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Performing the spadework of civil rights: SNCC's free southern theater as radical place-making and epistemic justice

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Abstract

The Free Southern Theater was a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) initiative that wanted to bring theatrical performance to rural communities in the deep Southeastern United States. To interpret the critical praxis and broader analytical importance of the Free Southern Theater, we develop and apply two conceptual frameworks: radical placemaking and epistemic violence/justice. As we assert in this paper, the theater program was demonstrative of the fundamental but radical ways SNCC sought to remake places and institutions and create new ones that would respond to the struggles of poor Black southerners, build community capacity for social change, reaffirm visions of Black belonging, and provide respite and self-care for racism-weary communities. The Free Southern Theater also reflected the value that SNCC placed on mobilizing information, communication, and the politics of representation to combat white supremacy, while also articulating and legitimizing an explicitly Black vision of society and space.
Performing the spadework of civil rights: SNCC’s free
southern theater as radical place-making and epistemic
justice
Joshua F. J. Inwood .Derek Alderman
Accepted: 15 June 2021
The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V. 2021
Abstract The Free Southern Theater was a Student
Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) initia-
tive that wanted to bring theatrical performance to
rural communities in the deep Southeastern United
States. To interpret the critical praxis and broader
analytical importance of the Free Southern Theater,
we develop and apply two conceptual frameworks:
radical placemaking and epistemic violence/justice.
As we assert in this paper, the theater program was
demonstrative of the fundamental but radical ways
SNCC sought to remake places and institutions and
create new ones that would respond to the struggles of
poor Black southerners, build community capacity for
social change, reaffirm visions of Black belonging,
and provide respite and self-care for racism-weary
communities. The Free Southern Theater also
reflected the value that SNCC placed on mobilizing
information, communication, and the politics of
representation to combat white supremacy, while also
articulating and legitimizing an explicitly Black vision
of society and space.
J. F. J. Inwood (&)
The Department of Geography, The Rock Ethics Institute,
The Pennsylvania State University, University Park,
PA 16820, USA
e-mail: jfi6@psu.edu
D. Alderman
The Department of Geography, University of Tennessee,
Knoxville, TN 37996, USA
e-mail: dalderma@utk.edu
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GeoJournal
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-021-10459-6(0123456789().,-volV)(0123456789().,-volV)
Graphic abstract
Keywords Place-making Black geographies
Epistemic violence Politics of respite
We have learned that the interests of black
people will best be served by a revolutionary
politics, and that revolutionary politics requires
revolutionary art
—John O’Neal (quoted in Fabre, 1983: 57)
Introduction
Buried within the Student Non-Violent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC) archives are records related to the
Free Southern Theater, an arts-related activist and
community engagement initiative formed in 1963 by
three Black students—Doris Derby, John O’Neal, and
Gilbert Moses. They had come South to participate in
the civil rights movement. The Free Theater was
founded and initially headquartered in Jackson, Mis-
sissippi, where Derby and O’Neal served as SNCC
field secretaries, and Moses worked as a reporter for
the Mississippi Free Press. The Free Theater contin-
ued for 17 years before disbanding and was perhaps
the longest-running SNCC initiative. Along with
several other radical theater groups formed in the
1960s and 1970s, The Free Theater proved founda-
tional in establishing a connection between theatrical
practices and political activism (Harding & Rosenthal,
2006).
The Free Southern Theater highlighted the work of
Black playwrights and others addressing ‘‘the moral
and political dilemmas of race and rights,’ staging
these plays mainly for Black audiences in order ‘‘to
stimulate critical, creative and reflective thought
necessary for effective participation in a democratic
society’ (Free Southern Theater Proposal, n.d.). While
unexpected for those not entirely familiar with the
civil rights organization’s campaign of resistance
against white supremacy, the theater is critical to
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understanding the myriad of ways SNCC workers
envisioned the work of the African American Freedom
Struggle. Most prevailing commemorative and aca-
demic treatments of SNCC focus on its widely
publicized student lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom
Rides, Freedom Summer voter registration campaigns,
and re-education movements. In actuality, throughout
much of the 1960s, the SNCC carried out a broad array
of physical, social, intellectual, and emotional labor in
trying to contest racial discrimination and make
interventions in the lives, experiences, and subjectiv-
ities of oppressed rural Black communities.
To interpret the critical praxis and broader analyt-
ical importance of the Free Southern Theater, we
develop and apply two conceptual frameworks: rad-
ical placemaking and epistemic violence/justice. As
we assert in this paper, the theater program was
demonstrative of the fundamental but radical ways
SNCC sought to remake places and institutions and
create new ones that would respond to the struggles of
poor Black southerners, build community capacity for
social change, reaffirm visions of Black belonging,
and provide respite and self-care for racism-weary
communities. The Free Southern Theater also
reflected the value that SNCC placed on mobilizing
information, communication, and the politics of
representation to combat white supremacy while also
articulating and legitimizing an explicitly Black vision
of society and space. The civil rights group recognized
that meaningful gains in political and economic rights
of people of color were not possible without also
challenging the epistemic injustices undergirding
white supremacy; the narratives that constructed
people of color as an ‘other’ and denied their
experiences of racism. The actors, directors, producers
of the Free Southern Theater used storytelling and
bodily performance to materialize and make credible
Black expression and knowledge production and push
back against the discursive violence of racist, anti-
Black tropes perpetuated by the Deep South’s white
plantation bloc, which continued to wield power long
after the Civil War (Woods, 1998).
Purpose and significance of the free southern
theater
The objective of the Free Southern Theater was three-
fold. First, the theater was about bringing cultural
resources to regions of the country—the Black belt
agricultural districts in Mississippi, Alabama, and
Arkansas—that ignored and underserved the majority
Black population. Second, because SNCC focused on
participatory democracy and the grassroots mobiliza-
tion of communities for social change, the theater was
another tool for racially integrated casts and crew to
engage with local community-building. Within
SNCC’s political philosophy, all parts of the organi-
zation—from its direct action to its communications,
data research, photography, educational programs,
and use of music and the arts—were key to its
activism. As part of the theater efforts, SNCC workers
led discussions and workshops about the plays they put
on and worked to facilitate consciousness-raising
activities and agendas as these performances went
forward. The Free Theater members saw their work as
relevant to the broader SNCC project of knowing the
communities in which they worked and helping
cultivate within those communities the sense of
empowerment necessary for resistance (Fabre, 1983).
