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FW: H-South Review: White on Fleming, _In the Shadow of Selma_

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  • Amos J Wright
    Fyi..ajwright@uab.edu     ... From: Ian Binnington, H-South To: H-SOUTH@H-NET.MSU.EDU Sent: Tue, 6 Sep 2005 09:25:31 -0500
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: Ian Binnington, H-South <binningt@MAIL.H-NET.MSU.EDU>
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Sent: Tue, 6 Sep 2005 09:25:31 -0500
      Subject: H-South Review: White on Fleming, _In the Shadow of Selma_
      H-NET BOOK REVIEW 
      Published by H-South@... (September 2005) 
       
      Cynthia Griggs Fleming. _In the Shadow of Selma: The Continuing
      Struggle 
      for Civil Rights in the Rural South_. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 
      2004. xix + 349 pp. Index. $72.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-7425-0810-2; $24.95 
      (paper), ISBN 0-7425-0811-0. 
       
      Reviewed for H-South by John White, Special Collections, College of 
      Charleston Library, Charleston, South Carolina 
       
      In her study of the African American freedom struggle in Wilcox County, 
      Alabama, Cynthia Griggs Fleming uncovers the "hidden" history of black 
      activism in the rural South. According to Fleming, civil rights 
      activists in Wilcox County have been overshadowed by the significant 
      attention paid to thei! r northeastern neighbors in Selma and Dallas 
      County. She concludes that while scholars have produced exhaustive 
      studies of the civil rights movement in Alabama, the bulk of these
      works 
      have focused on the well publicized campaigns in Birmingham,
      Montgomery, 
      and Selma. 
       
      _In the Shadow of Selma: The Continuing Struggle for Civil Rights in
      the 
      Rural South_, as the title suggests, is a community based study that 
      traces the ongoing efforts on the part of rural black Alabamians to 
      achieve equality with their white neighbors. In this endeavor, Fleming 
      employs a variety of primary and secondary sources to illustrate how
      the 
      black residents of Wilcox County have resisted racial oppression from 
      the late nineteenth century to the present day. The author personalizes 
      the struggle with scores of anecdotal accounts that chronicle black 
      resistance to the daily indi! gnities of the Jim Crow system and its 
      legacy. Fleming suppor ts her anecdotal evidence with well placed 
      guideposts that historicize the events in Wilcox County. 
       
      She contends that by the end of the nineteenth century, "white Wilcox 
      residents built a social order on the mirror image assumptions of white 
      superiority and black inferiority." The "unequal but predictable 
      pattern" the author describes is an all too familiar story in the 
      history of the American South (p. 15). Following a brief period of 
      Republican control after the Civil War and during Reconstruction,
      whites 
      began to reassert authority over the black population. According to 
      Fleming, "most plantation owners felt a sense of ownership that was 
      based on the reality of their county's slave past. White ownership of 
      black flesh had helped to define the identity of Wilcox County's white 
      residents for generations, and even after Wilcox slaveholders were 
      force! d to give up their slaves, this sense of white ownership
      persisted" 
      (p. 24). 
       
      Black opportunity was even further constrained by an almost complete 
      lack of support for the publicly funded education of African American 
      children. Fleming points out that in the 1907-1908 school year, the 
      state of Alabama allocated a mere $0.36 per student to educate black 
      children while it afforded nearly $18 to educate each white child. A 
      decade later the ratio had fallen to $0.35:$17.82. Although funding for 
      black schools did improve in the 1920s, the state still spent less than 
      $1.00 per black student compared to over $30 on each of its white
      pupils 
      (pp. 44-45). 
       
      Despite the repressive nature of white rule in rural Alabama, African 
      Americans were occasionally able to resist the burdensome rules of the 
      state's Jim Crow system. Presbyterian missionaries establi! shed Camden 
      Academy, which became an oasis for black children to receive a 
      meaningful education in the heart of Alabama's black belt. Fleming also 
      notes numerous instances where African Americans stood up to white 
      officials, and takes special care to point out how careful black
      parents 
      were in shielding their children from the most severe aspects of white 
      supremacy. 
       
      Nonetheless, Fleming contends that it was not until Franklin
      Roosevelt's 
      New Deal reached the sparsely populated rural county that the pace of 
      racial change increased. The author notes that in places such as Gee's 
      Bend, New Deal programs helped promote African American land ownership. 
      Of course, Fleming also supports the findings of other historians who 
      have found that rural African Americans were frequently frustrated with 
      the local whites who administered New Deal programs and she
      acknowledges 
      that the introduction of mechanized farming and the f! arm quota system 
      displaced countless other African Americans. 
       
      The mixed results of the New Deal did, however, provide hope to African 
      Americans. The black residents of Wilcox County noticed that many of
      the 
      activists who were committed to bringing an end to the Great Depression 
      had also joined organizations that were dedicated to racial justice, 
      such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW). Fleming
      argues 
      that increased interest in the plight of African Americans provided a 
      new hope for an end to racial oppression. 
       
      These feelings were bolstered by the experiences of Wilcox County's 
      black veterans of World War II and the Korean Conflict. (Surprisingly, 
      the author excludes any discussion of the war in Vietnam from her later 
      analysis). Fleming concludes that the region's black veterans returned 
      to Alabama intent on achieving equal! ity at home. In chapter 4,
      "Making 
      the World Safe for Democra cy," the author emphasizes that this 
      determination, combined with a series of legal victories for the 
      National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 
      spurred a dramatic increase in local civil rights activism. 
       
