The civil rights movement had a lasting impact on Mississippi’s politics, culture, and society. And although pinpointing the impact or legacy of social movements is notoriously difficult, the civil rights movement in Mississippi has received considerable scholarly attention, with particular focus on the movement’s impact on the development of leaders and organizations, changes in political participation and officeholding, shifts in school desegregation, and the development of social policies. The movement also shaped social attitudes, racial interactions, and collective memory, but those arenas are less well understood. The movement’s legacy also includes the white response to the civil rights movement that further shaped Mississippi after the movement’s heyday.
The Mississippi civil rights movement in the early 1960s was noteworthy for its emphasis on community organizing and the development of new local leaders and organizations, many of whom went on to become involved in later phases of the civil rights movement and other social movements. This category includes Mississippians Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, and Hollis Watkins and leaders from outside Mississippi such as Mario Savio and Stokeley Carmichael. While the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and some other organizations folded, numerous other groups, among them legal advocacy organizations, community health centers, and educational programs, have continued to pursue movement goals.
The increase in black political participation is one of the most visible and widely celebrated legacies of the civil rights movement. Mississippi had the country’s lowest rates of black voter registration and voting at the beginning of the 1960s, but by the end of the decade, the combination of civil rights organizing and the 1965 Voting Rights Act had led to dramatic increases in those areas. The election of black candidates to office lagged behind, however, as a consequence of a variety of vote dilution mechanisms (such as the gerrymandering of electoral districts to favor white candidates) that thwarted black candidates at the municipal, county, and state levels. Court decisions handed down during the 1970s reversed many policies that had discriminatory effects, paving the way for a new generation of black elected officials, and Mississippi has long boasted the largest number of African American elected officeholders in the United States. The political impact of black elected officials on policy has been uneven, however. Some gains have occurred in the form of more responsive and equitable policies, but political influence has been limited mainly to offices in majority-black electoral districts. As African Americans’ political participation and officeholding increased, many whites in Mississippi (and elsewhere in the South) shifted their support to the Republican Party. Thus, the civil rights movement helped to undermine traditional one-party politics and the Democratic Party’s long-standing dominance in Mississippi, one of the most important changes in American politics in the post–civil rights era.
Court-ordered school desegregation plans instituted beginning in the early 1960s initially generated minimal changes because they required black parents to apply to have their children attend formerly all-white schools, potentially subjecting the children and their families to harassment. The US Supreme Court’s Alexander v. Holmes decision (1969) paved the way for widespread school desegregation over the next few years, with little of the massive resistance that had followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. However, many Mississippi communities established private, white-controlled academies that not only refused to integrate but also damaged the public school systems. Initial efforts to desegregate Mississippi’s colleges and universities also met fierce resistance, as in the case of James Meredith’s 1962 enrollment at the University of Mississippi, which led to a full-scale riot by white students. However, the past five decades have seen significant increases at black enrollment in Mississippi’s formerly all-white postsecondary institutions.
Changing attitudes and beliefs are more difficult to document, but public discourse by elected officials and community leaders has shifted away from traditional white supremacist arguments on behalf of Mississippi’s segregated institutions and culture. Key leaders and events of the civil rights movement have been memorialized. Civil-rights-era crimes against movement activists have recently received new investigations, and in some cases, perpetrators have been tried, convicted, and jailed. By opening up educational and job opportunities, the civil rights movement played an important role in reducing economic inequalities, especially by creating new possibilities for the growth of black middle class. However, these and subsequent initiatives have garnered less success in reducing the broader structural economic inequities between blacks and whites, and many of the movement’s larger objectives have been undermined by continued resistance to racial equality.
- Kenneth T. Andrews, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy (2004)
- Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994); Jenny Irons, Gender and Society (December 1998)
- Jenny Irons, Mobilization (June 2006)
- Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (1988)
- J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (2004)
- Frank Parker, Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi after 1965 (1990)
- Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Frederick Wirt, “We Ain’t What We Was”: Civil Rights in the New South (1997)