Finally, SNCC organizers argued that the Free
Southern Theater was ‘the most effective means of
filling the void created by the omissions and distor-
tions of the local press, radio, and television, which
effectively keep the Negro (sic) in ignorance of the
problems which most directly confront him’’ (sic)
(Free Southern Theater Proposal, n.d.). This produc-
tion, spread, and use or misuse of information were
some of the ways racism and the racist power structure
tried to maintain and uphold white supremacy. Orga-
nizers of the Free Theater hoped to use their produc-
tions as a medium to counter this white supremacist
control of information about the realities of racism and
spread counterintelligence about the extent, nature,
and scope of African American disenfranchisement.
The Free Southern Theater is part of SNCC’s more
extensive ‘informational praxis,’ which sought to
transform information about racially oppressive daily
experiences into political ways of knowing and
resisting that oppression (Inwood & Alderman,
2020a: 716).
Information is not passive or neutral. The collec-
tion, generation, or dissemination of facts or data, the
backbone of information, refers to a more extensive
array of images, stories, and representational practices
that exist as a form of social power (D’Ignazio &
Klein, 2020). SNCC was mindful of the politics of
information and knowledge production. White racist-
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controlled local, state, and regional governments and
the federal government used their position to spread
disinformation about civil rights and the work of
SNCC within communities SNCC worked. Through
the use of sometimes covert but often overt intimida-
tion tactics, these same governments undertook a
campaign of terror to forestall the freedom dreams of
Black residents.
The disinformation wielded by white supremacists,
which remains a mainstay of contemporary racism and
the ongoing resurgence of white supremacy, devalued
the lived experiences and knowledge of oppressed
communities. It was in the Free Southern Theater
where artistic practices were deployed not merely to
entertain, raise spirits, or even push back against the
hegemony of racist misinformation but also to elevate
and invigorate the self-image of rural and disenfran-
chised populations in the Black Belt. In the words of
SNCC organizers, theater productions were intended
to ‘promote the growth and self-knowledge of a new
Negro(sic) audience’ (Free Southern Theater Pro-
posal, n.d.). This politics of information and knowl-
edge production at the Free Southern Theater was
carried out with social change in mind to ‘‘demonstrate
that the present reality [of racial inequality] can be
altered and transformed and that the Negro [sic] must
play the leading role in that transformation’’ (Free
Southern Theater Proposal, n.d.). Unpacking the
creative processes behind the Free Theater offers a
window into the creative activist labor of SNCC. This
creative labor was part of rather than apart from
community mobilization projects that challenged the
hegemony of white supremacist narratives about
African American life in the rural South.
SNCC’s theater program challenges us to rethink
the limited ways the dominant society has defined civil
rights activism. This activism is better understood as a
broad array of place-(re)making work practices and
mediums rather than just a specific era, set of leaders,
resulting legislation, or public protest action. Place-
making is central to the African American experience
(Bledsoe et al., 2017; McKittrick, 2006; Woods,
1998,2002). In particular, McKittrick’s admonition
that to understand the multiplicity of ways the Black
experience unfolds through place and time, it is
necessary to examine the ’poetics of landscape‘
(2006: xxiii). Within the landscape of Black Geogra-
phies, the poetics of landscape are broad, incorporat-
ing a range of expressions and resistant strategies.
These expressions connect to understandings of Black
placemaking and ‘through theoretical, fictional,
poetic, musical, or dramatic texts’’ that are direct
‘responses to real spatial inequalities’ (ibid). McKit-
trick’s framing is critical for understanding the power
of the Free Theater to the broader Black freedom
movement. For instance, through dramatic readings,
performances, story circles, and a range of artistic
practices, the Free Theater engaged with grounded
realities of racial oppression. The Delta region where
they located most of the work was dominated by the
white supremacist plantation bloc. This bloc and its
monopoly on resources created conditions for many
poor, rural communities not far removed from slavery
(Woods, 1998). The performances of the Free Theater
are connected to much longer histories of artistic
expression that were important to black humanity and
served as a powerful movement towards Black
freedom in the face of white supremacism (Woods,
1998). In addition, the poetics of landscape and its
relation to placemaking opens space:
to critique the boundaries of transatlantic slav-
ery, rewrite national narratives, respatialize
feminism, and develop new pathways across
traditional geographic arrangements; they also
offer several reconceptualizations of space and
place (McKittrick, 2006: xxiii).
This ability simultaneously to critique existing power
structures and the dominant economic and political
realities of white supremacism alongside new ways of
understanding and conceptualizing space is critical for
understanding the underlying geography of the US
civil rights movement and specifically the work of
SNCC in the deep Southeastern US. As we argue, the
effort of SNCC to engage in radical place-making as a
means for securing the freedom aspirations of African
Americans and others who are racially constructed as
outsiders or threats to the existing racial order expands
the temporal understanding of the Movement. Moving
beyond seeing the civil rights movement as an era
bounded by a start and end date, seeing the Movement
as a radical place-making effort locates the struggle as
an always and everywhere unfolding project that is not
complete. By contextualizing the Movement within
the framework of radical placemaking and its con-
nection to Black Geographies theoretically and mate-
rially grounds the project within ever-shifting
landscapes of domination and resistance and comes
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to see the movement as an engagement with material
realities Black humanity. In so doing, we can reorient
scholarly attention away from merely documenting or
retelling the movement’s story and instead of locating
the efforts within a broader activist praxis that
continues long after the actions of specific organiza-
tions or movements have faded away. This focus shifts
attention away from the normative top-down under-
standing of the struggle. It establishes instead the
necessity of acknowledging and understanding the
grassroots nature and community-centered approach
to civil rights organizing and activism that is a
continuous process of struggle.
Second, the Free Southern Theater is of analytical
value because its emphasis on offering anti-racist
artistic expression, perspective, and information
prompts us to consider the broader knowledge strug-
gles behind racial equality. While certainly carried out
in public spaces filled with marchers and protestors,
those struggles also took place (and still takes place) in
a multitude of everyday creative activist spaces, where
the epistemic violence of white supremacy could be
named and countered. Epistemic violence or injustice
captures the power-laden nature of who and what we
come to know, who counts as knowers, and which
(whose) knowledge about life is recognized (or
silenced) publicly (Fricker, 2007; Spivak, 1988).
Accompanying and underlying the widely acknowl-
edged systems of physical and social harm against
Black communities has always been (and remains) a
regime of epistemic violence that actively denies and
de-legitimizes full knowledge of how racism works
against and harms oppressed communities.
