FW: White on Fleming, _In the Shadow of Selma_
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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 their 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,
_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 indignities of the Jim Crow system and its
legacy. Fleming supports 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
forced to give up their slaves, this sense of white ownership persisted"
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
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 established 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
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 farm 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 equality at home. In chapter 4, "Making
the World Safe for Democracy," 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
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
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 interview. 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
demonstrations 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
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. For example, when the author describes
the formation of a White Citizens' Council in Wilcox County, she notes
how important the organization was to local whites, but never discusses
the degree to which 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-violent" 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
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.
. 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.
. See J. Douglas Smith, _Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics,
and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia_ (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 2002).
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