Books: Non-Fiction

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle

Time Periods: 20th Century, People’s Movement: 1961 - 1974
Themes: African American, Civil Rights Movements, Democracy & Citizenship, Organizing

lightoffreedomI’ve Got the Light of Freedom offers the history of the early civil rights movement in the South. Using wide-ranging archival work and extensive interviews with movement participants, Charles Payne uncovers a chapter of American social history forged locally, in places like Greenwood, Mississippi, where countless unsung African Americans risked their lives for the freedom struggle. The leaders were ordinary women and men–sharecroppers, domestics, high school students, beauticians, independent farmers–committed to organizing the civil rights struggle house by house, block by block, relationship by relationship. Payne brilliantly brings to life the tradition of grassroots African American activism, long practiced yet poorly understood.

Payne overturns familiar ideas about community activism in the 1960s. The young organizers who were the engines of change in the state were not following any charismatic national leader. Far from being a complete break with the past, their work was based directly on the work of an older generation of activists, people like Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry. These leaders set the standards of courage against which young organizers judged themselves; they served as models of activism that balanced humanism with militance. While historians have commonly portrayed the movement leadership as male, ministerial, and well-educated, Payne finds that organizers in Mississippi and elsewhere in the most dangerous parts of the South looked for leadership to working-class rural Blacks, and especially to women. Payne also finds that Black churches, typically portrayed as front runners in the civil rights struggle, were in fact late supporters of the movement. [Publisher’s description.]

ISBN: 9780520251762 | Published by University of California Press.


“I was surprised at how much there is for myself and other movement people to learn about the Mississippi freedom struggle from Charles Payne’s book.”—Bob Moses, SNCC Field Secretary, Mississippi, 1961-1965

“A superb and important book, remarkably astute in its judgments and strikingly sophisticated in its analyses. Impressively original, it is one of the most significant studies of the Black freedom struggle yet published.”—David J. Garrow, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bearing the Cross

“A compelling story of the black freedom struggle in the Mississippi Delta. Charles Payne has written the definitive study of the civil rights movement in the Delta. Through his superb use of oral history interviews, Payne reveals the courage, passion, humor, and dedication of thousands of black women and men who worked, against overwhelming odds, to take charge of their destiny. This is the most comprehensive and revealing study of organizing on the grass-roots level that we have, and will be invaluable to scholars, students, and activists alike.”—John Dittmer, author of Local People

This extremely important book clearly reveals the logic of how ordinary people propelled the Civil Rights Movement. . . . [It] provides a basis for optimism as we approach the next century.”—Aldon Morris, author of The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement

“No book on the movement–perhaps any movement–does a better job of capturing the ‘feel’ of organizing and the slow, incremental accretion of shared experiences that are responsible for the dramatic victories that the history books record.”—Doug McAdam, author of Freedom Summer

This is a story with deep resonance for our own unsettled times, a book about intellectuals and social change, about the uncommon courage of common folk, and about the relationship between trust and the possibility of racial harmony.”—Robert Jackall, Williams College

“Charles Payne’s stunning narrative provides a reminder of the importance of the African-American organizing tradition that made possible the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. His study brings needed attention to the courageous struggles of little known grassroots leaders in the Mississippi strongholds of white supremacy.”—Clayborne Carson, editor, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.