University of Mississippi

New Book on Civil Rights in Mississippi Edited by Center Director Ted Ownby

This article is from the Fall 2013 edition of The Southern Register

by Rebecca Lauck Cleary


A symposium at the University of Mississippi has culminated in a book of essays about the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, edited by Center Director Ted Ownby, is based on new research and combines multiple scholarly approaches. The 12 essays tell new stories about the civil rights movement in the state most resistant to change. An event that combined the Porter Fortune Jr. History Symposium and the Future of the South Symposium enabled the scholars to come together to share their work.

As a group, the essays in The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi introduce numerous new characters and conundrums into civil rights scholarship, advance efforts to study African Americans and whites as interactive agents in the complex stories, and encourage historians to pull civil rights scholarship closer toward the present.

Many symposia lead to collections of essays, so Ownby says it was on his mind at that time. “A number of the younger historians have put out books on the topics they discussed at the symposium, so now the book will serve to bring together a lot of the best, recent scholarship on the Mississippi civil rights movement,” he says.

The papers more or less organized themselves, Ownby says, with the first three studying the process of civil rights organizing: one discusses the concept itself, another discusses the various ways different groups organized, and a third concentrates on Medgar Evers as an organizer. Then there are six papers that are pairs of essays on similar topics: education, religion, and the issue of violence and self-defense.

“What I hope is interesting is that each of those pairs of essays combines a study concentrating on African Americans with a study analyzing white Mississippians,” Ownby says. “So, we see professors at Jackson State and the University of Mississippi facing different pressures, and a kneel-in campaign at Jackson churches revealing a different story from the Born of Conviction statement by white Methodist ministers. Also, we can understand the rise of the Deacons for Defense better because we have a better understanding of the strategies of the Ku Klux Klan. And finally, there are three papers about how people remember and try to implement parts of the civil rights movement, whether in politics, or schools, or oral history.”

Two University of Mississippi alumni wrote two of the essays. Carter Dalton Lyon, chair of the History Department at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, studies people who confronted the question of how their religion related to their possible involvement in civil rights activism and Michael Vinson Williams, assistant professor at Mississippi State University, raises questions about how civil rights organizing took place.

Other essays are by Chris Myers Asch, Emilye Crosby, David Cunningham, Jelani Favors, Françoise N. Hamlin, Wesley Hogan, Robert Luckett, Byron D’Andra Orey, Joseph T. Reiff, and Akinyele Umoja.

For the past 20 years, historians have been doing an important job in using local studies to analyze the civil rights movement, to show how its language and tactics and challenges differed by place and time.

“I think the scholars who contributed to this volume have both learned from and are contributing to that perspective, so we have a fuller history of civil rights activists and what they faced. I hope the book tells some stories not many people know and introduces some new characters,” Ownby says.

Ownby is the editor of The Role of Ideas in the Civil Rights South; Manners and Southern History; and Black and White: Cultural Interaction in the Antebellum South, all based on Porter Fortune Symposia, published by University Press of Mississippi, coeditor of The Larder: Food Studies and Methods from the American South and a coeditor of the Gender volume of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.