What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

Jane Crow, by Rosalind Rosenberg****

JaneCrowPauli Murray is the person that coined the term “Jane Crow”, and was the first to legally address the twin oppressions of color and gender. I had seen her name mentioned in many places, but this is the first time I’ve read her story. Thank you to Net Galley and Oxford University Press for the opportunity to read it free in exchange for this honest review. This biography is for sale now.

Murray was born in North Carolina and was a labor activist during the turbulent 1930s. She was academically gifted and hardworking, but tormented by the issue of gender. 100 years ago, in the time and place into which fate dropped her, there was no recognition of trans people, and so her sense of herself (the pronoun she used) was that surely there was some unseen physical aspect to her body that must be male. She searched high and low for a surgeon that would perform exploratory surgery to discover whether she had an undescended testicle or some other material explanation to explain why she was convinced that she was actually male. It hurts to think about it. Those born after the early-to-mid-20th century cannot comprehend how the suggestion that gender could be binary was seen, and Murray was a devout Christian as well, and became an ordained Episcopal priest. By the time trans people gained respect from a significant percentage of Americans, Murray was no longer here.

Despite the misery and confusion that was inherent in such a life, Murray was prolific. She was declined a place at the University of North Carolina because of her race, and later denied a place at Harvard Law because of her gender. She graduated at the top of her class at Howard Law, the only woman in her class. Later she would be largely responsible for inclusion of the word “gender” in the title VII in 1964. Those of us that have benefited from that law—and there are a lot of us—tip our hats to her memory in gratitude.

Rosenberg has done a fine job in telling us about Murray. Her documentation is flawless and her narrative clear. At times—particularly in the beginning, before Murray’s career really catches fire—it’s a trifle dry, but I would prefer a clear, scholarly, linear narrative such as this one, over an exciting but sensationalized, less well documented telling any day of the week.

Those interested in the American Civil Rights movement and the history of the women’s rights movement in the USA should get this book and read it. Even if used primarily as a reference tool, it’s an indispensable resource, particularly to those with an interest in legal matters relating to discrimination and equity.

Sting Like a Bee, by Leigh Montville**

stinglikeabee“’It takes a lot of nerve for somebody, mainly a white, to ask me do I hate. I haven’t lynched nobody and hid in the bushes.’”

I received an advance copy free from Net Galley and Doubleday in exchange for this honest review. The book is now available for purchase.

Muhammad Ali died of Parkinson’s disease one year ago. By the time of his passing, he had earned the respect and recognition he craved. In this popular biography, Montville gives an overview of his rise to fame, but focuses primarily on Ali’s legal challenge to the US government, which strove to draft him to fight in Vietnam despite his professed status as a conscientious objector.

During the 1960s and 1970s, almost all of Caucasian America and a goodly number of African-Americans regarded Ali’s public statements either with derision or fear. Born Cassius Clay, he joined the Nation of Islam as a young adult and changed his name in the same way Malcolm X had before him. He did it in order to shuck the slave name given him at birth and adopt a new religion that taught him that Black men were not only equal to white folks, but better. Malcolm X had advocated Black pride and scared a lot of people, but he had done it from the point of view of a political activist. Ali was the first Black athlete to stand up tall and tell all of America that he was the greatest. The descendants of slave owners that willingly or not bore the guilt of the oppressors were absolutely terrified. This was the fear they seldom made themselves face, the notion that the descendants of those so grievously wronged might rise up belatedly and give back some of what their ancestors had been dealt. I was there; I remember.

Ali personified the white man’s fear of the jungle. Dude, here he comes; he’s strong, he’s angry, and he’s free!

Montville recognizes up front that when Ali died, he was an icon, both as an athlete and as a civil rights advocate. But the tone of his prose shifts from a more or less neutral journalistic tone, to a wry one—because Ali did say some outrageous things by anyone’s standard—and then, again and again, to a derisive one. The first time I saw it, I told myself I was tired and grumpy, and that I was probably being overly sensitive. My own family is racially mixed; I have raised a Black son. Sometimes I get touchy when I read things written by white authors about Black people. I should put the book down and examine it tomorrow with fresh eyes.

