course, with whites as one of the many. Trumpism sees that as losing “our America”. And if you define America as all about whites holding power exclusively, well I guess you are losing “our America”. But I grew up in that place and it was a pretty piss-poor place to be.

The Black Lives Movement today is an contemporary adaptation of that earlier Black Power movement. And a lot of whites don’t get it today because they don’t allow themselves to move out of their comfort zone and put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

To win our fight in the era of Trump, progressive whites must embrace black power too. It's how we won in the past — how the real progress was made after the laws were changed. And it's key to an American multi-cultural progressive future.

Lesson 8:

Organization — as Denise Oliver Velez has written about — is the key. The Republicans won (an electoral college victory) by understanding that voting and politics is an exercise in power and its about getting their various organizations to work together. You may hate Reince Priebus (and I do) but he got all the groups on the Republican side to work together to elect Trump.

Politics is not a game, it’s not about personal feelings (they’re both the same, I’ll vote Green, or Libertarian), its about exercising power at the ballot box and getting the folks on your side to agree to do that in each and every election. Year after year. It takes organization, and work over time.

And it takes all the groups in the coalition working together toward common goals. Our next goal should be the 2018 elections.

Final words:

When the stakes are high and the goals are relatively easy to see — such as the situation we face now, i.e. defeating fascism and white supremacy— then it’s especially imperative to work together. Once the Democratic Party is back into power, then we should and will have a healthy debate — along with honest disagreements and reasonable compromises — about end goals. That time is not now. I lived through this once already back in Mississippi and I know men like Trump. Believe me, we are in for a nasty fight. We’re all going to lose programs we care about. What we can’t afford to lose is our democracy.

Freedom never stays won forever. We have a new fight with white supremacy — so be it. We kicked their ass twice before — in the Civil War and in the 60s Movement. Let’s roll up our sleeves and do it again.

Black soldiers in the US Army, enforcing the rule of law in Oxford & desegregation at the University of Mississippi during the Meredith Crisis, 1962.

And a caveat: this is a blog, essentially a first-draft of my thinking about the subject. I left out many important subjects, such as the role of Headstart, which was a Mississippi Movement invention, Freedom Summer, and Meredith’s 1962 desegregation of Ole Miss, which resulted in Kennedy sending in the military to teach Mississippi a lesson. Meredith maintains he intended that outcome from the beginning, and his application to The University of Mississippi was meant for force a Federal-State confrontation. I think he is right, but that’s beside the point, which is that it did take a show of force by the Feds — combined with all the other things the Movement was doing — to make progress.