"I saw them in the deep South. People who were considered backward, unable to do anything became the creators of a new possibility for the whole nation. When I think about Tienanmen Square and Prague, I realize that those folks in Mississippi and Alabama who were considered useless, were able to speak to the world."
— Vincent Harding, theologian and civil rights activist
Ordinary heroes of the civil rights movement who emerged out of Mississippi — people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, and James Meredith — risked their lives to break the back of racial injustice. Their inspiring stories are the stuff of history books. These were regular people who accomplished extraordinary things in extraordinary times.
What's less known are the stories of ordinary white Mississippians who tried to preserve segregation. Segregationists weren't limited to the stereotyped "fat potbellied sheriff who kind of walks around with a gun, and chews tobacco, and throws the N-word around everywhere he goes," explains Mississippi historian Robby Luckett in American RadioWorks' latest documentary, "State of Siege: Mississippi Whites and the Civil Rights Movement."
Pro-segregation organizing was entrenched and complex. Government agencies and civic groups formed to thwart integration. Those who resisted risked retribution in different forms, from job loss to social ostracism to physical violence.
Segregationists, says Robby Luckett "came in all shapes and and forms, and were quite savvy. And when you understand that those are the people that the civil rights movement was up against, you understand the kind of challenge they had."
"State of Siege" untangles the knots of this untold history. It's useful history to revisit in this moment when citizens are pressuring entrenched regimes to change in the Middle East. Mississippi is arguably the state where segregation was hardest to break. And yet as "State of Siege" concludes, "It is sometimes said that civil-rights activists accomplished more in Mississippi than in any other southern state, because white resistance there was so incredibly fierce, and the road to freedom so very long."
About the image: University of Mississippi students protest against integration on October 1, 1962. (photo: Flip Schulke/Corbis)