When I picked it up the next time I was immediately taken with the writer’s skill. His pacing is impeccable. Some of the quotes he chose are really delicious ones, although with Ali, it’s also kind of hard to go wrong. And at this point I considered that since we were on a roll, I should take the next step and examine the end notes and documentation.

Huh. Apart from a list of sources, most of which are biographies written by other people, there’s nothing. There are the in-text references a popular biographer uses, telling us, for example, that a direct quote comes from the magazine Sports Illustrated, without telling us what issue or who wrote it. And to be fair, that’s how a popular biography is written. It’s there for the masses that love boxing and aren’t going to check your footnotes. Everything within my academic heart recoils at this kind of biography, but it sells. I may not like it much, but people will buy it and they’ll read it.

But to write about a legal challenge of this magnitude and not provide specific documentation?
I could mention this within a review—as I have—and say that given this particular caveat, the biography is a four star read, and I thought that I might do that. But when I continued reading, there it was again. The author makes fun of the guy. And so just before the halfway mark, I started making careful notes of my own, because I wanted to see for myself how it is possible for a writer to appear to be neutral much of the time and yet also mock his subject. What I came away with is that the more straight-forward, respectful material is buried in the middle of each section, but the briefer sneering, snide material is usually right at the end of the section in one sentence, set apart from everything that came before it.

Writers do this for emphasis.

Fans of Ali will have to swallow hard to make it through this biography. Fans of boxing will find that it’s mostly about the legal challenge, and although Ali’s boxing matches are included, you’ll find a lot more about those in any one of the numerous other Ali biographies published earlier. And those interested in his legal fight may want to hold out for a more scholarly treatment.

When all is said and done, Ali was the greatest, but this biography is not.

Coming Up

Celebrations here in the family domicile have momentarily distracted me, but that all ends tomorrow. Before I commence partying with family tonight, I thought I’d show you the books you can expect to see reviewed here over the weekend. Some are memorable and others not-so-much, but I am surprised by which are which. Wait for it:

The Song and the Silence, by Yvette Johnson*****

TheSongandtheSilenceI was browsing the pages of Net Galley and ran across this gem of a memoir. Often when someone that isn’t famous gets an autobiography published by a major publisher, it’s a hint to the reader that the story will be riveting. Such is the case here; my many thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. You can order it now’ it comes out Tuesday, May 9.

It probably says a great deal, all by itself, that I had never heard of Booker Wright before this. I have a history degree and chose, at every possible opportunity, to take classes, both undergraduate and graduate level, that examined the Civil Rights Movement, right up until my retirement a few years ago. As a history teacher, I made a point of teaching about it even when it wasn’t part of my assigned curriculum, and I prided myself on reaching beyond what has become the standard list that most school children learned. I looked in nooks and crannies and did my best to pull down myths that cover up the heat and light of that critical time in American history, and I told my students that racism is an ongoing struggle, not something we can tidy away as a fait accompli.

But I had never heard of Booker.

Booker Wright, for those that (also) didn’t know, was the courageous Black Mississippian that stepped forward in 1965 and told his story on camera for documentary makers. He did it knowing that it was dangerous to do so, and knowing that it would probably cost him a very good job he’d had for 25 years. It was shown in a documentary that Johnson discusses, but if you want to see the clip of his remarks, here’s what he said. You may need to see it a couple of times, because he speaks rapidly and with an accent. Here is Booker, beginning with his well-known routine waiting tables at a swank local restaurant, and then saying more:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM-zG…

So it was Booker and his new-to-me story that made me want to read the DRC. Johnson opens with information from that time, but as she begins sharing her own story, discussing not only Booker but her family’s story and in particular, her own alienation from her mother, who is Booker’s daughter, I waited for the oh-no feeling. Perhaps you’ve felt it too, when reading a biography; it’s the sensation we sometimes feel when it appears that a writer is using a famous subject in order to talk about themselves, instead. I’ve had that feeling several times since I’ve been reading and reviewing, and I have news: it never happened here. Johnson’s own story is an eloquent one, and it makes Booker’s story more relevant today as we see how this violent time and place has bled through to color the lives of its descendants.