To capture the power-laden nature of epistemic
violence and the role that SNCC played in countering
narratives of black disempowerment, we turn to the
idea of ‘Spadework.’ According to Ella Baker,
perhaps the key advisor to SNCC, spadework involves
the complex, often unseen, and politically fraught
work of cultivating everyday grassroots empowerment
and resistance and fostering locally based and grass-
roots-led initiatives to take on white supremacy
(Ransby, 2003). Regrettably, the spadework Baker
preached does not have a central place within the
public memory of the civil rights movement domi-
nated by charismatic leaders, highly visible cam-
paigns, and federal legislation (Dwyer & Alderman,
2008). Our goal is to draw greater attention to the
hidden geographies that underlie the moments and
places of civil rights spadework by excavating and
theorizing these neglected moments and places. The
Free Southern Theater is one such moment. As we
demonstrate, its history and relevance go beyond
providing crucial cultural space for the expression of
Black empowerment in a region of the country where
those expressions were dangerous to the white
authorities.
Additionally, by focusing on the spadework of civil
rights, we also want to draw attention to the specific
ways our collective understanding of civil rights work
is gendered. In many popular retellings of the civil
rights struggle, we focus on charismatic leaders or big
moments (e.g., March on Washington, Birmingham
Campaign), focusing on a few key leaders. What is lost
in this retelling is a broader understanding of the full
array of civil rights struggles that were occurring in the
Deep South and perhaps most importantly, how much
of the unseen and unremarked upon labor was done by
women and poor peoples who were struggling not only
to overcome racism but also to address patriarchy and
other forms of exploitative conditions within the
communities that they lived and worked. Spadework
refers to the hard and unseen labor that took place
within SNCC organized communities. Still, as we
demonstrate, it also calls forth a vision of civil rights
organizing focused on the gendered labors that took
place and have place in a broader retelling of the
movement.
Finally, because SNCC was focused on spadework
and locating the oppressive conditions that existed on
the ground and within the communities, they were
working in, SNCC deployed various tools, strategies,
and locations to pursue justice. This paper picks up
these challenges and explores the theatre’s purpose,
significance, and creative practices, situating it within
SNCC’s mobilization goals and the region-specific
realities of living with and against racism in the Deep
South. In doing so, we hope to contribute to the still-
nascent literature on the civil rights movement’s
historical geography and shed light on an under-
analyzed chapter in Black Geographies.
Free southern theater and epistemic denial of black
agency
The Free Southern Theater offered an intervention in
the epistemic denial of black suffering, resistance,
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ways of seeing, and making place. As a result, we
argue that SNCC’s staging of theatrical productions
was not just meant to be of informational value but was
a means of information sharing that SNCC felt
essential to combating racism. Indeed, according to
Medina (2013), cultivating resistance among excluded
and stigmatized groups require epistemic interactions
in which they can listen and learn from one another
and engage in mutually enriching exchanges of
perspectives. By exploring this contestation and
examining the Free Southern Theater’s broader polit-
ical and cultural context, we argue that civil rights
activists and SNCC specifically were engaged in a
complex and multifaceted struggle over representa-
tions to enact a more expansive political project of
black empowerment related to radical placemaking.
As Phillips notes, ’the struggle over images is not just
’purely academic,’ but takes place in a wider, intel-
lectual, political and spiritual arena’’ (1993: 181). This
arena is grounded in specific geographic realities. By
engaging with the Free Theater and the way activists
and artists came together with communities and we
can begin to untangle the often-complex role that the
contestation over images of Black life plays in
resisting broader normative white supremacist prac-
tices that come to define how we understand our places
within broader racial, gender and sexual hierarchies.
The discipline is witnessing the growth of ‘‘creative
geographies,’ an approach that stresses the role of
artistic practices as legitimate ways of analyzing
dominant modes of knowledge production and envis-
aging new worlds and places (Hawkins, 2019). These
creative methodologies and moments of cultural
activism do not merely construct new meanings about
space but also influence the ‘‘prospects for a new
progressive political opening’ and motivate for social
change (Buser et al., 2013: 606). Decades before these
academic revelations, SNCC was actively using
creative methodologies to articulate Black socio-
spatial visions. Beyond the formal confines of the
theater, the civil rights organization realized the
broader emancipatory power of creative methods,
having brought drama-based learning in Freedom
Schools in 1964 to allow African American students to
write about, improvise, and perform real-life struggles
with racial inequality. According to one Freedom
School student n Ruleville, Mississippi, ‘Creating and
doing plays brought out expression aboutexperi-
ences developed creativityhelped students to
discuss and propose solutions to the problems they
were facing in their communities’’ (quoted in Chilcoat
& Ligon, 1998: 522). Thus, our investigation into the
Free Southern Theater speaks to more general themes
in Black Geographies and the making and remaking of
the cultural and political landscapes and acknowledg-
ing an organic intellectualism and spatial imagination
that has always operated within communities of color.
As a result, this paper represents a historical analysis
and contemporary resonance within efforts to counter
a resurgent and militarized white supremacist reality
through a broader reading of the poetics of radical
place-making.
Understanding racism in the deep south
While white supremacy is central to understanding the
United States’ racial landscape (Bonds & Inwood,
2016), the specific ways that racism and white
supremacy takes place are geographically differenti-
ated (Pulido, 2006). Within the Deep South—the
states of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkan-
sas as well as parts of Georgia—there is a long history
of plantation agriculture, particularly cotton produc-
tion, creating one of the most brutal regimes of white
supremacist rule in the nation (Aiken, 2003; Wilson,
2000; Woods, 1998). Clyde Woods describes the
political economy in this region as the ‘‘plantation
bloc’ (1998). Cemented by near-monopolistic control
over agricultural and manufacturing production as
well as access to the banking system and the regions
two most important natural resources, land and water,
the bloc exerted near-total power over the lives and
fortunes of the peoples who lived and worked within
the region (Woods, 1998: 4). For poor sharecroppers,
the plantation bloc was the arbiter of their lives and
fortunes. It was within this very southern plantation
bloc that SNCC often worked, deploying organizers
from the outside the South and recruiting activists
from within the region to contest white supremacy in
some of the most dangerous and inhospitable places to
civil rights in the United States.
White supremacy was/is a political-affective pro-
ject that structured not only the distribution of formal
and informal social and economic rights but created
broader ‘atmospheres’ of fear and anxiety deeply felt
by people of color (Inwood & Alderman, 2018). A
white supremacist social order is sustained by
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inflicting upon people of color symbolic and discur-
sive violence and physical and structural violence
(Jiwani, 2009). Within this oppressive system devel-
oped a series of socially constructed tropes, ideas, and
knowledge claims that not only justified the plantation
bloc’s control but cemented a series of racist,
demeaning images of African American life that took
on the power of social fact to much of the region’s
white population and hampered the political con-
sciousness of even some communities of color.
