Interview with author of book on civil rights activism in Mississippi
The story of the civil rights movement in the South is one that most people think they know: institutional injustice and brutal repression met with nonviolent resistance. In his book Student Activism and Civil Rights in Mississippi: Protest Politics and the Struggle for Racial Justice, 1960-1965 (Louisiana State University Press), James P. Marshall, a one-time civil rights activist who was present in Mississippi in the early '60s and who later was a non-resident fellow at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, chronicles the ground-level early movement by students in a state that was in many ways the most hostile to the push for equality. Marshall responded via e-mail to questions about his book.
Q: Please explain the role “obstructionism” as practiced by Mississippi law enforcement.
A: Obstructionism as it was practiced in Mississippi was both legal and extra-legal in nature. The legal type involved prosecuting civil rights organizers and activists on "unfounded criminal charges," such as "breach of the peace" for sitting in at the Jackson Public Library. Lawless official inaction was the second type of obstructionism and involved letting extra-legal elements such as mobs attack African-Americans.
Q: You talk about the decision by the civil rights movement in Mississippi to focus on voter registration rather than direct action; how did that decision take shape?
A: In 1960-61 the student-supported civil rights movement, at the behest of local African American leaders chose to become involved in voter registration efforts, particularly after the Freedom Rides in 1961. Direct action projects such as marches, sit-ins and freedom rides did not lead to effective organizing efforts whereas voter registration work did.
Q: To what extent do you believe the civil rights movement was shaped by college and university students?
A: The civil rights movement in Mississippi was student-supported but these students quickly left their academic studies and moved in with local leaders and conducted their organizing work among the local population, many of whom were poor share-croppers who many times were also poorly educated.
Q: Would you describe the security system used by the student civil rights activists?
A: During Freedom Summer a network of WATS (Wide Area Telephone Service) lines was set up to maintain contact with civil rights workers. Citizen Band Radios were installed in movement cars and at various Freedom Houses. Local people supplied armed patrols to protect movement houses at night but movement activists were not armed. Civil rights workers and volunteers needed to check out and check in when they arrived at places where they were going to.
Q: The version of the civil rights movement Americans are taught in schools is much more simplified and to some extent sanitized compared to the stories you tell in this book; do you think we as a society would rather think of civil rights as something that’s already been “fixed”?
A: The story I documented through interviews and original documents that I gathered in 1965-66 and verified in later research is quite different from what schools generally teach. It would be convenient to imagine that civil rights denials have been ameliorated but the denial of the vote that was present in the South and corrected by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, particularly Section 5, leads me to believe that voter suppression is present not just in the South but in many many places around the United States.