The family’s history is one of silences, and each of those estrangements and sometimes even physical disappearance is rooted in America’s racist heritage. Johnson chronicles her own privileged upbringing, the daughter of a professional football player. She went to well-funded schools where she was usually the only African-American student in class. She responded to her mother’s angry mistrust of Caucasians by pretending to herself that race was not even worth noticing.

But as children, she and her sister had played a game in which they were both white girls. They practiced tossing their tresses over their shoulders. Imagine it.

Johnson is a strong writer, and her story is mesmerizing. I had initially expected an academic treatment, something fairly dry, when I saw the title. I chose this to be the book I was going to read at bedtime because it would not excite me, expecting it to be linear and to primarily deal with aspects of the Civil Rights movement and the Jim Crow South that, while terrible, would be things that I had heard many times before. I was soon disabused of this notion. But there came a point when this story was not only moving and fascinating, but also one I didn’t want to put down. I suspect it will do the same for you.

YouTube has a number of clips regarding this topic and the documentary Johnson helped create, but here is an NPR spot on cop violence, and it contains an interview of Johnson herself from when the project was released. It’s about 20 minutes long, and I found it useful once I had read the book; reading it before you do so would likely work just as well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xxeh…

Johnson tells Booker’s story and her own in a way that looks like effortless synthesis, and the pace never slackens. For anyone with a post-high-school literacy level, an interest in civil rights in the USA, and a beating heart, this is a must-read. Do it.

The Butler’s Child: An Autobiography, by Lewis M. Steel****

thebutlerschildLewis M. Steel has a long, noteworthy career as a civil rights attorney.  He was an observer during the Attica Prison riots; worked for the NAACP during the Civil Rights movement, and later defended boxer Hurricane Carter against a frame-up charge of murder. And I was permitted to read this story free and in advance, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press in exchange for this honest review. I rate it 3.5 stars and round upwards; it is now available to the public.

When I first approached this title I expected to see what the life of a butler’s son was like. In fact, Steel’s social class is at the other end of the spectrum. An heir to the Warner Brothers fortune, he spent much of his time in the company of the family butler, and he was deeply affected by the emotional distance that this family servant, whom he had innocently regarded as a father figure, began to demonstrate as Steel grew older. Later, as an adult, he realized that this faithful retainer, an African-American man, surely had a family and life of his own that he went to visit on his two half-days off work, and he began to wonder what he might do to tear down the wall between the worlds of Caucasian families and Black folk. Ultimately he decided to become a civil rights attorney, and he credits the man that helped raise him as a key reason.

The NAACP of the Civil Rights era—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People– was deeply immersed in litigation as a means to end segregation. Again and again, racist judges sat in court, north and south alike, and they told the NAACP to go to hell even when their evidence and research was baldly, plainly in the plaintiff’s favor. The NAACP continued to push litigation over mass action because of a strong conviction that if they could get a case heard by the Supreme Court, relatively liberal in many regards and headed by Chief Justice Warren, then surely justice would be done.

It didn’t shake out that way. Outraged over the way the nation’s highest court failed to provide equal protection to its Black citizens, Steel wrote an article for Time Magazine titled “Nine Men in Black Who Think White”, and was summarily fired from the NAACP, who still wanted to curry favor with that court. Many of his colleagues walked out of the NAACP offices in protest.

A common question among Caucasians that want to fight for the rights of people of color in the USA is what can we do?  How can one use this white privilege that exists whether it should or not, to change US laws and society for the better? And this question is raised exponentially when one is an heir, a ruling class scion that can do a tremendous amount for the cause in which he believes.

