The civil rights movement in Mississippi challenged generations of inequality in the state. Though it had much deeper roots, the Mississippi movement was especially active and creative in the early and mid-1960s, when the state became a center of national efforts to demand legal equality, voting rights for all citizens, and an end to racial segregation.
When the modern civil rights movement began in the mid-twentieth century, Mississippi had the highest percentage of African American residents in the United States and the lowest percentage of African American voters. Many civil rights activists argued that segregation and disfranchisement were so deeply entrenched—and perhaps so deeply interconnected with the maintenance of a large body of poorly paid workers—that if unequal laws could be eliminated in Mississippi, they could be eliminated anywhere. The effort included a variety of organizations, some of them well-known national groups—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had a long and uneven history in Mississippi but a steady presence in Jackson; the United Negro Improvement Association, which had a short period of extraordinary popularity in the 1920s; the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The freedom struggle also gave rise to new Mississippi groups such as the Council of Federated Organizations, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), and Womanpower Unlimited and encompassed activists from older agricultural unions and labor unions and African American institutions, such as churches, schools, and businesses.
Scholars have argued that the best way to understand the civil rights movement is to appreciate its multiple organizations, multiple goals, and even its multiple languages. Some groups sought to overturn racial segregation laws and practices and gain the right to vote and hold office, while others espoused broader goals such as self-determination, fighting poverty and violence, and overturning a range of institutionalized insults and white privilege. Mississippi contributed some of the most memorable language about the movement and its goals: the language of religious deliverance, sacrifice, and perseverance; lawyers’ language about legal equality; Fannie Lou Hamer’s “I Question America” speech; James Silver’s book, Mississippi: The Closed Society; multiple uses and meanings of the term freedom; and the first popularization of the phrase Black Power.
In Mississippi, the modern civil rights movement began in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The NAACP’s membership and activities increased dramatically, and the Regional Council of Negro Leadership formed in Mound Bayou in 1951. Helmed by Dr. T. R. M. Howard, the Regional Council led some of the first large political gatherings for African Americans in Mississippi. The NAACP gained popularity during World War II and through the growing success of NAACP lawsuits. In 1954 and 1955, NAACP chapters in at least six Mississippi counties demanded school desegregation in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and the state organization appointed its first field secretary, Medgar Evers. In 1955, Regional Council vice president George Lee was murdered, and the killing of teenager Emmett Till stirred national anger about the dangers and injustices African Americans faced in the state. Massive resistance against the civil rights movement began in the mid- and late 1950s, with the rise of the Citizens’ Councils, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, numerous new laws about education and activism, and countless small and large groups that used violence, the law, the media, and/or economic pressure to combat civil rights activism.
The civil rights movement registered enormous gains between 1960 and 1968. In 1960 Mississippi activism embarked in at least two new important directions. On the Gulf Coast, Dr. Gilbert Mason led a small group of activists in a “wade-in” against beach segregation—possibly Mississippi’s first direct-action protest. In the same year, Clarksdale’s Aaron Henry became head of the state’s NAACP, a position he held into the 1990s.
In 1961 three forms of direct action protest became crucial to Mississippi activism. In Jackson, nine Tougaloo College students tested segregation laws by sitting-in at a public library. CORE activists, some black and some white, challenged segregation on buses and in bus stations on a Freedom Ride through much of the state, and a Hinds County group, Womanpower Unlimited, supported Freedom Ride participants and later helped with a broader range of efforts.
The major civil rights organizations—the NAACP, CORE, SNCC, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—formed a new group, the Council of Federated Organizations, in 1962. In that year, SNCC moved into the Delta and organized numerous voter registration efforts. For the first time since Reconstruction, an African American candidate, Robert L. Smith, ran for US Congress. In September, after complicated legal and political efforts, James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi, desegregating the institution and setting off white supremacist violence that killed two and injured dozens. Also in 1962 the NAACP and other groups started a sustained boycott against segregated institutions in Jackson, beginning with the Mississippi State Fair.
During the following year the Jackson boycott expanded into a selective-buying campaign against merchants that practiced forms of white privilege. Opponents of a sit-in at Woolworth’s on Capitol Street heaped food and insults on the protesters. Evers, the boycott’s best-known leader, made a televised address about the effort’s goals and strategies and was assassinated the next day. Jackson also saw a campaign in which African Americans from Mississippi and whites, mostly from outside the state, went together to worship in all-white churches. Also in 1963, numerous Mississippians took part in the March on Washington, and the Council of Federated Organizations sponsored the Freedom Vote, with Aaron Henry running for governor and Edwin King running for lieutenant governor in an ingenious display of African American voting at a time when most could not officially register.
