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  • Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movement in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986
  • Gilles Vandal
Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movement in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986. By J. Todd Moye ( Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004. xi plus 281 pp.).

Sunflower County in Mississippi underwent tremendous economic and social change between 1940 and 1980. During these years, the mechanization of agriculture brought a important shift in the labor market. As the need for sharecroppers declined, it became more difficult for Afro-American to find jobs in the county. As a conseuqence, the black population decreased from 43,500 in 1940 to 21,500 in 1980. While many Afro-Americans chose to leave the county to find work in Northern or Western cities, others chose to stay and join a forty-year struggle for the right to make decisions that would influence their lives.

Before 1954, nobody, neither whites nor Afro-Americans, dared to challenge directly the Jim Crow system. Even moderate racists were charged with being either communists or subversives. However, the war had changed the views of some white veterans who were impressed by the way that Afro-Americans had fought for their country. Moreover, many Afro-American veterans felt more confident and were more willing to join the civil rights fight. Todd Moye's study not only unveils the cultural background of white resistance to civil rights, but it also reveals much about the changing Afro-American mentality; which went from compliance with white values to militantism and affirmation of their civil rights. In the process, Afro-Americans were able to redefine the world in which they lived. The most paradoxal element unveiled by Professor Moye is the fact that Sunflower County, which had been at the heart of the oppressive racial regime in Mississippi, became the birthplace of a powerful resistance movement.

Moye's study begins with a description of the problems facing poor Afro-Americans in segregated Mississippi. First among these were the absence of an Afro-American middle class and the relentless attitude of a majority of whites who did not hesistate to use any form of intminadation available to coerce Afro-Americans into submission. He then examines how the civil rights movement emerged during the mid 1950s from a tiny group of Afro-American professionals and farm owners following the Supreme Court's decision over Brown. The civil rights movement gained impetus during the 1960s, despite white resistance, as a charismatic leader, Fannie Lou Hamer, was able to rally young idealists both white and Afro-American. Finally, the civil rights movement in Sunflower County moved to a third phase during the 1980s as the Afro-American leaders launched a successful drive for the control of the Indanola public school system.

Professor Moye convincly demonstrates how the civil rights movement was able to generate a successful challenge to the structures of slavery and sharecropper society in Sunflower County. The fight featured not only the assertion of Afro-American rights as American citizens, but also a shift of power within the whole county. The white business community could no longer alienate the Afro-American community and was compelled to extend to Afro-American consumers the same rights as their white neighbors. Meanwhile, the Afro-American community came to define their basic problems more clearly and to find the best solutions to them. In sum, Moye has succeeded admirably in showing that, across [End Page 533] the broad canvas of civil rights movement, the scholar dares not underestimate the significance of this struggle. In addition to restating familiar material on Afro-Americans, the author updates it with reference to the developments of the past half century. For all these reasons, Profesor Moye has produced a fine book, dealing with an important subject with wonderful sensitivity, intelligence, and analytical clarity.

Making full use of a wide range of archival materials, newspapers, government documents, and secondary sources, Professor Moye has also conducted extensive interviews with major players in the civil rights movement. In the process, the author provides a splendid, original, and balanced account of the form and function of civil rights in one of the...


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