This reviewer has a friend that found himself in this situation. The distant but only heir of a corset magnate’s fortune, he decided that the best way to seek justice was to walk his talk. Reserving a small percentage of the fortune for himself—which is still a tasty enough chunk to own a middle class home in Seattle, take a vacation abroad annually, and eat in restaurants instead of his own kitchen—he donated the vast majority of his personal wealth to the organization he thought best. He doesn’t live in an all white neighborhood; doesn’t have a household staff; and he does blue collar work on the railroad so that he can talk politics with other working people. Because to help people the most, one needs to be among them and facing similar circumstances to those they face. So he gets up at crazy o’clock in the morning, goes out and gets greasy and banged up with everybody else, and then he goes home and cleans his own house and mows his own grass. He gets that more people listen when you put your life where your mouth is, and he believes the future of the world lies with the working class.

So when Steel commences his hand wringing over how wealthy, how privileged he is and how bad he feels about it, I want to say, Cry me a river. Steel freely admits that he enjoys his lovely home that looks down on Central Park and allows him a lovely view of the Macy’s Parade every Thanksgiving. He enjoys the servants, and his neighborhood is all white. He sent his children to all white private schools even as he fought to integrate the public schools that he wouldn’t let his own children attend in any case.

At one point, Steel mentions that his therapist told him to stop whining, and I wanted that doctor here in the room so I could offer him a high five.

Now that I have addressed the elephant in the room, I have to say that Steel’s memoir, despite the wealthy liberal whining, is worth a read for those interested in Civil Rights history and in particular the part of it that has played out in the courtrooms. You don’t have to like the author to benefit from the treasure trove of information in the pages of this memoir. Steel has been involved in some landmark cases, and he is at his best when he talks about the cases he has taken and how they shook out.

Black lives DO matter, and those of  us that think so need all the information available to fight that fight, and there are many worthwhile lessons that still apply right here, this book is worth your time and money regardless of whose memoir it is.

This book was released earlier this month, and is available for sale now.

Florence “Flo” Kennedy: the Life of a Black Feminist Radical, by Sherie M. Randolph***

Florynce Flo KennedyFlo Kennedy was a force to be reckoned with, dismissed by a portion of mainstream Caucasian America as a kook, yet far too clever, too cagey, and too damn smart to be wished away by those that wanted to defend the racist, sexist status quo. When I saw that a memoir of her life was up for grabs at Net Galley I requested a copy immediately, and then took a long time to finish reading it. Part of my tardiness is a stubborn dislike for the PDF format, and so I apologize to University of North Carolina Press and my readers for being so slow; yet a small part of it was the surprisingly dry quality of the memoir. Given the subject, I had expected this biography to set my hair on fire.

Though she was new to Randolph, according to the introduction, Kennedy was no stranger to those of us in the Boomer generation. Her audacity, her wit, and her raw courage that at times bordered on recklessness made for great theater and fascinating press coverage. Raised by parents that taught her not “to take any shit” long before the Black Power movement or even the end of Jim Crow, Kennedy pushed the margins. She studied, worked, and fought her way into Columbia Law; she defended famous individuals like Billie Holliday and Stokely Carmichael, and she did it with style.

By far the most significant part of her legacy was the leadership she demonstrated in bringing together the women’s movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s with the Black Power movement. As a young woman sending out my own tendrils into the larger world apart from high school and my parents’ home, some of the most influential feminist speeches given were by Kennedy and Gloria Steinem, and sometimes they appeared together. I never got to see them in person, but it didn’t matter that much, because I knew what they had written and what they had said, and soon I was attending meetings of NOW, the National Organization for Women, which was the leading women’s rights organization in the US before their split over women in the military later in the 20th century. Because of women like Kennedy and Steinem, I fundraised my fare to national marches on the Capitol for women’s right to choose whether to reproduce, and to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment.

So I owe Kennedy a great deal.

