(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

To understand race relations in the United States in the 1990’s, one must be aware of the blatant injustices to which blacks were subjected in the South until the late 1960’s; one must also know something about the Civil Rights movement, which arose to fight against such injustices. As the 1960’s have become ever more distant in time, more and more academic historians have begun to write about the movement.

At first, historians wrote either biographies of the most famous civil rights leader (Martin Luther King, Jr.) or studies of the major national civil rights organizations. Later on, historical studies of the Civil Rights movement in individual states, counties, and cities began to appear in print. Examples include William Chafe’s Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom (1980) and Robert J. Norrell’s Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee (1985). Both activists from other parts of the United States and native-born black Mississippians, the author suggests, were necessary to make the successes of the movement possible. Dittmer, who taught in Mississippi for twelve years, ascribes these successes to the courage of ordinary people, as well as to the genius of Martin Luther King, Jr., or President Lyndon Johnson.

Dittmer portrays presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson not as sincere champions of civil rights, but as practical politicians who had to be prodded to do the right thing. Kennedy is faulted for trying to dissuade Freedom Riders from going to the South instead of protecting them when they did so; for failing, in the fall of 1962, to intervene to protect black college student James Meredith’s right to enter the hitherto all-white University of Mississippi until the last possible moment; and for failing to protect the black activists who conducted voter registration drives in Mississippi against violent attacks by whites. Readers of this book may remember President Johnson as the man who spared no method, fair or foul (including wiretapping), to defeat the challenge by the black-run Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City in August, 1964, and as the man who used the military, in January, 1966, to disperse starving rural blacks who had occupied an abandoned Air Force base near Greenwood, Mississippi, to publicize their plight. Unfortunately, Dittmer pays much less attention to Johnson’s role in pushing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress.

Martin Luther King, Jr., visited Mississippi only once in his career: in June, 1966, to complete a civil rights march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, that had been begun by James Meredith, and had been interrupted when Meredith was wounded by a sniper. Because of his assassination in April, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, many Americans in the 1990’s remember Martin Luther King, Jr., as a martyr for the cause of civil rights. Yet there were also, Dittmer shows, several black Mississippian martyrs: Medgar Evers, field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who was ambushed on June 12, 1963; George W. Lee and Lamar Smith, who were killed in 1955; farmer Herbert Lee, who was murdered in 1961; James Chaney, who was killed in June, 1964; and Vernon Dahmer, asphyxiated when his house was fire-bombed in January, 1966. Activists who did not meet violent deaths, Dittmer shows, often endured jailings and beatings; until 1965, ordinary blacks who tried to register to vote often risked losing their jobs.

Dittmer’s periodization of the history of the Mississippi movement is itself a contribution to scholarship. He dates its beginning from July, 1946, when a young Medgar Evers, accompanied by a few other black World War II veterans, tried unsuccessfully to register to vote in Decatur, Mississippi. The 1950’s are seen as a time when white repression dashed the hopes raised by the Supreme Court school desegregation decision and deterred all but a tiny portion of the black middle class from joining the movement, then dominated by the NAACP. Dittmer perceives the beginning of the second phase in the spring and summer of 1961, when the freedom rides occurred and Robert Moses, of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), began a voter registration drive among the state’s blacks. The author sees the conclusion of the second phase in August, 1964, when the MFDP failed to unseat the regular Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Party Convention. Unlike many historians, Dittmer does not end the story of the Mississippi movement in 1964; instead, he concludes it in 1968, when a biracial delegation containing remnants of the MFDP replaced the segregationists at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago.

Such black SNCC activists as Robert Moses, a mathematics teacher from the New York City area, were young men when they began their activist careers. Dittmer shows, however, that young SNCC activists, far from waging generational war against their elders, deliberately sought their assistance. Thus Amzie Moore, a middle-aged postal worker and civil rights worker in Cleveland, Mississippi, helped Moses win the acceptance of local blacks.

Dittmer breaks new ground in his discussion of the role of women in the Mississippi movement. Throughout the 1950’s, he asserts, its leadership was almost completely male. During the early 1960’s, men continued to dominate the new SNCC leadership; nevertheless, women, especially rural women, began to assume prominent roles. These women included Annie Devine, Victoria Gray, and the indomitable and much-loved sharecropper’s daughter, Fannie Lou Hamer.

White supporters of the movement, Dittmer points out, were at first rare in Mississippi; even most white...

(The entire section is 2373 words.)