- No Small Thing: The 1963 Mississippi Freedom Voteby William H. Lawson
No Small Thing: The 1963 Mississippi Freedom Voteasserts the significance of the Council of Federated Organizations–sponsored Freedom Vote in 1963, arguing that it, in contrast to the more chronicled Freedom Summer held six months later, served as the turning point that initiated more intense civil rights organizing in Mississippi, centered the vote as an instrumental demand of the black freedom struggle, and ultimately culminated in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. William H. Lawson, a scholar of rhetoric, analyzes the Freedom Vote, a parallel symbolic election for movement candidates, as an "image event" and bases his analysis on the messages created by the oppositional campaign—in the form of news coverage, political materials, speeches, and public letters (p. 7). Through the creation of alternative narrative, image events, like the Freedom Vote, "'are important not because they represent reality but [because they] create it'" (p. 32).
Throughout the text, and in determining significance, Lawson toggles between multiple audiences of these messages. When describing the details of a photo in which freedom workers sit at a lunch counter while white youths pour condiments on their heads, he describes an "all-American scene" that "seems very un-American" (p. 36). He then concludes, "The photo disproves the notion that everything was fine in 1960s America" (p. 37). But, to whom? Many black Americans may have been surprised by the specific act of white resistance, but surely they would not have been surprised by the physical violence employed against black bodies. On another occasion, Lawson writes that two white daily newspapers "broke the story of the Freedom Vote" but that their combined coverage dismissed the legitimacy of the campaign (p. 61). Later, he notes in contrast that the Mississippi Free Press, a movement-aligned newspaper, wrote about the Freedom Vote prior to the white dailies, announcing, "We Shall vote for freedom" (p. 68).
The author implicitly centers the white gaze. Lawson argues, "Throughout the Freedom Vote campaign, [Franklin D. Roosevelt's] four freedoms were at the forefront of campaign rhetoric" (p. 88). The work would be better served by situating the language of "freedom" within the movement itself and by contextualizing the language of movement leaders like James Forman of the [End Page 744]Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who extolled at a pre–Election Day rally, "Freedom is when you know within your soul that you are a man" (p. 124).
This textual analysis serves as a missed opportunity with regard to discussing the rhetorical power of freedomas a term widely deployed by movement organizers to attract black Mississippians to support the Freedom Riders in 1961, to cast their freedom ballots for freedom candidates in 1963, to show up at freedom days throughout 1964, and later, as articulated by scholars, to establish the historiographical framing of the black freedom struggle. Within this context of freedom, as the combination of multiple efforts toward black liberation, the Freedom Vote does, in fact, deserve our renewed attention.