Kennedy’s confidence and controlled rage positively crackled; she made headlines and was often seen on the evening news. Once when I told a classmate that I wanted to support a female candidate for president of the US, he told me that if I was going to vote for a protest candidate, I should shoot for the moon and vote for Flo Kennedy.

He had a point.

I don’t agree with everything Kennedy said or did, particularly her suggestion that rather than expending great effort to end the US war against the Vietnamese people, Americans should focus their energy toward supporting Black owned businesses. Say what? But nearly everything else she did was so vastly ahead of her time that it made me gasp in awe.

I understand that a memoir produced by a university press is generally going to be scholarly in nature, and that’s one reason I request works like this that are associated with such reputable sources. But a scholarly treatment doesn’t have to drone. By arranging a few of Kennedy’s livelier quotes up front and at chapter beginnings and endings, she might receive the treatment she deserves, instead of being consigned to the dustbin of history a mere decade, give or take a year, after she wore a tee shirt reading “I had an abortion” during her most senior years.

So although I know Randolph is new to Kennedy and probably also has some academic parameters within which she has to work, I still feel that Flo’s memoir should reflect her verve and character to a greater degree.

Nevertheless reader, if you care about women’s rights and the rights of African-Americans, if women’s history and African-American history hold meaning and importance for you, I think you should read this memoir anyway, because as of this writing, it’s really the only memoir of Kennedy that’s available. You can find some of her speeches in feminist collections, but no one else has tackled this woman’s life, and so until and unless something better comes along, you should get this and read it. Because a dry, somewhat conservative treatment of Kennedy is better than nothing.

The Man Who Cried I Am, by John A. Williams*****

TheManWhoCriedIAmThe Man Who Cried I Am was originally published during the turmoil of the late 1960’s, in the throes of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, and following the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Bobby, Martin Luther King Junior, and Malcolm X. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a long-overdue second civil rights movement, and this title is published again. We can read it digitally thanks to Open Road Integrated Media. I was invited to read it by them and the fine people at Net Galley. I read it free in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase now.

The story is a fictionalized account of the life of writer Richard Wright, one of the giants within African-American literature. I am ashamed to say that although I did pick up a copy of both Native Son and Black Boy, his two most famous books, they were still perched on my to-read pile when this invitation rolled in. I found myself perusing this meaty material without knowing anything about Wright himself, apart from his legendary stature and his occupation. I wanted to be able to give my readers a strong critical analysis of this novel, but I have really struggled with it. I found myself having to do a Wiki search in order to figure out whether Max Reddick or Harry Ames was supposed to be Wright. It’s embarrassing. I will read it over again and try to publish something more useful than this review in the future, but I promised to publish my thoughts on the book no later than today—a week following its release—and so I’m going to tell you what I can.

As literary fiction, it’s strong. Ames, who is Wright, as it turns out, and Reddick, who is James Baldwin fictionalized, go on an Odyssey all their own, leaving the USA and its myriad racial issues behind for Europe. A number of other historical luminaries are recognizable in its pages by different names, in addition to those called by their real names, such as Dewy and Truman, and philosopher Camus. The time period spans from post-World War II to the Civil Rights movement.

So many social issues are embraced here that I found myself making far more notes and highlighting more quotes than I can use. The debate unfolds as to how the Communist Party USA treats artists, as opposed to workers, and even touches briefly on the assassination of Trotsky at the hands of a Stalinist agent. Discrimination against African-American (then referred to as Negro) soldiers in the Buffaloes is part of Reddick’s inner narrative. Black Pride had not yet had its day, and Black men often coveted relationships with Caucasian women, partly, as Malcolm X later pointed out, from self-hatred, partly as a social status symbol, and occasionally for the practical material benefits of marrying into, or becoming aligned with, a woman that had access to money. But this was also a double-edged sword, because the women’s movement hadn’t occurred yet either, and women were supposed to stay home and have babies while their men went off to work.

The whole thing is very complicated.