Indeed, SNCC leaders like Charles Sherrod noted the
importance of African Americans breaking away from
the ‘personal box’ imposed by racial inequality and
‘let the [black] man [sic] see himself as he really is
and then as he can be’ (Sherrod n.d.: 2).
These harmful images and discourses portrayed
African Americans negatively and operated by deny-
ing Black people’s humanity, dignity, and agency.
These tropes were part of a ‘narrative economy’
(Hoskins, 2010) central to the plantation bloc’s
exercise of control and power; they acquired value
and presumed legitimacy as they intersected with
other stories and social practices and circulated across
not only the region but among larger national and
international audiences. One dominant trope, what
Woods describes as ‘plantation romance’ (1998: 52),
has proven to have high currency, circulating for
generations in popular literature and media as well as
being deeply inscribed into the region’s festivals,
marketing campaigns, symbolic forms, and heritage
tourism destinations. Nowhere is this more apparent
than southern plantation house museums, traditionally
infamous for ignoring and marginalizing the story of
slavery, the enslaved, and their descendants. The
accomplishments, possessions, and lifestyle of the
white planter class are valorized at these sites. At the
same time, they propagate caricatures of simple-
minded, happy-go, lucky slaves, if enslavement is
discussed or mentioned at all (Modlin, 2008). A
‘symbolic annihilation’ of the full history and
identity of Black communities is actively carried out
through these museums (Eichstedt & Small, 2002:
105). The plantation romance trope—which continues
today—belies the savagery of slavery and neo-
slavery—the system of Jim Crowism and sharecrop-
ping—following emancipation (Blackmon, 2009) and
whitewashes the brutal histories of violence, lynching,
forced family separations, and rape that were central to
plantation agricultural practices. Steve Hoelscher
describes this whitewashed history as an ‘‘invented
tradition’ designed to extend white supremacism
(2006: 40). Notably, the epistemic injustice of the
plantation romance trope is not just that it privileges a
white worldview but that it also closes down our
ability to understand and acknowledge what McKit-
trick (2011) calls a ‘black sense of place,’ a term
meant to capture a contested state of being and
belonging for African Americans.
The (mis)representations of black life that white
supremacists deployed to dehumanize Black people
within the Deep South were part of a more extensive
system of global economic production that is con-
nected to what McKittrick describes as ‘the inter-
locking workings of modernity and blackness,’ which
culminate ‘in long-standing, uneven racial geogra-
phies’ (2013: 3). McKittrick argues that the plantation
and its production system are central to understanding
the development of the Deep South but are connected
to the growth of global capitalism and the landscapes
on which the economy rests. Thus, the plantation and
its regimes of ownership are central to how racial
capitalism unfolded over time and through space.
Perhaps most importantly, the specific geographic
configurations of place and power that come together
in the Deep South created distinct landscapes of
domination and resistance. This contestation over the
geography of the region is, as we argue, central to
understanding how and in what ways SNCC worked to
take on white supremacism (Inwood & Alderman,
2020a,b). While there are myriad ways to explore this
reality of domination and resistance, we focus on the
contestation over images and representations of black
life within the region.
Historically the white supremacist power structure
was vested in presenting African Americans as willing
participants in their exploitation. Racist images of the
‘mammy’’—a powerful myth of the faithful female
slave perhaps made most famous in the movie and
novel Gone with the Wind or the musical Showboat
(McElya, 2007)as well as other images of black life
reinforced patriarchal and paternalistic views of the
racial caste system as well the myth that African
Americans were somehow incapable of full cultural
and political citizenship. More menacing, the images
of black men and the supposed danger they repre-
sented served as justification for brutal lynching and
torture killings that were a primary tool used to keep
black people in their place (Alderman et al., 2018).
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These images and others served racist tropes and
reinforced a range of stereotypical and dehumanizing
understandings of black people in the United States.
White supremacist images are also resisted by
African American peoples who are conscious of how
these images demean black people and how they are
used to further the interests of a commodified Black
subject. The proliferation of the Blues, Jazz, the
explosion of the Harlem Renaissance were all exam-
ples of how Black communities turned racist stereo-
types on their head and fueled expressions of Black
life that ran counter to the dominant racist stereotypes
of the era. As Clyde Woods (1998) demonstrated in his
work on the Mississippi Delta, the Blues epistemology
represents the material practice and a politics of
emancipation while also countering dominant racist
tropes of black life. This contestation over images and
material methods is central, as we argue, to under-
standing the broader work around place-making
through the Free Theater. As the civil rights struggle
unfolded, SNCC, in particular, was engaged not only
in understanding the material conditions which existed
on the ground (Inwood & Alderman, 2020a) but in
affecting the kind of material change to remake those
spaces. Through radical place-making processes,
SNCC was moving beyond what counts as traditional
civil rights practice. Instead, it was engaged in a
deeper and more profound geographic remaking of the
communities they worked in and with. We detail how
these processes play out in the subsequent section on
place-making,
Free southern theater as radical place-making
Following Pierce et al. (2011: 54), we define place-
making as ‘the set of social, political and material
processes by which people iteratively create and
recreate the experienced geographies in which they
live.’ When placed within the framework of the
landscape of poetics, McKittrick explains it is impor-
tant to focus on the geographies of every day ‘‘that are
normally undermined or prohibited’ and to also focus
on the way ‘traditional racial and sexual geographic
inequalities are re-expressed in a medium that can bear
to take on difference: black fiction, black theory, black
musics, black geographies, black imaginations’
(2006: 21). Within this framework, the work of the
Free Theater takes on added significance. By bringing
artistic mediums into the communities that black
people lived, the theater drew from the communities in
which they worked. They ran workshops on playwrit-
ing and even performed some of the plays written by
Delta residents. The Theater also translated the Black
experience into material expressions of the Black
imagination. These expressions are the work of place-
making within the space of the theater.
For example, scholarship has focused on the way
place-making is networked into a broader set of
cultural, economic, and political processes, the critical
insights that place-making can lend to an understand-
ing of political struggles, and how the contestation
underlying place-making involve actors and groups
with varying power deploying competing ‘place-
frames’ as they deploy specific place identities for
strategic, political aims (Pierce et al., 2011). While
Pierce and colleagues (2011) note a solid tendency to
examine hegemonic framings of the identity and
meaning of places and who belongs and matters within
those places, they also point to a need to examine ‘a
rich and variegated set of place-frames’’ produced and
negotiated at a variety of scales, through a range of
networked political practices, and by a diversity of
locational and political communities (p. 59).
