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

by Charles Payne
1991 by University of California Press

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom is a book about organizing, for organizers. It chronicles SNCC and the Mississippi Freedom movement from its beginnings to ends, especially highlighting the individual organizers and families that put the movement together and sustained it.

The book is great because it analyzes the movement from a variety of perspectives, including understanding the strategies, tactics, gender dynamics, class dynamics, white/black organizing dynamics, local/rural dynamics, mentorship and leadership development, state and white repression, and the rise and fall of trust and community that were the backbone of the movement.  The thread throughout is the brilliance of the Ella Baker/Septima Clark school of organizing, based on meeting people where they’re at and developing their leadership so they can lead their own fights.  It’s about valuing the day-to-day work that sustains organizations above the flashy actions or speeches, and about seeing our work as part of a long-term struggle towards freedom that will need to involve millions of people.

My criticisms center around what the book doesn’t do. At 300+ pages, it doesn’t really give a complete history of the movement, especially leaving out a lot of post-1963 history and intentionally skipping Mississippi Freedom Summer, which was the largest and most important project that SNCC ever did. I think Payne expects the reader to already have read other books on the subject, which I really hadn’t.

Worse is the lackadaisical treatment of Black Power, which becomes a target and a scapegoat for a lot of internal problems the movement suffered in the mid- to late-60s, instead of viewing it as the movement’s inevitable culmination and high-point.

A more developed feminist analysis is needed as well, as the chapter on women in the movement leaves a lot wanting, and really just glosses over the deep issues that need to be examined.

Overall though, this book is basically a must-read for anyone interested in movement history or strategy. We all need to understand how movements come and go, and why they make the choices that they do. In the 20th Century United States, the Black Freedom movement was the most powerful and important example for us to study, and we need to think critically to understand its successes and its shortcomings if we’re going to build something stronger to revolutionize this country. Payne’s book is a powerful tool in that study.