Crossroads at Clarksdale

Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II

Françoise N. Hamlin
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  • Book Info
    Crossroads at Clarksdale
    Book Description:

    Weaving national narratives from stories of the daily lives and familiar places of local residents, Francoise Hamlin chronicles the slow struggle for black freedom through the history of Clarksdale, Mississippi. Hamlin paints a full picture of the town over fifty years, recognizing the accomplishments of its diverse African American community and strong NAACP branch, and examining the extreme brutality of entrenched power there. The Clarksdale story defies triumphant narratives of dramatic change, and presents instead a layered, contentious, untidy, and often disappointingly unresolved civil rights movement.Following the black freedom struggle in Clarksdale from World War II through the first decade of the twenty-first century allows Hamlin to tell multiple, interwoven stories about the town's people, their choices, and the extent of political change. She shows how members of civil rights organizations--especially local leaders Vera Pigee and Aaron Henry--worked to challenge Jim Crow through fights against inequality, police brutality, segregation, and, later, economic injustice. With Clarksdale still at a crossroads today, Hamlin explores how to evaluate success when poverty and inequality persist.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0169-4
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xx)
  4. INTRODUCTION: The Black Freedom Struggle at the Crossroads
    (pp. 1-8)

    The claim to fame for Clarksdale, Mississippi, is as the home of the blues. In the first half of the twentieth century, many men, and a few women, gathered there to develop the blues as a musical form and consume it with pleasure. W. C. Handy, Gus Cannon, Charley Patton, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Jack Johnson, Frank Frost, Bessie Smith, Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson, among others, carved their mark on the local and national music scene in Clarksdale.¹ Today, the most famous landmark, the Crossroads—where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the...

    (pp. 9-41)

    In Mississippi, the violence of white supremacy stained the land as in few other places in America. The brutal murder of fourteen - year - old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, in August 1955 embodied, then transcended, that violence. The crime stunned even those who had grown accustomed to everyday white terror, but it also galvanized a generation in Mississippi and beyond.

    One of those responding to the violence was Aaron Henry, president of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “The Coahoma County Branch found itself at the Rail Head of...

  6. CHAPTER TWO M Is for Mississippi and Murder . . . and Mother
    (pp. 42-72)

    The “Mississippi Situation,” as the national NAACP referred to the crisis at the end of 1955, focused national attention on conditions in the state. In addition to Emmett Till, three other black males were murdered that year in widely publicized attacks. Emotions ran high, and the whole world, it seemed, was increasingly watching. The NAACP’s 1955 pamphlet, “M Is for Mississippi and Murder,” disseminated to publicize its work and solicit support for beleaguered members, captured the sentiment.¹ Years later, Amzie Moore recollected, “It was a real rough year for Mississippi.”² However, for all those black Mississippians reluctant to join the...

  7. CHAPTER THREE I Think Freedom and Talk Freedom: DEMANDING DESEGREGATION, 1960–1963
    (pp. 73-115)

    “What can a mother, a professional woman, and a Christian contribute to the struggle for human dignity?” asked Vera Pigee. Answering her own question, Pigee mused: “It was my first commitment as a mother to see her [daughter Mary Jane] more fully equipped to cope with the problems of today. Youth is our greatest resource. Daily, I try to impress this simple truth on parents in my community, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has provided a vehicle whereby I have been able to do this with considerable success. A professional woman in Mississippi is something...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Fires of Frustration: SUMMERS OF 1963 TO 1965
    (pp. 116-166)

    Vera Pigee was proud of Mississippi’s youth councils, with good reason. She had toiled for years to build up the chapters and boost membership in local NAACP branches. By the middle of 1963, she had consolidated considerable strength among the state’s youth, and the fruits of her labors were evident in Coahoma County’s prominence in that year’s national NAACP conference. However, she was continually swallowing her frustration as older youth from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) distracted her wards with their militancy, bravery, and organizing. Through Pigee’s eyes, it became more and...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Children Should Not Be Subjected To What Is Going On There: DESEGREGATING SCHOOLS
    (pp. 167-208)

    Elnora Fondren wrote this poem seated at one of the donated desks in COFO’s community center in Clarksdale during the summer of 1964 as part of the organized activities run by the volunteers. In it, she evoked American history through the imagery of Abraham Lincoln and slavery, which she equated with the world she inhabited one hundred years later. By pointing out the humanity of the nation’s number one enemy during the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev, the rising tenth grader declared her own and asserted her citizenship and equality in the movement to change the American landscape.¹

    More than a...

    (pp. 209-243)

    The presence of the federal government brought great transformations to the southern landscape. Actively enforcing federal legislation and court orders initiated by mass protest muzzled white supremacy, disallowing discrimination on the basis of race. At least that has been standard rhetoric for the sixties and for the mass civil rights movement. But just like the years of Reconstruction, a century earlier, the racist beast still lived and struggled to disentangle itself from its legal bindings. While it tussled with the law in the courts and with people on the streets, many African Americans in Mississippi seized the opportunities now available....

    (pp. 244-262)

    The school day began at 6 A.M. The dusty yellow school bus would start its long journey from the Lyon subdivision where I lived for a year out in the county, surrounded by cotton fields. With my Sony Walkman clamped to my ears, I would climb on that bus before 7 A.M. and stare out of the window as it chugged around the fields, picking up children from what could only be termed shacks. Our destination, Coahoma County High School, right on the town line (and at one time the consolidated school, built in the fifties in an effort to...

  12. Appendix: Black and White Freedom Summer Volunteers in Clarksdale
    (pp. 263-264)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 265-316)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 317-346)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 347-350)
  16. Index
    (pp. 351-371)