Events in 1964 drew the most national attention to the Mississippi movement and the dangers activists faced. In the spring, several communities sponsored Freedom Days, sustained efforts by African American communities to register people to vote. Victoria Gray Adams ran for the US Senate seat held by John Stennis, and the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Mississippi Summer Project, often simply called Freedom Summer, constituted an ambitious effort to bring together Mississippi activists with more than one thousand non-Mississippians to register African Americans to vote, to organize African American community centers, to teach in newly created institutions called Freedom Schools, and to publicize both the injustices and potential of life for black Mississippians. At the start of the summer young volunteers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Neshoba County, and over the next few violent, tense, frustrating, and sometimes exciting months, Mississippi activists formed the MFDP. Chaired by Lawrence Guyot, with Fannie Lou Hamer as vice chair, the MFDP challenged the acceptance of an all-white delegation from the state at the Democratic National Convention by demanding that Hamer, Adams, and Annie Devine be seated as Mississippi delegates.
In 1965 and 1966 the MFDP worked to gather information on voter discrimination, and the Child Development Group of Mississippi was formed to seek federal funding for Head Start programs. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, multiple new protest movements pressed for immediate results. Sustained protest efforts bringing together NAACP leaders with others in Natchez in 1965 and Port Gibson in 1966 ended with some successes. Natchez activists initiated a boycott against white merchants after a car bombing injured NAACP chapter head George Metcalfe. The protesters demanded the desegregation of schools, parks, and swimming pools; the equalization of city services; an end to police brutality; and the use of courtesy titles for African Americans patrons in white-owned establishments. The boycott ended in December, when merchants agreed to most of the demands. In Port Gibson, merchants agreed to hire more African American workers and to use courtesy titles when addressing African American customers. Resentment and opposition continued in both places, as evidenced by the murder of Wharlest Jackson in Natchez in 1967 and by an unsuccessful 1969 lawsuit, Claiborne Hardware, et al., v. NAACP, that challenged boycotting as an illegal activity. In 1966 James Meredith began his March against Fear, claiming that with the Civil Rights Act in place, he should be able to walk across the state. He was shot early in his march, but other activists stepped in to take his place. In the Delta, Stokely Carmichael and other members of SNCC began to use the term Black Power.
For the first time since Reconstruction, African Americans voted and ran for office in substantial numbers in 1967 and 1968. Twenty-two of the more than one hundred African Americans who ran for office in Mississippi in 1967 won election, including Holmes County’s Robert Clark, who took a seat in the Mississippi legislature. In 1968 Flonzie Brown Goodloe became election commissioner in Madison County, the first black woman elected to office in Mississippi. In the same year, the Democratic Party welcomed African Americans to the national convention as part of the national delegation. In 1969 Charles Evers, Medgar Evers’s brother, became mayor of Fayette, and in 1970, the US Supreme Court mandated that Mississippi finally desegregate its public schools. At least three expressions of African American frustration with the continuing problems of Mississippi life became clear in the late 1960s. The Republic of New Afrika, making efforts to form a separate nation of people of African descent in five southern states, including Mississippi, bought land in Bolton in 1968 and began recruiting members. A violent 1971 confrontation between Republic members and state and federal officials led to murder charges and the end of the group’s influence. In 1968 a mule train of Mississippians representing the Poor People’s Campaign left Marks for Washington, D.C., hoping that their trip would culminate in new national efforts to address American poverty. And the first great work of literature from the state’s civil rights movement, Anne Moody’s 1968 volume, Coming of Age in Mississippi, ended with people singing “We Shall Overcome,” and Moody responding, “I WONDER. I really WONDER.”
In the twenty-first century, Mississippians continue to debate how much success the civil rights movement truly had in overturning school segregation, voter discrimination, and legal inequality. The movement set examples for sacrifice, organization, and inspiration and eliminated de jure segregation, but many issues remain unresolved—de facto segregation; ongoing issues such as poverty, poor health, and high rates of incarceration; and newer issues such as the rights of immigrants and same-sex couples. Some Mississippi conservatives emphasize the end to legal inequality, while people on the political left tend to stress problems left unresolved and to note the rise of both the Republican Party and private schools that include few if any African Americans. Mississippians also continue to discuss how best to interpret and remember the civil rights movement. Laws requiring that public schools teach about the movement, growing efforts to celebrate movement individuals and moments through statues and historic markers, and the creation of a civil rights museum in Jackson reveal the movement’s central place in Mississippi’s history and its relevance for contemporary life.
- Emilye Crosby, A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi (2005)
- Chris Danielson, After Freedom Summer: How Race Realigned Mississippi Politics, 1965–1986 (2011)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Charles Eagles, The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (2009)
- Françoise N. Hamlin, Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II (2012)
- Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (2007)
- Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1997)
- Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (1990)
- Tiyi M. Morris, Womanpower Unlimited and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (2015)
- J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (2004)
- Chris Myers-Asch, The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer (2008)
- Mark Newman, Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi (2004)
- Ted Ownby, ed., The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi (2013)
- Frank R. Parker, Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi after 1965 (1990)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Renee Romano and Leigh Raiford, eds., The Civil Rights Movement and American Memory (2006)
- Akinyele Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (2013)