      Throughout the 1950s, African Americans in Wilcox County attempted to 
      register to vote, called on local and state governments to improve
      black 
      schools, and continually pushed for better treatment from their white 
      neighbors. According to Fleming, their activity met with little
      success. 
      The author claims that, especially after the Supreme Court's decision
      in 
      _Brown v. Board of Education_, white resistance in Wilcox County was 
      fierce. Local whites were quick to form a White Citizens' Council, and 
      it became "an important part of their community" (p. 128). 
       
      In the 1960s, local activism combined with the labors of national
      civil&n! bsp;
      rights organizations, such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating 
      Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference 
      (SCLC). Fleming's description of grassroots organizing by the SNCC in 
      Wilcox County is an informative and valuable contribution to the
      history 
      of the organization. The author accurately depicts the difficulty of 
      civil rights activism in the Alabama black belt while simultaneously 
      exposing the political infighting caused by class based and
      generational 
      divisions within the black community. 
       
      Fleming's work is also proficient in its discussion of the limited 
      success of African American attempts to create a more egalitarian 
      electoral process and in describing the failure to ever bring about 
      meaningful school integration in Wilcox County. She points out that 
      after a brief period of minimal desegregation, the county's schools&!
      nbsp;
      re-segregated and most of the white students attended an all white 
      private school. As one of Fleming's interviewees noted several years 
      ago, "It's 2002 and we're still segregated" (p. 292). 
       
      Overall, _In the Shadow of Selma_ is a successful attempt to
      personalize 
      the African American freedom struggle and to shed light on the movement 
      in rural Alabama. Even so, there are several criticisms that can be
      made 
      about the book. 
       
      As at least one other review has pointed out, Fleming is occasionally 
      too reliant on oral history interviews.[1] Much of the book's narrative 
      is derived solely from first or second hand accounts. Fleming rarely 
      corroborates these accounts with contemporary sources. This is mostly 
      due to the fact that many of these stories are previously untold and 
      underreported, but, since the author also notes the significant 
      attention Wilcox County received from the press during the 
      demonst! rations of the 1960s, it is likely that at least some of these 
      protests were captured by journalistic accounts. 
       
      Also, Fleming's discussion of the white community is too often reduced 
      to descriptions of individual acts of intimidation without adequately 
      explaining the white power structure. The focus, of course, is on the 
      African Americans who reside in Wilcox County, but much of their story 
      is derived from their antagonistic relationship with the white powers 
      there. 
       
      Though Fleming discusses the demeaning aspects of racial etiquette for 
      African Americans and the insistence from whites that blacks submit to 
      the culture of segregation, she never fully describes how whites 
      "managed" the Jim Crow system.[2] For example, when the author
      describes 
      the formation of a White Citizens' Council in Wilcox County, she notes 
      how important the organizatio! n was to local whites, but never
      discusses 
      the degree to whic h racial intimidation was organized through the 
      Councils (pp. 127-128). 
       
      These are minor criticisms, however, when compared to what the book
      does 
      well. Though historians have long ago abandoned a view of the civil 
      rights movement that begins with the _Brown_ decision and ends with the 
      federal civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965, that view persists
      in 
      the public mind. Hopefully, Fleming's book will help correct this 
      misinterpretation. The author skillfully recounts the continuity of 
      black protests from the late nineteenth century to the present day with 
      compelling personal histories. As one of Fleming's subjects succinctly 
      put it, "We knew how to boycott a long time before Martin Luther King 
      came in" (p. 94). 
       
      Fleming is also adept at demonstrating that violence played an
      important 
      role in black protests (even during the so-called "non-v! iolent"
      period 
      of civil rights activism). The author mentions that many of the
      county's 
      black residents carried guns (p. 144) and exposes numerous incidents of 
      African Americans using violence or threats of violence to defend 
      themselves against white intimidation. For instance, African Americans 
      in Possum Bend once confronted a group of whites at gunpoint to prevent 
      an attack on one member of the small black community (pp. 90-91). 
       
      Perhaps the most successful aspect of _In the Shadow of Selma_ is 
      Fleming's discussion of the divisions within Wilcox County's black 
      communities. Class, ethnic, generational, and political differences are 
      especially prevalent in the final two chapters of the book where
      Fleming 
      focuses on the "post-movement" period. These chapters and the stories 
      revealed in them are perhaps the most important in the book. 
       
      Fleming! 's case studies are vivid reminders that after the spotlight
      of < BR>national attention was lifted from Alabama in the late 1960s,
      the 
      struggle for social justice and equality continued. They are also 
      reminders of the continuation of poverty, educational inequality, and 
      political disenfranchisement in the rural black belt. 
       
      Notes 
       
      [1]. Charles Eagles, "Review of _ In the Shadow of Selma: The
      Continuing 
      Struggle for Civil Rights in the Rural South_," _Alabama Review_ 58 
      (2005): pp. 141-144. 
       
      [2]. See J. Douglas Smith, _Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, 
      and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia_ (Chapel Hill: University of North 
      Carolina Press, 2002). 
       
        Copyright (c) 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits 
        the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, 
        educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the 
        author, web l! ocation, date of publication, originating list, and 
        H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses 
        contact the Reviews editorial staff: hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu. 
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