Voices from the Mississippi Hill Country
The Benton County Civil Rights Movement
By Roy DeBerry, Aviva Futorian, Stephen Klein, and John Lyons
New book provides in-depth oral, hyperlocal history of rural Mississippi county’s fight for civil rights
By UPM Staff
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
“Voices from the Mississippi Hill Country” is a collection of interviews with residents of Benton County, Mississippi—an area with a long and fascinating civil rights history. Roy DeBerry, the executive director of the Hill Country Project, along with co-authors (and fellow board members) Aviva Futorian, who worked as a freedom school teacher in the summer of 1964 and was an organizer for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Benton County, Stephen Klein, who worked for the US Agency for International Development, and John Lyons, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, have worked tirelessly to produce this book which is the product of more than twenty-five years of work by the Hill Country Project, a non-profit organization located in Benton County, Mississippi.
The authors’ approach places the region’s history in context and reveals everyday struggles. African American residents of Benton County had been organizing since the 1930s. Citizens formed a local chapter of the NAACP in the 1940s and ’50s. One of the first Mississippi counties to get a federal registrar under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Benton achieved the highest per capita total of African American registered voters in Mississippi. Locals produced a regular, clandestinely distributed newsletter, the “Benton County Freedom Train.”
“The success of the civil rights movement in Mississippi rose up from the strongly held desire of local people to create change,” says W. Ralph Eubanks, author of “Ever Is a Long Time and The House at the End of the Road.” “‘Voices from the Mississippi Hill Country: The Benton County Civil Rights Movement’ provides a window into how those deemed powerless found a way to exert their rights as citizens in a hostile and isolated landscape. Most important of all, the stories and people in this book expand the narrative of Mississippi’s civil rights movement in a way that is both moving and significant.”
In addition to documenting this previously unrecorded history, personal narratives capture pivotal moments of individual lives and lend insight into the human cost and the long-term effects of social movements. Benton County residents explain the events that shaped their lives and ultimately, in their own humble way, helped shape the trajectory of America. Through these first-person stories and with dozens of captivating photos covering more than a century’s worth of history, the volume presents a vivid picture of a people and a region still striving for the prize of equality and justice.
Martha Bergmark, founding executive director of Voices for Civil Justice, writes about the book, “Here are stories to hearten and inspire you—stories from ordinary people whose extraordinary courage and determination changed their community forever. These first-person accounts come from just one small county in the northeast corner of the state, but together their voices add rich specificity, depth, and texture to the history of Mississippi’s civil rights movement.”
No other rural farming county in the American South has yet been afforded such a deep dive into its civil rights experiences and their legacies. These accumulated stories truly capture life before, during, and after the movement.