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Head Start and Mississippi's Black Freedom Struggle

by Crystal R. Sanders


In this innovative study, Crystal Sanders explores how working-class black women, in collaboration with the federal government, created the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) in 1965, a Head Start program that not only gave poor black children access to early childhood education but also provided black women with greater opportunities for political activism during a crucial time in the unfolding of the civil rights movement. Women who had previously worked as domestics and sharecroppers secured jobs through CDGM as teachers and support staff and earned higher wages. The availability of jobs independent of the local white power structure afforded these women the freedom to vote in elections and petition officials without fear of reprisal. But CDGM's success antagonized segregationists at both the local and state levels who eventually defunded it.

Tracing the stories of the more than 2,500 women who staffed Mississippi's CDGM preschool centers, Sanders's book remembers women who went beyond teaching children their shapes and colors to challenge the state's closed political system and white supremacist ideology and offers a profound example for future community organizing in the South.

A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi's Black Freedom Struggle published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2016 is part of the John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture.  

Crystal Sanders is assistant professor of history and African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Crystal R. Sanders is a historian of the United States in the twentieth century.  Her research and teaching interests include African American History, Black Women's History, and the History of Black Education.  She received her PhD in History from Northwestern University and received her BA in History and Public Policy from Duke University.

Her work can also be found in the Journal of Southern History, the North Carolina Historical Review, and the Journal of African American History.  She is currently writing a book on black southerners' efforts to secure graduate education during the age of Jim Crow.

“An extraordinary work, rich and revealing, A Chance for Change challenges common assumptions about what the movement was. I doubt any work on the struggle captures the process of individual transformation as vividly as this one does. At the same time, knowing that CDGM lost support because it was too successful changes our conceptions of what the War on Poverty might have been."  —Charles M. Payne, author of I've Got the Light of Freedom