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Mississippi: A Place Apart

Mississippi occupies a distinct and dramatic place in the history of America's civil rights movement. No state in the South was more resistant to the struggle for black equality. No place was more violent. As historian David Oshinsky writes: "The codes of honor and vengeance, the effects of poverty, ignorance, and isolation had all left their bloody mark. Mississippians earned less, killed more, and died younger than other Americans."

The ruins of Mt. Pleasant Society Hall, a Baptist church in Gluckstadt, Mississippi. The church, which had housed a CORE Voter School, was destroyed by fire on August 11, 1964. The church still smolders in the photograph, as the fire department never came. National Archives

Likewise, Mississippi set the trend in racial oppression. As historian Charles Payne recounts in detail, the state had the highest rate of lynchings, recording 539 between the end of Reconstruction and the early 1960s. Historian Neil McMillen describes Mississippi as the most "racially restrictive state" in the South, though one with comparatively few Jim Crow segregation laws. They weren't needed.

"Where popular convention and white sensibilities governed virtually every phase of interracial contact, there was little cause legally to separate black from white," McMillen explains. "Indeed, so powerful was the force of custom that even the legal pretense of equality in separation was unnecessary."

In the first half of the 20th century, Mississippi more nearly resembled a feudal society than anyplace else in America. In the state's plantation economy, conditions for many black farm workers weren't much better than slavery. African Americans had virtually no education, no rights and no legal recourse against whites who exploited, cheated or attacked them.

Social transformations following World War II that affected all of the South were especially potent in Mississippi. The increasing mechanization of farm work made for substantial dislocation among whites and blacks in the state. Thousands upon thousands left the land to find work. "In cities, blacks and whites competed for jobs, housing, recreation and seats on public transportation, and the problem of the color line assumed pressing urgency," historian Pete Daniel writes. Like African Americans across the South, many returning to Mississippi from military service had experienced life in other countries with far less racial prejudice. Having fought to secure democratic freedoms abroad, they were determined to fight for freedom at home. With African Americans making up roughly half the population, Mississippi whites were terrified of losing political control. "As [civil rights] demonstrations swirled through the South," Pete Daniel writes, "Mississippi whites stood out as the most obstinate and violent in the protection of segregation."

When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawing school segregation, whites across the South vowed never to send their youngsters to school with black children. They launched a campaign known as "massive resistance." Southern white legislators and school boards enacted laws and policies to evade and defy the Court's ruling. As Richard Kluger writes in Simple Justice, "the South interpreted 'all deliberate speed' to mean 'any conceivable delay'." In 1956, nearly every congressman in the deep South-101 in total-signed the Southern Manifesto declaring the Brown decision, "a clear abuse of judicial power." Law-abiding Southerners who once justified Jim Crow with the Court's Plessy vs. Ferguson decision now defied the Court's authority. Opponents of the Brown decision argued that the federal government had no power to force states to integrate schools. The state's rights argument had been a Southern rallying cry against the emancipation of slaves 100 years earlier. It was central to the South's battle against Reconstruction after the Civil War. Now, the state's rights banner was unfurled in a campaign against school desegregation. Where local laws could no longer keep black and white children from attending the same schools, organized white people would.

The virulence of racial oppression in Mississippi during Jim Crow was equaled by the force of white opposition to desegregation. Historian Neil McMillen writes, "In terms of preparedness for organized resistance to the Supreme Court's mandate of May 17, 1954, white Mississippians were, indeed, in a class by themselves."

Fannie Lou Hamer on her front porch, circa 1960s. (University of Southern Mississippi Digital Collections)

The danger of challenging Jim Crow in Mississippi led the state to produce more than its share of powerful civil rights leaders, including Fannie Lou Hamer, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry and many others. These seemingly ordinary people were propelled by a conviction that the racial order had to change. Activist and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leader Fannie Lou Hamer described her determination: "Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I'll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I'm not backing off that and no one will have to cover the ground I walk as far as freedom is concerned."

The civil rights battle in Mississippi also produced its share of white warriors-a majority devoted to preserving segregation at almost any cost. Arrayed against civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and others, was a potent combination of segregationist forces, especially the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the Citizens' Council and the Ku Klux Klan. These white supremacy organizations used many techniques, including surveillance, severe economic reprisals, and brutal violence to thwart civil rights activists. Likewise, these groups were quick to ostracize whites who didn't openly join their ranks or support their cause. "Not unlike pro-slavery zealots of the 1850s," Neil McMillen writes, "the pro-segregationists of a century later were inclined to brook no latter-day abolitionism among fellow southerners…In this repressive atmosphere the moderate was vilified and he who was found 'soft' on integration was adjudged treasonous."

The Mississippi Citizens' Council effectively "closed Mississippi," writes historian Joseph Crespino.

"They policed a white racial authoritarianism that ran roughshod over the civil and political rights of white and black Mississippians both. Because of the Council's influence, no place in the United States…came closer to resembling the repressiveness of apartheid South African than did Mississippi."

Opponents of civil rights in Mississippi managed to stave off almost any form of racial desegregation for more than a decade after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision.

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