Book Review: ‘I’ve got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle’ Charles M Payne

January 26, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

I've got the light of freedom

I’ve given my kids a lot of improving books over the years, and now they’re exacting revenge. Parental devotion means I read anything they give me, which at least gets me out of the aid and development ghetto. My Christmas present this year from son Calum was Charles Payne’s wonderful book on the US civil rights movement, which also kept me sane during a grim, cold, sunless holiday failing to see the Northern Lights in Norway.

Payne seems to have interviewed just about everyone from the civil rights movement in the Mississippi Delta (the book was first published in 1995) and sets out in huge detail the evolution of the movement from the end of World War Two to the late 60s. He uses that analysis to challenge conventional narratives and shed real light on a marvellous moment in US history.

First the myths. As one high school student put it, ‘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. Sometime later, King delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech and segregation was over.’

Some of the things airbrushed out of the narrative: Parks had been a civil rights activist since 1943. Months before her protest in December 1955, Parks had attended leadership training at the Highlander Folk School. An organized group of 300 educated Black women led by English professor Jo Ann Robinson had been agitating on desegregation since 1946. When Parks sat down in December 1955, Robinson’s group had already considered and discounted 3 other protests that year for various tactical reasons. This time they gave the green light and had a rock solid boycott in place within 3 days of Parks’ protest.

As for the churches, MLK may be a hero, but the civil rights movement also faced a lot of resistance from other, more conservative preachers. Nothing is as it seems.

Now for the lessons – insights and wisdom are plentiful, and far too numerous for a blogpost, but here are some that jumped out for me:

Leadership: I’m still looking for a really good sociological analysis of which kinds of people become grassroots leaders and why (do let me know if you have any suggestions). This book has some good observations: leaders often had knowledge of the wider world, whether from fighting in World War Two or travelling, or a degree of economic independence. Faith played a huge role, both in motivating people to take action, and in shaping the way they approached activism. Middle class businesspeople, preachers and teachers tended to keep their heads down in the first, most dangerous years, but often supported the movement behind the scenes. Finally, leadership clustered around families rather than individuals – the same names crop up, as activist parents raise up activist children.

Rosa Parks on the bus
Rosa Parks on the bus

Two further characteristics that Payne identifies is that many of the core organizers were women, often airbrushed out of the history because of the conventional focus on preachers and violence (although some of the women organizers packed a good punch, literally). A chapter is devoted to describing and celebrating the work of extraordinary figures like Ella Baker and ‘Mrs Hamer’. When Mrs Hamer stood up to speak during a mass meeting that was going badly (hot; boring speeches):

‘Immediately, an electric atmosphere suffused the entire church. Men and women alike began to stand up, call out her name, urge her on’. She described the moral evil of racism ‘with a kind of redemptive reconciliation, a vision of justice that embraced everyone. She ended by leading the assembly in chorus after chorus of the old spiritual, ‘this Little Light of Mine’. When she finished, people crowded round her to promise they would join the struggle.’

The second is ‘slow and respectful work.’ Organizers took time to get to know and understand local people and culture. They listened. One local organizer who Payne clearly venerates is Bob Moses. When asked how you organize a town, he replied ‘By bouncing a ball. You stand on a street corner and bounce a ball. Soon all the children come around. You keep on bouncing the ball. Before long, it runs under someone’s porch and then you meet the adults.’

Payne charts the power of the movement’s bottom-up approach. ‘In the very act of working for the impersonal cause of racial freedom, a man experiences, almost like grace, a large measure of private freedom. Call it a new comprehension of his own identity, an intuition of the expanding boundaries of his self, which, if not the same thing as freedom, is its radical source.’

But by the mid-60s, that commitment to slow and respectful work, built by bringing on local leaders and getting out

Ella Baker
Ella Baker

the way, gave way to the more strident, divisive tone of Black Power. Payne shows that this was not just about Black activists preferring separatism, but turning their backs on Ella Baker’s organizing tradition of finding a place even for ‘Black ladies in minks’ in the movement. Purism and ideological disputes took over from that ‘slow and respectful work’ and deep engagement with the people of the Delta. But ‘you cannot organize people you do not respect’.

Was that inevitable? I have seen it recur often enough to think it might be. Partial victories (and they are always partial) trigger division between reformers and radicals; disillusionment sets in when promises are not kept; success changes the incentives – less selfless, more careerist people get involved; engagement with conventional politics is both a sign of victory, and the start of the moral rot.

I have run out of space, yet barely started. Buy it for your kids (or your parents). And please tell me what else to read on the roots of leadership.