In this time prior to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal for American women, an unwanted pregnancy is dispatched by a doctor who is supposed to be quite good and risk free, but of course, the procedure is not legal, and there are no emergency facilities available. One of the characters loses the woman he loves when she bleeds to death after a back-alley abortion. This is not intended to be the primary focus of the book, but it’s huge to me, and so it stayed with me.

Be aware that there are scores of ugly racist terms, used for the purpose of highlighting racism, as well as sexist terms and references to gay men as the f-word. All references are either there because of the time period in which the story is set or for the purpose of defining the struggle of the Black man in America, but readers have a right to know and to brace themselves. There are descriptions of the atrocities visited upon European Jews during the war, as well as references to their struggle in the USA, primarily New York City; again, there are some ugly terms used.

Should you read this title? Not at the beach. This excellent novel is for the serious student of African-American history and for the history student focused on social justice. It’s more than worth your while, and I will re-read it myself after I have read Wright’s work. Just understand that there are many, many historical references that will make you reach for Google. The story was written during a time when the average reader had most of these things—from clothing styles such as zoot suits and pegged pants, to offhand references to the cigarette jingles that once punctuated our radio and television broadcasts as frequently as Coke and Pepsi do now, to slang terms whose use is either gone or worse, changed to mean something else. For example, if someone is high, they haven’t been using street drugs; they are drunk. None of these things is explained to the reader. We must have them stored in our memories; search for the meanings of unfamiliar references; or attempt to understand the text without knowing them.

I consider this literature to be accessible only to those that read at college level.

Highly recommended for those that take African-American literature and history seriously, and whose reading ability is well above average.

W.E.B. DuBois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses, by WEB DuBois*****

WEB DuBois SpeaksI read this book about 2 years ago, and then found I was intimidated by the 60 multicolored sticky notes that I had used to flag all the brilliant passages, and so I told myself I would review it…later. I didn’t have a DRC this time; I bought that book fair and square at full jacket price from Pathfinder Press many years ago, and then my life was too hectic for me to find time for it. And make no mistake, this is not a collection you want to take on while multitasking. This is deep, serious, articulate writing from one of the most brilliant civil rights leaders the world has yet known. And so although he has been dead for a long time, like Dr. Martin Luther King, his words have made him immortal. I recently read and reviewed another title about this luminary scholar and class fighter, and that reminded me that I had some unfinished reviewing to do for him…or maybe for me. Here we go.

It was DuBois that wrote The Souls of Black Folk, a wrenching reminder that even those Caucasian folks up north that think they have no racial biases, often have some issues they haven’t yet faced. It was true when he wrote it, and I’m sorry to say it is largely true today as well. In the letters and speeches, he takes the pain laid bare in that famous book and explains what the source of racism is, and what we can do about it.

Dr. King wrote the intro to this series of speeches and letters, and I actually liked that introduction better than I like the Dream speech. It has more substance. When you get this book, for heaven’s sake, don’t skip the introduction. In fact, the book is worth having just for the introduction.

Because it is a collection rather than a memoir, it isn’t linear. The opening text is a short overview of his own life, and so when we come to the second piece in the book, the reader steps backwards in time. Although it’s harsh and hard to read in some places because of the writer’s capacity to convey the pain that he and other Black folk have endured so that everyone can at least taste it for a moment, there is more to it than that. This volume is singularly useful, because in addition to laying America’s problem out bare and plain, DuBois has concrete recommendations for change. They are radical, but then we’ve seen what band-aid measures and the electoral process has done for Black folk, and anyone that regards the matter with any degree of seriousness has to recognize that what’s happened so far is a train wreck, primarily for African-Americans and other people of color, but also for all Americans, because those of us that have lived here for our entire lives have been denied the capacity to find out what it’s like to live without racism.

Is that asking too much?

