John Dittmer is a prominent historian of the Mississippi civil rights movement. A native of Seymour, Indiana, Dittmer earned bachelor’s (1961), master’s (1964), and doctoral (1971) degrees from Indiana University. In the fall of 1967 he accepted an appointment as assistant professor of history at Tougaloo College, a small, historically black liberal arts college just outside Jackson. Within a year, Tougaloo appointed Dittmer academic dean. He returned to teaching in the fall of 1970 and was promoted to associate professor in 1971. He continued teaching there until 1979, when he accepted a position as visiting associate professor of history at Brown University. After three years at Brown, one year as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow, and two years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dittmer returned to Indiana to become an associate history professor at DePauw University in Greencastle. He retired and was granted emeritus status in 2003.
While at Tougaloo, Dittmer had known many civil rights activists and had heard their stories. He knew that the struggle for civil rights was different in Mississippi than in much of the rest of the South. Mississippi lacked cities large enough to support the independent black ministers who often assumed leadership roles in the movement in other southern states—men such as Martin Luther King Jr. of Atlanta, Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, and Kelly Miller Smith of Nashville. In Mississippi, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference led no campaigns against segregation. Also, unlike other southern states, Mississippi’s African American population approached 40 percent of the total in the 1960s, and blacks outnumbered whites in many counties. This demographic meant that the state’s activists took voting rights, not desegregation, as their primary goal. In much of Mississippi, if blacks could vote, they could rule.
The story of civil rights in Mississippi was the story of local people refusing to continue to quietly accept segregation and disfranchisement. In Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1993), Dittmer gracefully recounts how local people, encouraged by student activists, most often with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality, gradually but tirelessly fought for civil rights in the face of unrelenting white violence. Dittmer argues that without local people to support, house, and even protect the student activists, the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi would likely not have occurred in the 1960s and certainly would not have succeeded. Dittmer also argues that it is impossible to overstate the importance of the leadership provided by local people. In virtually every town where student activists worked, the civil rights cause was advanced by local leaders—perhaps most notably Fannie Lou Hamer of Sunflower County. Without Dittmer’s work in Local People, the determination, bravery, and leadership provided by Annie Devine, Unita Blackwell, Victoria Gray Adams, and others would be far less renowned. Local People received three major book awards: the 1994 Lillian Smith Book Award, the 1995 Bancroft Prize, and the 1995 McLemore Prize.
In addition to Local People, Dittmer has authored Black Georgia in the Progressive Era (1977) and The Good Doctors: The Medical Committee for Human Rights, Race, and the Politics of Health Care in America (2009). He and Danielle L. McGuire served as coeditors of Freedom Rights: New Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement (2011). Dittmer has received several research fellowships as well as teaching awards. In 2010 DePauw created the John Dittmer Award to recognize the graduating history major with the highest grade point average.
- DePauw University website, www.depauw.edu
- John Dittmer, e-mail interview with Ernest M. Limbo
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1993)