Within the context of race, place, and civil rights,
this tendency often focuses on specific events and
individuals at the expense of the broader economic and
political forces that were central to shaping conditions
and circumstances in the first place. When it comes to
the broader civil rights movement, it is essential to
contextualize the Movement in the 1950s and 1960s
within a broader geopolitical reality of cold war and
anti-communist geopolitics. The confluence of broad-
cast television images that went around the world and
cold war politics in which the Soviet Union challenged
the United States to win the hearts and minds of the
developing world made the efforts to secure voting
rights and desegregate society more potent. The
federal government could not abide civil rights
protesters being beaten and murdered in non-violent
protests while simultaneously challenging the Soviet
Union’s human rights record. Civil rights leaders
knew this, and as a result, there were efforts to select
cities and regions in which a violent reaction by the
white supremacist establishment was more likely. This
is revelatory of the dialectical interplay between local
places—Birmingham, Alabama, and the violent racist
Eugene ’Bull’ Connor—and broader geopolitical
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considerations that went into the Movement to secure
black freedom.
This interplay between local realities and broader
processes is central to how place-making and civil
rights come together through the circulation and
contestation over images. Recall that dominant images
of (neo) plantation life legitimize white supremacism
central to regimes of domination and control. These
images of docile, inferior slaves, and later sharecrop-
pers tied into local and national discourses and became
essential drivers of local and regional economies.
Regional officials contested images that went against
this or which were considered dangerous. They often
controlled the news reporting and information sharing
necessary to connect black communities’ oppressed
conditions and experiences with broader operations of
racial capitalism, violence, and discrimination. Even
more sympathetic actors in the national media-
constructed depictions of civil rights protest proved
highly selective and exclusionary: ‘[j]ournalists’
interest waxed and waned along with activists’ ability
to generate charismatic personalities (who were usu-
ally men) and telegenic confrontation, preferably
those in which white villains rained down terror on
non-violent demonstrators dressed in their Sunday
best’ (Dowd, 2005: 1236). According to Dowd
(2005), news coverage of these confrontations dis-
torted public understanding by making them appear
‘to come out of nowhere, to have no precedents, no
historical [and geographic] roots’ (p. 1236).
SNCC and its associated activists understood these
representational politics. As a result, the organization
was engaged in a complex struggle to historicize and
spatialize the story of civil rights and claim power over
the circulation of images that would reframe African
Americans’ place within the white spatial imaginary
while raising the consciousness of oppressed black
communities. Returning to McKittrick and the poetics
of landscape. She explains dominant geographic
patterns—segregation and the plantation bloc in the
Deep South—normalize spatial hierarchies and create
and enforce dominant ways of being within those
places (2006: 145). These spaces undermine Black
humanity. It also creates conditions that make space
and spatial arrangements of oppression appear fixed
within space and through time (ibid). Challenging
these realities is central to anti-racist praxis and,
perhaps critically, spatial practice that does challenge
these realities and can be read ‘‘beyond the margins’
(McKittrick, 2006: 146).
For example, in an attempt to take a direct role in
the flow of information and discourse from and about
the Deep South, SNCC created a photography depart-
ment staffed by a team of activist photographers and
field secretaries, and everyday community members
equipped with cameras. The resulting photographic
images were intended to promote and lend legitimacy
to the community organizing activities of SNCC and
document and provide visual proof of the violence of
white supremacists (Raiford, 2007). However, they
also served a more profound epistemic justice and
place-remaking agenda. By taking and publishing
pictures of the lives of ordinary black people in the
rural South and showing their dignity, resilience, and
struggles, the SNCC Photo Department sought to
create resistant geographic knowledge of Black sub-
jectivity and the region that combatted racist media
coverage and more sympathetic public portrayals that
emphasized the passivity and victimhood of oppressed
southern communities of color.
Organizers of the Free Southern Theater, like
SNCC photographers, were engaged in the form of
cultural activism, ‘activism that calls upon art and
creative practices to disrupt commonly held assump-
tions and expectations often by forging alternative
spatial imaginaries or meanings’ (Buser et al., 2013:
607). According to Buser et al. (2013), because
cultural activism generates a ‘‘shared aesthetics of
protest,’ it is directly related to the politics of place-
making and the reconfiguring of socio-spatial rela-
tions, identities, and perceptions constituted within
and through those places of creative practice. Allen
et al. (2019) argue for the conceptualizing of Black
Geographies in terms of place-making and a consid-
eration of the full range of ongoing practices, repre-
sentations, and contestations—many of them
expressive acts and images—that shape and are
shaped the black production of knowledge and geo-
graphic experience. According to them, this place-
making is inherently relational, a perspective that
encourages us to consider the bundles of discourses,
objects, experiences, peoples, and social and material
elements that oppressed communities have long
assembled to enact particular socio-political goals
and black senses of place.
Within geographic circles, the civil rights struggle
is infrequently discussed in terms of the cultural
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activism of place-making. However, the Movement
saw several moments of ’radical place-making‘ as
part of the broader geographic spadework of mobiliz-
ing for equality (Bottone et al., 2018). Radical place-
making is a process by which activists, communities,
and even ordinary citizens appropriate places or create
them outright in defiance of white supremacism. This
radical claiming and remaking of geography is about
more than merely creating a new material site or
location of expression (which has not always been
necessary for diasporic and dispossessed communi-
ties). However, it is a broader transformation of the
power relations, meanings, experiences, and concep-
tions of self and belonging that help defines one’s
place. While popular memory tends to recount those
highly publicized moments when civil rights activists
have temporarily claimed and occupied civic spaces
for protests, Black radical place-making can and is
about seeking a more permanent and less spectacular
but no less politically essential means of asserting the
value and legitimacy of a Black socio-spatial vision
and the ‘life-building’ that accompanies people of
color creating their spatial praxis (Bledsoe, 2017).