DuBois became a deeply political individual, a Marxist that founded the NAACP, and eventually left that same organization because of political disagreement. He provides a thorough explanation of his experiences and reasoning. When he presents the problem as an economic one, it provides a path forward, and although he is gone now, it isn’t too late for the rest of us to climb on board, if we care deeply enough to do so.

DuBois’s speeches and letters reflect the progress of his thinking, and so some of what he says toward the end is very different from the ideas set forth earlier. It’s a good idea to read it in order, even though it’s a collection, because then the reader can see his personal and political evolution. I don’t think there has ever been anyone more articulate, more brilliant as a writer and speaker, than DuBois.

If you agree that the USA needs big change in order to end the institutions and practices that have created second-class citizenship for African-Americans, and if you want to see justice done for the families of all the men, women, and children that have lost their lives at the hands of racist cops and vigilantes even during the tenure of America’s first Black president, then you ought to get this book. It’s radical, but maybe it’s time to consider radical measures. Because the government and the elected officials that run it won’t correct this problem for us. We can’t leave it in the hands of others; we have to do this ourselves.

And DuBois explains it better than anyone else.

Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, by David J. Garrow *****

protestatselmaThis newly released digital version of Garrow’s outstanding, comprehensive recounting and analysis of the famous Selma demonstrations carried out by Martin Luther King Junior, other civil rights leaders, along with masses of African-American civil rights activists could not be more timely. In 2013, the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 after a lot of effort and sacrifice was gutted. The US criminal “justice” system has drawn the eyes of the world, and they aren’t friendly eyes. Thank you, and thank you once more to Net Galley and Open Road Media for making the DRC available for me to read, and for publishing this excellent book digitally for you to access also.
Please be aware that this is not a popular biography of the struggle, but a scholarly one, and will be most appreciated by those who, like your reviewer, have a strong interest in the topic, or who are doing research. In that spirit, I encourage those who also read it to access the endnotes. Garrow has some really interesting remarks, and his references and cross-references will make any researcher bow in awe.
Many people don’t know that Dr. King entered the struggle as a civil rights novice, newly out of graduate school and just 26 years old. (Open Road has also just released the digital version of Garrow’s Pulitzer-winning biography, which I have also reviewed.) Initially his hope was to shame segregationists into integrating schools and providing equal services to Black Southerners. The failure of the movement to make any in-roads in Albany, Georgia convinced King and other leaders that this method would not work. Instead, the eyes of the nation must be made to witness the injustices being meted out in Dixie. For the media, both print and television, a relatively recent mass media source, to pick up events there, they needed to demonstrate in a nonviolent fashion, not back down, and do so in a place where a nasty, violent response on the part of Caucasian cops could be counted upon. In other words, no change could take place without confronting Black America’s worst nightmares head on and intentionally.
Birmingham was the first place this was attempted. Bull Connor was known for gratuitous violence, and the footage of some really ugly aggression, especially the widely-circulated photo of the cop holding an unarmed demonstrator in place while siccing a huge German Shepherd on him, prodded the consciences of Caucasian viewers in the North. (Many Northerners of color were already funding the movement; musician Harry Mancini was one important fundraiser.)
But the attempt of Birmingham demonstrators to effect change was limited. Although it drew international attention, the Kennedy administration seemed more intent on finding ways to shut King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference down than they were on creating adherence to Federal laws that gave Black folks equality.
Garrow reminds us (or informs us, depending on the reader’s age) that in the late 1960’s, one in three white Americans polled said they would not want to sit next to a Black person on a train or bus, and similar figures also showed that they didn’t want African-Americans living near them, at their kids’ schools, or even trying on the same outfits in department stores that they themselves might later try on.
Young people that are tired of hearing the Dream speech and watching Eyes on the Prize footage (for which Garrow also receives a portion of the credit) don’t seem to understand exactly how brave these people were. My own father told me, when I asked about the footage on television, that the policemen on the evening news were just doing their jobs. He shook with rage as he pointed at the screen and told me, “These people are breaking the law!” I was six years old at the time.
