As I wrote in a post last week, Mississippi was for many years one of the most, if not the most, racially oppressive states in America.
Brutal and public lynchings attended by sizeable crowds, the comprehensive suppression of black people’s voting rights, an inferior education system, and the sharecropping system based in the land’s cotton crop all worked to keep black people in the state in a separate and thoroughly unequal position.
Efforts for and against changing Mississippi produced some of the modern civil rights movement’s most stirring moments: the gruesome face and mangled body of Emmett Till after he was pulled from the Tallahathcie River, a cotton gin tied around his bloated corpse; Gov. Ross Barnett bellowing to a fiery crowd of Ole Miss supporters at a, football game “I love Mississippi” before trying to stop James Merideth from entering the school; the murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman; and Merideth being shot as he sought to counter the climate of fear in the state.
In the early 1990s, Chris Myers Asch taught in Sunflower County in the northwestern part of the state as a participant in the Teach for America program. In addition to meeting the woman who became his wife, he also became fascinated with what he called the state’s transformed yet “resiliently separate and unequal” nature.
Asch realized two other iconic figures-Senator James Eastland, called by many the heart of the segregationist movement, and Fannie Lou Hamer, sharecropper and unwavering opponent of segregation, hailed from the same county in which he was teaching.
Asch explores the lives of these two influential figures and their interaction with the times through which they lived and which they contributed to shaping in The Senator & the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland & Fannie Lou Hamer.
The book is an engaging one.
Asch interweaves chapters about his two protagonists with the sights and scenes in the socially, but not economically, transformed Mississippi he encountered as a young teacher. He shows how the lives of the two families were both rooted in the county’s blood-soaked land Eastland came from plantation owning stock, while Fannie Lou Townsend was born to sharecropping parents and worked the land, too.
In the book’s introduction, Asch explains that he wanted to “get” Eastland, rather than to present him as an evil, racist and rabid anti-communist. He largely succeeds in that attempt. Eastland’s close relationship with his father and his comparatively liberal positions on race relations early in his career humanize the man and show that his later views were neither inevitable nor a caricature.
In a similar vein, Hamer also gets a textured treatment in which she emerges as a courageous and unyielding foe of segregation, but also a woman whose commitment to an interracial movement made her seem out of step with the times and who actually ended up disappointed, if not bitter, about the movement’s directions and incomplete gains.
In addition to providing a nuanced description of his two major characters, Asch also traces the major social and economic forces that shaped their world views and the experiences they had.
In addition to showing the rise of the cotton economy, Asch talks about how, as a U.S. senator, Eastland fused his opposition to post-World War II black assertion and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a legitimate threat in a potent brand of anti-Communism and anti-integration that resonated with like minded people throughout the region. He rose in authority and prominence, becoming seen not only as the voice of segregation in the 50s and 60s, but also playing a lead role in the successful opposition to Abe Fortas for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
For her part, Hamer grow in political awareness and confidence, ultimately emerging as the spokeswoman for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, speaking most memorably at the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City. She also uttered the oft-quoted line, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Her courage and unyielding commitment to full equality for all people served as an inspiration to many in the movement and beyond.
But if both Eastland and Hamer rose to become national figures, they also saw declines that left them feeling defeated, rebuked and out of synch with their erstwhile supporters.
Eastland visited the former Rhodesia under the Ian Smith regime and talked about it as an embodiment of how his home state used to be. In his final run for senator, he had essentially a “conversion” experience that led him to ask for, and receive, help from some of the state’s black leaders like Aaron Henry who were formerly his staunchest opponents.
Hamer worked on farming and economic issues, but felt that she did not achieve significant success in either arena. During the mid and late 60s, she unsuccessfully opposed the expulsion of white members from organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and ended up feeling discouraged both about her impact and about the nation’s direction.
In the end, both Hamer and Eastland pass from the scene leaving deep traces in the sand, their misgivings notwithstanding. Both would likely view the present with unease, if Asch’s description of mid-90s Mississippi is to be trusted.
The Senator and the Sharecropper has its weak points. Asch does tend to traffic in cliches-the phrase “hit the nail on the head” is just one example-and the switching back and forth in time can feel contrived at times. At times, one feels that in his effort to understand and not judge Eastland, he is overly deferential and even devotes excessive space to the rabid segregationist.
These blemishes aside, The Senator and the Sharecropper is a creative attempt to portray two noteworthy figures who grew up in close proximity to each other, rose to become prominent figures and died feeling disheartened about the result of their lives. That Asch paints this portrait against the backdrop of momentous economic, political and social change that lead to the civil rights movement’s unfinished business only make the work more appealing.