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Local Black Freedom Movements in America

Jeanne Theoharis, Komozi Woodard, Charles Payne

Publication Year: 2005

Over the last several years, the traditional narrative of the civil rights movement as largely a southern phenomenon, organized primarily by male leaders, that roughly began with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has been complicated by studies that root the movement in smaller communities across the country. These local movements had varying agendas and organizational development, geared to the particular circumstances, resources, and regions in which they operated. Local civil rights activists frequently worked in tandem with the national civil rights movement but often functioned autonomously from—and sometimes even at odds with—the national movement.

Together, the pathbreaking essays in Groundwork teach us that local civil rights activity was a vibrant component of the larger civil rights movement, and contributed greatly to its national successes. Individually, the pieces offer dramatic new insights about the civil rights movement, such as the fact that a militant black youth organization in Milwaukee was led by a white Catholic priest and in Cambridge, Maryland, by a middle-aged black woman; that a group of middle-class, professional black women spearheaded Jackson, Mississippi's movement for racial justice and made possible the continuation of the Freedom Rides, and that, despite protests from national headquarters, the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality staged a dramatic act of civil disobedience at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

No previous volume has enabled readers to examine several different local movements together, and in so doing, Groundwork forges a far more comprehensive vision of the black freedom movement.

Published by: NYU Press

Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America


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pp. v-vi

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pp. ix-xv

Much of what is important in John Dittmer’s approach to the civil rights movement is present on the first page of his book Local People.1 The time is July 1946, two years after the Supreme Court struck down the all-white primary, one of Mississippi’s favorite devices for systematically disenfranchising its black citizens. Despite warnings of bloodshed and retribution, several thousand blacks across the state tried to vote in the...

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pp. 1-16

The crowds that filled church mass meetings in Birmingham; the somber procession marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the road to Selma; the stoic formation of Black Panthers in their berets and black leather, rapt and standing at attention; the determined picket line of sanitation workers in Memphis carrying signs reading, “I Am A Man”1—all these are familiar images...

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1. "They Told Us Our Kids Were Stupid": Ruth Batson and the Educational Movement in Boston

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pp. 17-44

In 1994 community activists in Boston held a conference at Northeastern University to document the history of grassroots struggle for racial justice and educational equity in the city.1 The 1986 publication of J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book Common Ground had galvanized many in Boston’s black community to put forth their own histories of black families, community organizing...

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2. “Drive Awhile for Freedom”: Brooklyn CORE’s 1964 Stall-In and Public Discourses on Protest Violence

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pp. 45-75

During the twenty years after World War II, some of the country’s most significant campaigns to end racial discrimination in housing, education and employment; to stop police brutality against black citizens; and to improve the environmental conditions of poor, mostly black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods took place in New York City.1 In the late...

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3. Message from the Grassroots: The Black Power Experiment in Newark, New Jersey

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pp. 77-96

In late 1969, in the midst of the struggles of the Black Power movement three twenty–year-old college students went to the headquarters of the controversial grassroots organization, the Committee for a Unified NewArk (CFUN), in the heart of Newark, New Jersey’s Central Ward ghetto to inquire about the nature of its political program. Each of them had been in black student unions...

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4. Gloria Richardson and the Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge, Maryland

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pp. 97-115

This essay examines Gloria Richardson, one of the heroines of the civil rights movement, within the context of the history of Cambridge, Maryland, and the civil rights movement that arose there in the 1960s. It focuses on answering two interrelated questions: First, why do so few people know who Gloria Richardson is? Second, in what ways does her story enhance our understanding...

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5. We’ve Come a Long Way: Septima Clark, the Warings, and the Changing Civil Rights Movement

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pp. 116-139

January 7, 1957, signaled a quiet new beginning in the civil rights revolution in South Carolina. That evening fourteen adults on Johns Island, a rural Sea Island six miles outside Charleston, enrolled in the first Citizenship School class, pedagogically developed by Septima Clark. Citizenship Schools taught disfranchised African Americans how...

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6. Organizing for More Than the Vote: The Political Radicalization of Local People in Lowndes County, Alabama, 1965-1966

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pp. 140-163

At the start of 1965, in Lowndes County, Alabama, racist voting registrars and the state’s voter registration exam guaranteed the exclusion of African Americans from the ballot box. Of the county’s 5,122 African Americans of voting age, precisely none were registered to vote. At the same time, more whites were registered to vote than the 1,900 who were eligible. Absolute disenfranchisement reflected the thoroughness...

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7. “God’s Appointed Savior”: Charles Evers’s Use of Local Movements for National Stature

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pp. 165-192

Charles Evers first garnered national attention in June 1963 when his younger brother Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, was assassinated. Charles immediately claimed his brother’s job and although Medgar’s record and the publicity surrounding his death gave Charles instant legitimacy—among Mississippi African Americans and movement leaders and supporters around the country...

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8. Local Women and the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi: Re-visioning Womanpower Unlimited

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pp. 193-214

Although a national movement that engendered the passage of legislation to help blacks attain full citizenship rights, the civil rights movement is perhaps best understood as an assemblage of many small communities of activism that often emerged to address issues of local importance.1 Womanpower Unlimited, founded by Clarie Collins Harvey on May 29, 1961, in Jackson, Mississippi, was one such community....

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9. The Stirrings of the Modern Civil Rights Movement in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1943-1953

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pp. 215-234

Amid the domestic tensions of World War II, in the summer of 1943, a delegation of African Americans in Cincinnati called for a meeting with the mayor. Their purpose was to promote “interracial cooperation and good city administration” by forming a politically independent “citizens committee on unity.” The meeting would be a fateful one, for when Mayor James G. Stewart consented to appoint an...

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10. “We Cannot Wait for Understanding to Come to Us”: Community Activists Respond to Violence at Detroit’s Northwestern High School, 1940-1941

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pp. 235-257

On Tuesday, February 27, 1940, racial tensions that had been brewing on Detroit’s West Side exploded into violence at the area’s high school. Three hundred white and black youths participated in a racially charged “fracas” outside Northwestern High School. Six young men and one policeman were injured, and eleven people were arrested...

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11. “Not a Color, but an Attitude”: Father James Groppi and Black Power Politics in Milwaukee

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pp. 259-281

In late September 1967 Father James Groppi, five members of the NAACP Youth Council “Commandos,” and two other local white clergymen set off from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Washington, D.C., to lobby liberal politicians for a national “fair housing” law and to attend the “Conference on the Churches and Urban Tension.”1 The conference, organized by the Methodist Church with...

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12. Practical Internationalists: The Story of the Des Moines, Iowa, Black Panther Party

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pp. 283-299

Leaving Des Moines, Iowa, in 1967 just after her high school graduation, Mary Rem headed for Oakland, California, and the headquarters of the fledgling Black Panther Party (BPP) for Self-Defense founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in October 1966. While in California visiting relatives, Mary Rem ignored her mother’s advice about “staying out of trouble” and began her life as a black revolutionary. She...

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13. Inside the Panther Revolution: The Black Freedom Movement and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California

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pp. 300-317

The publication of John Dittmer’s Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi and Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle in the mid-1990s laid the groundwork for scholarly analyses of the Black Freedom movement that did not revolve around the actions of charismatic national leaders or government officials. Instead, Dittmer...

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pp. 319-320


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pp. 321-328

E-ISBN-13: 9780814784396
E-ISBN-10: 0814784399
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814782842
Print-ISBN-10: 0814782841

Page Count: 344
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 173609026
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Groundwork

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History, Local.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century
  • Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African American civil rights workers -- Biography.
  • African American civil rights workers -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century.
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