So some people up North needed to either change their minds, or be so repelled by the violence being done to innocent people who obviously wanted something reasonable that they would insist that the right thing be done. And although the movement never did change my father, it changed the thinking of a lot of people.
Birmingham failed to do the job for two reasons, says Garrow . First, they were not able to maintain a completely nonviolent atmosphere on the part of the Black participants. While demonstrators were nonviolent, thousands of African-Americans, some of whom dared not demonstrate actively lest they lose their jobs, became enraged at the maltreatment of the demonstrators; some threw pieces of bricks, concrete, and bottles at the cops from the sidelines.
When I think about this, it doesn’t seem like an even contest to me. Swarms of cops in riot gear; huge attack dogs; fire hoses; lethal weaponry of just about everything except tanks and missiles were accessed by the cops. And a few locals pitched a few bottles. Big damn deal.
But media loves to try to portray both sides of an issue, however uneven they may be. My own years spent participating in, organizing, and sometimes leading demonstrations taught me that if one demonstrator or supposed supporter shows aggression and can gain the media’s attention, the demonstration will magically turn into a “riot” on the news the next day. Or a “conflict”. We can find synonyms all day long, but you get the picture. When there are ten thousand peaceful demonstrators and ten people that break windows, the evening news will give as much time, or more, to the window breakers as the ten thousand. If a member of the lunatic fringe shows up with a forty-foot bloody cross, they’ll goddamn interview the nut and the demonstration’s goals may not get any time at all.
But the people that trained me in struggle were largely educated by their own participation in the Civil Rights movement. The methods of the Civil Rights movement would become valuable lessons for those that led the movement against the Vietnam War. The SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and other organizations that led this movement had to invent most of it, or at least Americanize it; many of the basic tenets were borrowed from Gandhi when he led the movement to kick Britain out of India.
So, there were a few folks that were not strictly nonviolent in Birmingham; the other problem, says Garrow, is that there was no one, clear goal in Birmingham. So much was so wrong that they went in with a laundry list. When it got into the news, it seemed muddy. Those who loved justice could see what was wrong; but every struggle needs a single, clear demand in order to start those waters of justice rolling. In Birmingham, it wasn’t plain what they were there to do.
Selma was the tipping point. All those lessons came into play. The single goal, one that the Democratic administration had pledged (privately of course) to support, was for Black folks to be able to walk into the courthouse and register to vote. No literacy tests; no poll fees; no goddamn alley entrance for people of color. Just walk through the front door; register; and vote.
This time discipline was perfect; the marchers were absolutely, completely nonviolent. Sheriff Clark, the mad dog that the movement sought to bring out of his ugly hole snarling and swinging, did not disappoint. People were sent to the hospital, and a Caucasian clergyman who answered Dr. King’s call to come support the Civil Rights of Southern Blacks was killed by the cops. This time it was clear what the goal was, clear who was wrong and who was right. And the telegrams (an ancient technology since replaced by e-mail) rolled into the Capitol.
Black intelligentsia and working class, I; crazy Southern Bubbas, 0.
President Lyndon Johnson was a crafty old bastard, a politician who knew what side his bread was buttered on. At first he too sought to shut the whole thing down, get people out of the streets and home to their own hearths. But when events unfolded and it became clear that a sea change was occurring, he got on television and gave the best damn speech possibly since the days of Lincoln. Garrow reprints the entire masterpiece. It was viewed by seventy million Americans.
If you are still with me—and my five star reviews are almost never brief—then you may also have sufficient interest to read Garrow’s history of the movement and particularly of Selma, Alabama and the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. His research is impeccable, his organization easy to follow (or to access a portion of, for those doing research of their own), and his narrative is really compelling.
Once you are done, I hope you will give some time and attention to the new Civil Rights Movement unfolding before us right now. It’s everyone’s job to be sure everyone can vote. And until African-American men and teenagers can drive, walk, and work without harassment or violence from cops and vigilantes, #ICAN’TBREATHE.