By producing specific anti-racist plays and work-
shops and discussions about those plays, the theater
program hoped to make a direct local, place-based
intervention in the cultural lives, political conscious-
ness, and geographic experiences of hosting and
attending communities. The everyday landscapes of
churches, schools, auditoriums, streets, and even
cotton fields were converted into stages for performing
against white supremacy and narrating a knowledge
about racism and being Black in America that, as we
have argued, worked across the epistemic injustices of
racism. While the theater by design moved from
location to location within the South, the hope was this
conversion of space would have lasting changes in
how people of color placed themselves within the
project of American democracy. Second, the Free
Southern Theater hoped to bring even greater social
and spatial visibility and permanence to its place-
making, creative practices, and the relationships it
built with its community audiences. Organizers hoped
to use the theater to create a new institution within the
Deep South; in their words, to ‘‘stimulate the growth of
indigenous community theater,’ to fashion a forum for
Black experiences and creative expressions, and to
create ‘a new idiom, a new genre, a theatrical form as
unique as blues, jazz, or gospel’’ (Free Southern
Theater Proposal, n.d.). [Image One about Here.
Caption: Map Created by SNCC nd. From: Dent
et al., 1969)].
Theater producers viewed their cultural activism as
part of rather than apart from the better-known civil
rights place-remaking efforts happening in the Deep
South. They wrote in a report: ‘The Free Southern
Theater is as much a product of ‘the movement’ as
voter registration, community centers, or the Missis-
sippi Freedom Democratic Party’ (Free Southern
Theater Special Report, n.d.).
In thinking about the significance of the place-
making and cultural activism that occurred at and
through the Free Southern Theater, it is perhaps
helpful to critically consider the different kinds of
geographies needed to motivate and sustain civil rights
struggle. In addition to needing places for direct
action, mobilization, and street-level protests, and
places of formal political education, the Movement
required the making of what Allen (2020) calls
‘places of respite.’ These places of respite are
produced by and productive of a Black sense of place
and provide—along with refuge and recovery from
racism—a means for oppressed communities to create
and engage images, knowledge, and storytelling that
resonate with and affirm Black life and freedom
struggle. Allen uses the words resonance and resonates
strategically, recognizing the affective power that
sound and the sensory practice of listening can play in
evoking ‘feelings of belonging and affirmation’ and
using counter-story telling to oppose anti-Black myths
and stereotypes and to amplify Black visions, voices,
and experiences within society (Allen, 2020). These
points are especially salient to understanding the
radical place-making work that staged anti-racist
performances of the Free Southern Theater promised
to carry out, not only by providing an escape from the
demeaning tropes of white supremacy but in also
creating a new kind of sensory and experiential place
for knowing and feeling an alternative, Black visions
of society and space—one that was just affectively,
socially and epistemologically.
Contesting images
In The Selling of Civil Rights, Mumphree (2006)
argues contesting images and engaging in a broader
strategy of informing local, national, and international
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audiences is an underappreciated aspect of civil rights
activism. Mumpfree quotes Mary King, a prominent
SNCC organizer and the director of SNCC’s commu-
nication department, who asserted that ’’communica-
tion goes to the very heart of how non-violent struggle
works‘ (Mumphree 2006:3). Describing how racism
has operated through American history, the reinforce-
ment of white supremacism has long relied on a set of
stereotypical images and understandings that worked
to dehumanize Black people (Mumphree 2006). This
visual inscription of the racial hierarchy reinforces
images of Black life and Black people as undeserving
of the rights granted to the majority white population.
Recall from the previous section that the Deep South’s
plantation bloc’s anti-Black tropes were/are central to
the creation of modernity and that these images
circulate within the United States and internationally.
Bledsoe and Wright (2019: 9) explain that forms of
anti-Black racism and the worlds that are created by
processes that deny black humanity is ’’imbricated in
prevailing and developing political-economic prac-
tices‘ that come to animate social, political, and
economic structures that naturalize what Ruth Wilson
Gilmore describes as ’racisms death-dealing displace-
ments (Gilmore 2007: 6). SNCC was struggling with
these realities. As a result, SNCC’s communication
strategy focused on contesting these images not only
for domestic consumption but also by highlighting the
brutal and inhumane ways black people were being
treated in the Deep South for international audiences.
The Free Theater is an essential link in this process.
In a 1964 article written by Free Southern Theater
founders Doris Derby, Gilbert Moses, and John
O’Neal (1964, np), they note that the theater program
is a necessary counterweight to knowledge construc-
tion in Mississippi that denies the realities of white
supremacism. Focusing on both the education system
and the control and flow of information through local
media, they describe how the majority Black popula-
tion are sent to ‘a public-school system that restricts
the learning process, rather than nourishes it. School
textbooks are controlled, and discussion of controver-
sial topics are forbidden‘ (1964, np). The article goes
on:
The Newspapers in Mississippi are not sources
of information concerning the activities of the
community or the state. These newspapers’
distortions are twofold: what is not printed—
any valid information about Mississippi eco-
nomics and politics; and what is published—the
highly distorted and biased articles supporting
the Mississippi [white elite] ‘way of life.’ The
one Negro (sic) weekly, other than the Free
Press, is being used as a showcase for the Barnett
[segregationist Governor of Mississippi] admin-
istration to portray the Mississippi Negro as
satisfied with Mississippi’s conditions.
At least two themes emerge from these passages and
are essential to consider when understanding how
SNCC struggled against a set of racialized epistemic
violences at the heart of white supremacism. First, as
Bledsoe and Wright remind us, anti-blackness is
predicated on the ‘casting of Black spaces as lifeless
and open to appropriation’ (2019: 13). This appro-
priation of Black space has implications for a wide
variety of processes, including gentrification and
urban renewal projects, but also in the way informa-
tion and systems of knowledge generation come to
create discursive understandings of Black life and
hence the value and respect afforded that life (or not)
through material socio-spatial practices. Foundational
to anti-Black racism is the denial of humanity and
cultural significance to African Americans and, most
geographically relevant, the making of Black space
and place. As Katherine McKittrick (2011) explains in
her seminal piece On Plantations, perspectives of race
grounded in anti-Black racism come to reify ‘‘racial-
colonial categories’ that denies agency, reinforce
historical and patriarchal understandings of black/
white relationships, deny the violence inherent in a
white supremacist socio-economic order and natural-
ize dispossession (948). Derby, Moses, and O’Neil
explain why the Free Theater was necessary to focus
our attention on the ways images and stereotypes
circulate through the press and in the school system
and come to justify broader processes of accumulation
and dispossession that are central to the workings of
racism. As the Free Theater article explains, ’’a theater
is unique as a means of education, but also can create
the opportunity for the human dimension that the
present caste system is calculated to deny—the
development of human dignity. Theater demonstrates
that reality can be transformed and that within this
transformation, the Negro plays the leading role’ (np).
