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FW: White on Fleming, _In the Shadow of Selma_

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  • Amos J Wright
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      Subject: White on Fleming, _In the Shadow of Selma_

      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 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,
      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 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"
      (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 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.[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
      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.[2] 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.


      [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).

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