Wednesday, February 16, 2011

State of Siege

Ruins of Mr. Pleasant Society Hall, Baptist Church, Gluckstadt, Mississippi
Destroyed by Fire August 11, 1964
National Archives Photo 

Those of us of a certain age walk around with old pictures in our heads: water fountain signage reading "For Colored Only", and Life and Look magazines' stories of water hoses turned on full blast as German Shepherds are let loose to break up civil rights demonstrators; President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the shadows cast by white-hooded extremists burning crosses and firebombing churches in the South; the eloquence of Martin Luther King Jr. as he shared his dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.; the culminating images of two assassinations in 1968 and cities on fire. 

The codes of honor and vengeance, the effects of poverty,
ignorance, and isolation had all left their bloody mark.
Mississippians earned less, killed more, and died
younger than other Americans.
~ David Oshinsky, Historian, 2006 Pulitzer Prize Winning Author

This February, which, as every year, is designated African American History Month, American Public Media's American RadioWorks released the documentary State of Siege: Mississippi Whites and the Civil Rights Movement, which focuses on the "distinct and dramatic place" of Mississippi in the history of the civil rights movement. According to the historians associated with the documentary, Mississippi — the "most racially restrictive state" in the union — had the highest rate for "most recorded lynchings" between the end of Reconstruction and the early 1960s: 539. Just pause for a moment and consider that shocking number. It's not one I ever learned about in school in Virginia. I try to imagine — and cannot — what would drive so forcefully such prejudice that even one such heinous act could be countenanced. Or how, in 20th Century America, we could send African-American boys abroad to die in Vietnam but deny them education, jobs, rights, legal recourse here at home.

What was it about African Americans' presence in Mississippi, where they accounted for an estimated 50 percent of the population, that hatred could be so pure, reach such a fever pitch that, as Emory University historian Joseph Crespino says, Mississippi would be "closer to resembling the repressiveness of apartheid South Africa" than any other place in the United States? This is a question that State of Siege seeks to illuminate.

On the site for the program, produced by Kate Ellis and Stephen Smith, you'll find six narrative sections that inform the sordid history of Mississippi as revealed in the documentary: Mississippi: A Place Apart, The March Backward, The Citizens' Council, The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, The Riot at Ole' Miss, and Defiance and Compliance. Another resource, Seeking Justice in Civil Rights-Era Cold Cases, written by Suzanne Pekow, focuses on the case of Frank Morris*, victim of one of approximately 100 civil rights-era violent crimes still unsolved.

The transcript for the radio program is here. Audio may be downloaded from the main page. Whether you read or listen, your investment of an hour or so in the program will leave you surprised perhaps but certainly enlightened.


* Also see Stanley Nelson, "Rayville Man Implicated in Frank Morris Case", Concordia Sentinel, January 12, 2011.

African American History Month

Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, University of Southern Mississippi

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963

The Civil Rights Cold Case Project

Code Case Justice Initiative, Syracuse University

Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project, Northeastern University School of Law

U.S. Department of Justice 2010 Civil Rights Cold Case Report  (pdf)

The Klu Klux Klan, PBS Documentary

Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Mississippi Truth Project

Mississippi Summer Project on Flickr

Southern Historical Collection Photostream on Flickr (Scroll down for Civil Rights-Era images.)

Other links and resources, including a selection of articles and books about the civil rights movement broadly and in Mississippi, are here.


Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

I will listen to the program. Thanks. Some of the images you cite were seared into me as a child and will never leave me.

Laura said...

The discomfort I feel when I read that number has faces on it. I still find it hard to fathom this recent part of our history. So many parts are just incomprehensible to me. These are brothers and sisters...I will check out the site, Maureen. I don't want to forget how this discomfort feels. There is too high a price to pay for forgetting.

Anonymous said...

i have not before thought about the name lyndon apart from johnson. but, it is a pretty cool name on it's own.

the sad red earth said...

Unfortunately, a certain Mississippian nature has not been expunged with history. Its governor, Haley Barbour, who not long ago was romanticizing the race relations of his youthful hometown, now refuses to come out against a proposal to put slave-trading, first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan Nathan Bedford Forrest on license plates.

On a lighter note, I never thought about it either, but Nance Marie is right: Lyndon is a cool name.

Maureen said...

Yes, Jay; it's beyond unfortunate. I think we'll never see eradication of such ugly prejudice in our lifetimes.

I read today that the cold cases are going to be broadcast as some kind of television show. I'm not sure I'd want to speculate on how such a show might be received.

Ruth said...

The program sounds powerful, I want to listen too. Dark, dark truths about our history. I have mixed feelings about Black History month (shortest month, for one thing!), but if it makes us, importantly, look at and remember these horrors, it should remain.