Review- Payne, “I’ve Got the Light of Freedom”

Charles Payne, “I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: the Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle” (1995) – You can learn a lot about what some very small groups of twenty-somethings were up to in the 1960s, if you’re so inclined. Students for a Democratic Society and its offshoots and the LSD evangelists in the counterculture have dozens of monographs and memoirs dedicated to them as representative figures of their generation. There’s a growing literature on the conservative movement emerging out of the Goldwater campaign. To me, the most interesting of these small groups that have gotten so much historiographical attention are the civil rights workers in the Deep South in the early to mid 1960s, coalescing around the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

I’ve already read enough about SNCC to recognize the basic narrative arc — humble beginnings, perseverance in organizing, bold stands, national profile, splits, disillusionment even as they become a model for much of organizing thereafter — and a lot of the names. Charles Payne’s book situates SNCC and the campaigns it ran within a tradition and a place. SNCC didn’t invent the community organizing model — radical internal democracy, self-education, nonviolence, above all the encouragement of local grassroots leadership — but it did promulgate it throughout the Deep South and from there to sixties “movement” culture. Payne depicts the organizing tradition as bearing the deep stamp of Ella Baker, a massive behind-the-scenes influence on generations of civil rights and labor leaders. She was a transmission point of lessons learned in the earlier twentieth century to the young people who formed the backbone of SNCC.

Focusing specifically on the Mississippi Delta, Payne also embeds the SNCC story in place. It’s not as though SNCC just appeared and made change. Even in the most oppressed parts of the south, black people had organized themselves where they could, often under the NAACP (which was more or less legally purged out of existence in much of the south after the Brown decision). The organizing model SNCC employed melded well with the local organizing traditions of older Mississippi black activists, even if there were always points of conflict.

“I’ve Got the Light of Freedom” is essentially social history of an old school bent, though differing from the classic British social historians in that it deals with material that living people could detail to the historian. You get very granular stories of what happened, when and why, in Greenwood and other Delta towns, tied in to thematic chapters. Payne demurs when it comes to explaining SNCC’s divisions and downfall, except to repudiate the idea that we should be focused on the decision to get white people out of the movement- as he points out, it’s not as though the black people in it were all of accord, before or after that decision. He seems to point to the idea that beyond a certain scope of both time and organizational size, dedication to the slow, patient work this sort of organizing entails is hard to maintain. People want something bigger, both in terms of results and in terms of personal reward. This makes sense, and raises questions for this model, as important and inspirational as it’s been ever since. ****’

Review- Payne, “I’ve Got the Light of Freedom”

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