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.

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.

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.

Live From Death Row, by Mumia Abu-Jamal*****

livefromdeathrowMumia is a former Black Panther. The facts support his having been framed in the murder of the cop, a crime for which he was nearly executed.

Live from Death Row, written before his sentence was commuted, is not, however, a vehicle he uses to advocate for himself or plead his own case to the public. He has written other books I haven’t read, and I don’t know if he did that there.

Instead, here he uses his own situation to discuss the racism inherent both in the U.S. court system; he also talks about racism on death row.

The mandatory fresh-air time, prized and treasured by men who rarely see the clear blue sky, is an Apartheid one, at least in Supermax, RHU,SMU, and SHU (ultimate maximum security prisons, which he says have swelled since jailhouse overcrowding has made prisons tenser places and more people are tossed into “the hole”). The vast majority of prisoners are Black, though they are a minority of the population at large, and in the Pennsylvania prison he describes, 80% of those maximum security cases, those who wear Black skin, are crowded into a courtyard. They can’t see green grass or the outdoors, only four brick walls and way up there, blue sky. Why? And where are the other prisoners going?

The other prisoners (who are also maximum security) who are not Black have a SEPARATE courtyard, which is surrounded by chain=link fencing with razor-wire, but has the view. The 20% have the perk of a much less crowded space and the capacity to see Mother Earth during their treasured time outside prison walls.

As to the racist system that places Blacks on death row at such a startlingly high rate, he offers the following statistics and footnotes all of them like the scholar he was before being incarcerated, and continues to be behind prison walls. He uses a Georgia case because it is one which caused the Supreme Court to recognize the following facts:

*defendants charged w killing Caucasian victims are 4.3 times as likely to be sent to death row as those charged w/killing Blacks;

*the race of the victim determines whether or not a death penalty is returned;

*nearly 6 of 11 defendants who received the death penalty for killing Caucasians would not have received the death penalty if their victims had been Black;

*20 of every 34 defendants sentenced to death would not have been given the death sentence if their victims had not been Caucasian.

He continues to pound one damning fact upon another, and cites court cases to back them up; those above come from McClesky vs. Kemp (1987). If the case sounds old, I would argue that precedents are set by very old cases indeed, and of course, this book was published early into the 2000 decade. I doubt a more recent gathering of data would return more favorable information; in the case of jail overcrowding, I suspect the recession has made it worse.

A person would have to be hiding under a rock or in a coma not to be aware of the level of violence visited upon African-Americans by cops and vigilantes within the past year.

I applaud Mumia for using his well-known case to set the facts before us, rather than trying to build momentum to save himself. There was a considerable amount of public pressure NOT to execute him, and I do think that had to do with his sentence being commuted; as it was, my kids’ urban U.S. high school was “barely holding together”, according to a counselor I knew there, the day that Mumia’s case was turned away by the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you are interested in reading about social justice issues, this relatively slender volume holds an astounding amount of really critical information. I appreciate Mumia’s relentless effort to make the public, both in the US and internationally, aware of the atrocities that continue to visit Black prisoners in the USA, and it’s more relevant now than ever!

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.