A playbill from the middle 1960s explains, ‘The Free
Southern Theater exists [] for those slapped in the
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face by ignorance from newspapers and other mass
media because of their skin’ (no date). The emphasis
on being slapped in the face by the ignorance of racist
media alludes to the harm that such disinformation can
do to the African American Freedom Struggle and the
‘Black place of respite’ from this harm (Allen, 2020)
that the Free Southern Theater hoped to provide.
Flowing through theatrical performances and discus-
sions was a Black self-care that producers hoped to
facilitate by affirming and performing a Black pro-
duction of knowledge and expression of experience.
The structure of the Free Southern Theater perfor-
mances themselves varied depending on the scale and
scope of the play but also on local conditions. In rural
places where performances were in front of share-
croppers and primarily poor people, they could be
staged in the middle of a cotton field on a hastily built
platform. When the theater went to larger cities like
Jackson, Mississippi, or New Orleans, Louisiana—
where the theater program would be based for most of
its career—they often performed in community cen-
ters with more infrastructure. Moreover, Fabre (1983)
notes that Black communities did not all respond
favorably to the idea of radical theater; there were
differences in receptivity by social class and urban
versus rural location. Because the Free Theater saw
itself as an educational medium that was resisting and
contesting racist images of Black life and seeking to
raise and sometimes unsettle consciousness within
Black communities, the plays themselves were often
followed up with community discussions and work-
shops that discussed the main themes and critical
insights that the plays focused on. An early focus of
the theater was the play In White America by Martin
Duberman. Covering 85 years of history, the play
focuses on Black life in the United States from slavery
through the 1940s. In explaining why the play was
influential, SNCC theater performers noted that in
many of the communities in which they worked,
theater performers were astonished to discover that the
local people appeared to have never heard of W.E.B
Du Bois or Marcus Garvey, had no idea about the
history of Reconstruction or its aftermath.
While oppressed Black audiences may have lacked
formal education in the history presented by theater
producers, they undoubtedly had their own equally
legitimate inter-generationally transmitted collective
memories of white racial control and Black resistance.
This knowledge is critical to understanding Black
resistance to the plantation bloc and white supremacy
in this region. Clyde Woods (1998) has termed this
kind of knowledge ’Blues Epistemology‘ knowledge
that emerges from black communities and results from
spatial praxis and understanding local economic,
social and cultural realities. The Free Theater sits
within this broad placemaking framework, and in fact,
the lived experiences with racism are knitted onto and
reinforced or challenged by watching In White Amer-
ica. Indeed, the SNCC archives indicate that Free
Southern Theater performances were dialogic, forums
in which community members in attendance were
encouraged to express their thoughts and feelings
during and after the play. In making plays so
participatory and leading workshops, theater perform-
ers were engaging in a broader process of conscious-
ness-raising that was central to the work of SNCC. In a
playbill that describes the significance of In White
America for the community, the Free Theater notes:
’The play points up in scene after scene the betrayal
by the American government and the American people
in the hopes and aspirations of its largest minority’
(No author). While theatrical performances were
noteworthy in framing, transmitting, and legitimizing
an explicit Black knowledge of America for public
consumption, its full consciousness-raising power
came from more than its revolutionary content or
images. Instead, the free theater’s educational power
also resulted from how it facilitated epistemic inter-
actions (Medina, 2013) among community members
and SNCC workers. The theater created a place of
political-emotional refuge and recovery—where audi-
ences could gain greater confidence after enduring
racialized humiliation and free themselves in part from
the fear of white punishment, and think or say what
they liked regarding new ideas about civil rights
introduced by SNCC as well as their own long-
repressed everyday resistant visions about Black
agency, whether it was DuBoisian or not.
Recall from earlier in the paper that SNCC field
secretary and Albany, Georgia leader Charles Sherrod
noted that in every community that SNCC worked,
there existed a ‘black box.’ Composed of personal
experiences and broader understandings of one’s place
within the racial caste system, Sherrod argued what
was needed was a program that could tear down and
break open that box could allow black men and women
to see themselves as they really are. Because SNCC
was focused on community empowerment and the
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spadework of organizing local people to take on the
struggle for their liberation, breaking down the
existing knowledge structure and the contestation of
the ways black life was represented as a central piece
of how and in what ways this project moved forward.
In documents located in the archives, the founders of
the Free Southern Theater explain:
The civil rights movement has dramatically
affected the vacuum in which the Mississippi
Negro [sic] lives. Yet, it is still probably that the
Negro is the last to be informed of a situation that
directly concerns him. He has been unable to
develop naturally because he has found himself
in a society that excludes him from its public
consciousness, which is, by necessity, his public
consciousness (Derby, Moses, O’Neal 1964:
3-4. Underline in original).
The document notes that Mississippi, in particular, has
a system of racism designed to destroy black people
and refuse African Americans true knowledge of
themselves and the conditions that exist that make the
reality of anti-Black racism foundational to the
Mississippi experience.
By putting on performances that not only reinter-
preted American history and culture through an
explicitly Black lens but also by encouraging local
performances and, at times incorporating locals into
the performances, the Free Theater was indicative of
how SNCC sought to work towards building a broader
movement and a radical place for self-liberation. As an
organization, SNCC was different from the other civil
rights groups working at the time. Infused with an
understanding of organizing from Ella Baker, they
wanted to empower local communities to take on their
oppression through a grassroots campaign of self-
determination and local organizing. Working in the
most vulnerable communities in America and facing
extreme forms of Southern plantation violence, SNCC
workers were committed to creating conditions in
local communities that were empowering and con-
nected to local, grassroots democracy. To accomplish
that broader mission, SNCC wanted to engage in a
radical education program that provided the means
and tools for people in rural communities to access
information that could help them undertake civil rights
activism but in the long-term would actively cultivate
conditions that cemented those gains.
Because of the kind of work that SNCC was
engaging in, the Free Theater also served a broader
purpose: providing a space of respite and recreation.
Christina Larocco (2015) explains that despite the best
intentions of the theater producers, at times, the actors
and activists grew frustrated when theater attendees
were more interested in relaxing or just enjoying the
performances and not so much so in the radical
democratic traditions that SNCC worked to bring into
the theater space. These frustrations and the challenges
of organizing communities for social change indicate
Ella Baker’s ‘spadework’ and how the Free Theater
had to engage in the sometimes fraught process of
acknowledging and working within the needs, expe-
riences, and interpretations of oppressed Black audi-
ences. As Larocco (2015) notes, this frustration often
hid a more subtle, if not at times, equally important
role, a kind of politics of respite. For poor, rural
communities that state and local officials underserved,
the theater space turned into a space where people
could relax after the end of a long day. Sometimes, it
was the only space in the segregated South that Black
people could gather outside of church. Denise Nichols
(n.d.), a theater member, explains: ‘‘So many of our
audience members hadn’t seen a live theatrical
performance before. There was awe, consternation,
laughter, sadness, pride, and sometimes solemnity.’’
