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Civil Rights Era Books Focus On Local Citizens

There's a conventional way of looking at American civil rights history that can often be misleading — especially when studying Mississippi. It teaches about the important and famous civil rights movement heroes, but little is taught about the ordinary people — the sharecroppers, maids and others — who took risky and courageous stands to gain and protect their civil rights.

They drove the movement in Mississippi, says historian John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.

"You hear about Martin Luther King or Stokely Carmichael, but when you look at what happened, it was really the local folks taking all the risk and not getting a lot of glory," Dittmer tells NPR.

John Queen was not a soldier in the civil rights movement. Yet his killing in Fayette in August 1965 — and the failure of authorities to fully investigate it — may have helped push ordinary African Americans to seek change.

In essays and publications, historian Emilye Crosby tells the stories of local people during that time. Her prize-winning book, A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi, focuses on the county next to Fayette and Jefferson County. It provides understanding of what happened in Fayette, because after civil rights leader Charles Evers led protests and an economic boycott there, he did the same in Claiborne County. Crosby is a meticulous reporter and relies upon more than 100 interviews with local citizens.

One of Crosby's findings from these oral histories shows how differently black and white residents remember and interpret the same history.

"The legacy of slavery and the low wages paid African Americans allowed most white families to employ black maids and laborers to do domestic and yard work and whites' ideas about interracial friendship were often influenced by this close proximity," she writes in an essay in The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, edited by Ted Ownby.

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Whites described their relationships with these black workers as close and friendly, while the maids and laborers still seethed over the inequality of that white authority. One result was that, when the civil rights movement came to places like Fayette, whites did not understand why the African Americans they considered their friends would protest.

Evers, the NAACP's Mississippi field secretary led the protests in Fayette and, in 1969, was elected mayor. He tells his story in Have No Fear: The Charles Evers Story, a memoir co-written with Andrew Szanton. But a more nuanced depiction of Evers is found in Crosby's chapter, "God's Appointed Savior," in Groundwork: The Local Black Freedom Movement in America, edited by Komozi Woodard and Jeanne Theoharis.

For a tale from Jefferson County's history before the civil rights era, Alan Huffman's Mississippi in Africa, tells the story of a wealthy cotton planter who in 1836 paid for 200 of his slaves to move to the newly created abolitionist colony of Liberia. Huffman's story moves from Mississippi to Africa to trace the descendants of the slaves who moved to Liberia and the ones who stayed in Mississippi.