Weaving national narratives from stories of the daily lives and familiar places of local residents, Françoise Hamlin chronicles the slow struggle for black freedom through the history of Clarksdale, Mississippi in her book Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II. 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.
In the following excerpt, Hamlin sets the scene and describes what makes Clarksdale an unusual case in the study of the civil rights movement. (pp 1.3):
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.[ref]See Palmer, Deep Blues; Weeks, Clarksdale and Coahoma County; and Gioia, Delta Blues.[/ref] Today, the most famous landmark, the Crossroads—where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery over his music—is proudly demarcated by a decorative pointer of four guitars, with each neck pointing toward the geographical compass points: north and south along Highway 61 (now 161); east and west on Route 49. Yet Clarksdale’s African American history resonates much deeper than the musical melodies emanating from juke joints and the fields. The fact that the blues, a musical form documenting hard life and harder knocks, found a fertile home here speaks to the stories of struggle and survival on the ground where it matured.
A fuller history of African Americans in Clarksdale illustrates how a community organizing during the mass civil rights movement found, chose, or appropriated opportunities in order to survive. These (real, rather than legendary) crossroads existed on various planes—across time and place and within personal (an sometimes communal) lives. This metaphor, which Johnson’s lonely meeting conjures, helps us remember the uncertainty in the choices, opportunities, and decisions that black people made as they worked for better futures, highlighting agency and strategic organization over declension and defeat.
Crossroads at Clarksdale chronicles the black freedom struggle in Clarksdale, Mississippi, from 1951 to the mid-1970s. The narrative, however, spills backward into the 1940s and forward to the turn of the twenty-first-century. At the national level, while mass movement strategies forced the enactment of desegregation laws and case decisions and took down major barriers to equal economic opportunities, the reality of life for most African Americans did not change dramatically. Risky choices led to relatively slow change at the local level, with steady battles for gains, at times in tiny incremental steps.
The larger national portrait of the mass civil rights movement leaves out this local story and the personal narratives and drama that permitted the everyday push for a more just society. This partially explains the indifference to the past in today’s Clarksdale. During my stay there as an exchange student at Coahoma County High School in the early 1990s, in a school that was easily 90% African American, hardly any black history was taught, nothing beyond specific leaders and inventors. Once in graduate school and specializing in African American history, the one book I found on Clarksdale’s history, written in 1982 and published by the city’s Carnegie Library, did not reflect history as African Americans remembered it. Rather it showed an unrealistic and sanitized version of social harmony and the blues.[ref]See Weeks, Clarksdale and Coahoma County.[/ref] The youth of Clarksdale, starting with my peers, knew nothing of the history, the struggle, and the sacrifices made by their neighbors and relatives. This book recovers for the first time those forgotten or discarded memories.
Looking at one place provides a window for analyzing the complexity of movements even within the locales. It complicates our understanding of a mas movement, or, more accurately, a mass of movements throughout the nation, each peculiar to its locale and population. This portrait uses Clarksdale as its canvas.[ref]For a range of models of local studies, see Rhona Y. Williams, Politics of Public Housing; Orleck, Storming Caesar’s Palace; and Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights. Also important is Thornton, Dividing Lines. For organizational histories, the following have been useful: Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement; Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s; Branch, Parting the Waters; and Branch, Pillar of Fire. For groundbreaking work on black activism in Mississippi, see McMillen, Dark Journey; Payne, I’ve got the Light of Freedom; and especially Dittmer, Local People. Crosby’s A Little Taste of Freedom focuses on Claiborne County, south of the Mississippi Delta, primarily through the personality of Charles Evers. Moye’s Let the People Decide, about Sunflower County, builds on the work of SNCC, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party politics.[/ref] By keeping this study local, the project conducts a cross-organizational comparison through time, showcasing Clarksdale’s residents and the triumphs and tragedies that occurred there as they arrived at various crossroads. These accumulative stories about the sustained push for substantive change during the mass civil rights movements are a continuation of the black freedom struggle, one that is unique to the history of African Americans carrying the legacy of slavery. Themes around organizing, victories, persistent problems, and the nature of coalition building, past and present, are distilled in this one town’s story.[ref]See Woods, Development Arrested, for scholarship that extended the origins of the movement backward in time before Brown existed in the 1960s. For example, see Dalfiume, “‘Forgotten Years’ of the Negro Revolution.” Nikhil Pal Singh wrote extensively about the “long civil rights era” in the 2004 Black Is a Country. Recent attention revolves around Jacquelyn Hall’s essay “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past.” Responses to Hall’s essay include Litwack, “Fight the Power! The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement”; and Arensen, “Reconsidering the Long Civil Rights Movement.”[/ref]
As a Delta town, Clarksdale typified many movement sites, yet for many reasons it is unique. Clarksdale’s movement was more homespun than in other Delta towns—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had its strongest branch there, founded in the early 1950s by local people. For that reason, other organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCP) did not have as big a presence as they did in the adjoining Sunflower County directly south, or less than sixty miles away in Greenwood. In Clarksdale itself, there were relatively more possibilities for African Americans because as a larger urban area it offered more employment possibilities. For example, Coahoma County Junior College and Agricultural High School, locally known as Aggie, became one of the first institutions of its kind in the state in 1949 when grades thirteen and fourteen were added to the curriculum to create a black public junior college serving adjacent Delta counties. With a more diverse and better-educated population, Clarksdale generally had an aura of relative progressivism in the Delta—a handful of African Americans could register to vote and a few black businesses and professionals constituted a middle class. Yet violence existed and was used as a deterrent by those upholding Jim Crow.
From Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II, by Françoise N. Hamlin. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Françoise N. Hamlin is the Hans Rothfels Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Brown University. Learn more and keep up with upcoming events at the book’s Facebook page.