The challenges and frustrations of SNCC organiz-
ers and theater performers belie the vital work that
occurred in providing spaces for primarily African
American sharecroppers to come together in a venue
that provided a release from the toil and ongoing labor
of plantation life. Again, artistic performance and
creativity were central to the cultivation of Woods’
‘Blues Epistemology’ (Woods, 1998), a way of
seeing and understanding the world and making sense
of the deprivations, and articulating shared and vital
humanity that existed within Black communities in the
Mississippi Delta. The Blues also provided space for
Black people to blow off steam and organize and
reinforce a Black sense of place.
Of course, the respite and refuge that the theater
program offered oppressed communities were not by
any means complete or free from white intimidation;
violence would cause plays to be canceled. The theater
company required their own security. Indeed, Denise
Nichols remembers that theater participants ‘‘were
harassed, arrested, followed, had bombs thrown at
stages while we performed’ (Nichols nd). Before
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1965, when the Free Southern Theater decided it
would exclusively become ‘a Black theater for
Blacks, performed and managed by Blacks,’ it
welcomed racially mixed audiences. But whites were
often hostile to the theater program, claiming it was
communist in nature, and white officials would attend
shows accompanied by a more significant police
presence. As Fabre (1983: 56) recounts: ‘‘In 1964 at
Indianola [Sunflower County, Mississippi], a rural
town, the birthplace of the White Citizens Council,
white police cars, forty-two helmeted policemen, a
sheriff accompanied twenty-five white citizens—
lawyers, professionals, and a few farmers; they sat in
the back of the theater, which was filled with local
Blacks.‘
As the Free Theater grew and evolved politically to
‘assert itself as a Southern and all-Black institution,’
it began to offer plays and performances that high-
lighted Black authors and were focused more directly
on experiences within the Mississippi Delta Region
and the rural southern Black experience (Fabre, 1983:
57). These plays tended to draw out the audience, and
as the theater developed, the cast and crew became
more adept at leading discussions. In a famous
example that Christina Larocco (2015) documented
through the performance of the play Waiting for
Godot, she describes the reaction of Fannie Lou
Hamer, one of the most critical civil rights organizers
of her generation. In this play, two men are waiting by
a bench for someone named Godot to arrive, who
never does. In the course of the play, the two men
discuss a variety of issues and events. In describing the
discussion that ensued after a performance in which
Ms. Hamer attended, the producers noted that she ’’got
the message immediately.’ They stated:
She [Ms. Hamer] said to the audience: ‘‘We’re
not like these two white guys. We’re not waiting
anymore for somebody to show up and give us
what we need to go forward. We’re taking this
into our own hands, voting, and expressing
ourselves. That’s what we have to learn from this
play.
This passage highlights how the politics of respite isn’t
just about having a space to decompress or escape; far
from that, it is a space to think and react to one’s
situation or place in the world. The reality is that few
places in the tightly controlled white supremacist
Deep South allowed for the kind of communal space
and affective atmosphere necessary to focus on larger
messages regarding civil rights. In giving sharecrop-
pers and others this type of space, the Free Theater was
engaging in a politics of respite, and that was about
(re)creating a politics of freedom. This connects the
Free Theater with the politics of radical placemaking
in at least two ways. First, it was about designing and
constructing a creative space in which mostly rural and
poor sharecroppers could experience aspects of Black
culture and history in a venue outside of the normative,
white supremacist power structure. This was a space
outside of the plantation bloc’s control, and this
connects the Southern Free Theater to a broader
politics associated with Blues Epistemology. Second,
because this space was outside of normative control, it
facilitated a broader consciousness-raising that
exceeded the performance itself. One of the powers
of artistic expression is how it allows for escape from
the drudgery and toil of everyday life. By providing
rest and recreation as well as a counter-storytelling
against racist tropes, the Free Southern Theater created
a radical place for affirming and amplifying Black
socio-spatial visions of both performers, playwrights,
and audience members, opening up more potential
space for an anti-racist informational praxis and
representational politics and redefining (at least tem-
porarily) the affective atmosphere of white racism that
often kept African Americans in Deep South rural
communities living in heightened fear and anxiety.
Conclusion
The Free Southern Theater is an essential link in the
broader spadework of civil rights organizing and
resistance to white supremacy. While the more general
public and even many academics tend to focus
attention on charismatic leaders and large marches, it
was the hard and gritty work that went on in many
small, rural towns in the Deep South that helped to lay
the groundwork for a broader proliferation of freedom
and civil and social rights during this era. Through its
focus on grassroots education and the contestation of
images of black life associated with anti-Black racism,
the Free Theater is an example of the work the SNCC
was engaged within many rural and small southern
towns. Because of its focus on liberation and present-
ing a series of plays and images that countered
stereotypical images of life in this region and the
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theater was engaged in critical placemaking that
countered racist and stereotypical images of black life
in the region. The fight over images was important not
only because it countered white supremacist repre-
sentations of black life but also because it represents a
politics of resistance that is important to work through.
We continue to struggle against racism and racializa-
tion processes that dehumanize large sections of the
US population.
Through placemaking, the Free Southern Theater
provides a space of respite and recreation in which
mostly poor working-class African Americans could
escape from the realities of everyday life. As we argue,
this is critical, if less well studied, aspect of civil rights
organizing that is important to the broader processes of
organizing. Recall from the previous section that an
aspect of SNCCs approach was to take on the black
box of community, to allow people to develop and see
themselves as agents of their liberation. The sheer
weight of white supremacism and the fight for survival
coupled with the white supremacist propaganda cam-
paigns meant that there was precious little time to sit
back and reflect on the broader structure of power that
created these conditions for many people. In providing
a space for theatrical production, the Free Theater
worked to create a space that gave working folks the
space to decompress, and this was important to the
broader process of consciousness-raising that was
central to taking on white supremacism and the black
box of community that constrained the political
possibilities of liberation at the heart of SNCC’s work.
Funding Portions of this research were funded by the National
Science Foundation. We know of no conflicts of interest and the
research was conducted with full IRB approval at Penn State and
at the Univeristy of Tennessee.
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