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, by David J. Garrow *****

bearingthecrossThis comprehensive, scholarly yet accessible biography of Dr. King has already won the Pulitzer. Neither Net Galley nor Open Road Integrated Media really needs a review from me. Yet, because it is only now being released digitally, I saw the opportunity to read it free, and I leapt up hungrily and grabbed it while I could. But if you have to pay to read it, I will tell you right now, you will get your money’s worth and more.
The crossing of that bridge in Selma, Alabama was 50 years ago. You don’t need me to tell you that racist cops are still a problem throughout the USA, but the institutionalized American apartheid that was Jim Crow throughout Dixie is dead and gone. Much remains to be done, but what was accomplished by Dr. King and hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, along with other people of color and a handful of progressive white folks, is very much worth celebrating.
For many years I have wanted to read more of Dr. King’s speeches. School children are sick to death of the Dream speech, however brilliant and visionary it was at the time. It’s been used so often that it’s almost like the Pledge of Allegiance, tired and recited without a lot of meaning or enthusiasm by those too young to recall how radical the Civil Rights activists were considered back then. Garrow draws heavily from King’s speeches and letters here, and I was once more electrified to see what an eloquent person he was.
As Garrow explains, Dr. King did not set out to be a leader of anything except a good-sized church. He saw his entry into the theological world as that of a social activist, certainly; he received his BA in sociology, not religion or philosophy. But he had initially perceived his leadership role as that of mentor and guide to the congregation of a Black church in the American south. That was all he expected to become. When Rosa Parks was arrested for failing to yield her seat at the back of the Birmingham bus, demonstrations began to burgeon, and E.D. Nixon, a leader in the struggle, called upon King to speak at a key rally. After that, events unfolded and he found himself at the helm of a movement that was larger than any one person, but it needed a leader, and he was that man.
He was just twenty-six years old.
King quickly learned that in order to effect change, he had to gain the sympathy and agreement of a large segment of the American public, and at the time, that public was overwhelmingly Caucasian. Black folks were less than fifteen percent of the population, so they would need allies. In order to gain allies, he needed the media, particularly the big-city newspapers and television stations of the north. And in order to grab those headlines, show up on the evening news, he had to expose ugly, brutal repression. Because attempting to gain integrated facilities in a southern locale where he and his fellow activists would merely be cold-shouldered was just not newsworthy. Smart southern sheriffs who adapted the strategy of not hauling away those who sat illegally at lunch counters or entered stores through the whites-only entrance, but merely telling the proprietors to leave them there but not serve them and eventually they’d go away, were wicked but smart. The media would leave, disappointed to have traveled all that way without bloodshed or arrests, and the practice of segregation would continue, legal or not.
So in order to get the national news coverage that the Civil Rights movement had to have in order to turn the tide of public opinion, King had to lead people right into the teeth of the buzz saw, over and over and over again. Where’s Bull Connor? Let’s go there! Where is the Klan the ugliest, nastiest, most brutal? Put that place at the top of the list! And over the course of time, Americans saw it on the evening news, on the front page, and they responded.
The death threats piled up. Were it not so horrifying, it would be funny to note the number of times a vehicle blew up, a building was hit by a Molotov cocktail, shots were fired just where a moment ago Dr. King had been sitting, standing, talking, sleeping. He spoke to his wife and associates often about death, because he knew he could not get out of this movement alive, nor could he abandon it.
He had never, ever led anything before, apart from being student body president at his small college. Now he was thrust into the ultimate position of leadership. The activists who were already involved in struggle needed a minister, because a minister was a peaceful person, above reproach morally. They needed someone handsome, someone inspirational, a man that could speak eloquently. And Martin King, as he was then known (his father being “Daddy King”) was their man.
Years later, exhausted, suffering from clinical depression, King considered looking for a successor. Surely one person should not remain at the helm indefinitely. Perhaps he could, after all, lead a normal life, go home to Coretta, who was pissed at him for always being gone and not including her in his activities, and become a full time pastor at his church once more.
Then he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and although he was overjoyed at the honor, in another way, it weighed heavily upon him, because it was clear that now, he was the symbol. He was in it for keeps. The eyes of the entire world had likened him to the struggle against racism.
There was a lot of money attached to that prize, too. King was determined to donate all of the proceeds to the movement. Coretta asked if they couldn’t just take a small piece off for the children’s college funds? Nope. He didn’t even want to own a house, didn’t want anyone to charge that he was living larger than the average Black man in the American South. He was determined to live in the same kind of house, in the same neighborhoods that everyone else lived in. Eventually he agreed to buy a small brick house in an African-American section of Atlanta, but he worried that even that was too much. Others saw it and were surprised by how small, how humble it was. But King was concerned lest he place himself above others in struggle.
Later, he would ignore the advice of others in the movement when they told him to back off his opposition to the Vietnam War. It was a principled stand, and it cost him his support from the Johnson administration. He saw it as a key part of antiracist work; the US war against the people of Vietnam, the constant bombing, was related to race, and he saw it and said so.
The biography, which is carefully documented and also has a complete index, chronicles his most glorious triumphs, and also his struggles. Depression laid him really low, and nobody had any Prozac back then. I found myself wondering whether “hospitalized due to exhaustion” simply meant that his depression had got the better of him, and he had gone to bed and was unable to get up. I’ve been close to depressive folks, and I have seen it happen. It’s almost as if they are weighted to the bed. And again I find myself thinking what a young age he was, so very inexperienced, to be saddled with this enormous task.
There were other struggles as well. The FBI wired everything, everywhere he went. They documented his affairs so that they could blackmail him with them. Oh minister who is above reproach, look what we’ve got on you! And back then, that was a real thing. It would have created a scandal. King told one of his closest associates that he lived out of a suitcase for 25-27 days out of the month, and that sex relieved tension. And in 2015, the public, even probably many churchgoers, would see it and nod. His marriage was very tense, but Coretta was careful to present a staunchly supportive front, because there had to be unity in order to keep the focus on ending institutionalized racism. But in 1965, a prominent minister with women-on-the-side might well have been shunned by his own people, no matter how many times he stood at the pulpit and proclaimed himself a sinner.
Politically he foundered at times as well. During the struggle to end Jim Crow, primarily from 1955-1963, the crowds were there, overwhelmingly African-American of course, and they were ready to do what it took. They would march with or without him, but to prevent agents provocateur from turning peaceful marches to riots, King’s staunchly nonviolent leadership was key.
But what if the courts told King he could not march? Should he go, or should he stay? He waffled. He wasn’t sure. What was at the root of racism? He was sure it was the profit motive, and repeatedly stated, later in his career, that there needed to be a radical restructuring of the country’s wealth. But to foment an armed revolution was beyond him, and he was stuck in the rut of calling for mass civil disobedience.
At this point in my review I will break away from King’s story for a moment and speak of my own experience as an activist for various causes. I organized a lot of marches, carried a lot of bullhorns, and I will tell you this one thing: masses of people will not usually commit civil disobedience. When the march is over, the marchers don’t need a police record. When it’s time to wake up and go to work, they can’t be in a jail cell. They may have people depending on them, or they may just not want to go through the prison system, and who can blame them? Frankly, I wouldn’t either. I sometimes worked with people that wanted to participate in civil disobedience, but that whole thing had to be kept clear and separate from the rest of the march. The crowd needed to know when it was time to go home if they didn’t want to face arrest. And Dr. King did not understand this. You can have mass marches and mass rallies if you build them and promote them well enough. Or you can have a few people commit civil disobedience. But the one thing he wanted, later in his career while trying to end racism in Chicago, in Cleveland, in Detroit, and that in most situations you just cannot have, is massive civil disobedience.
So toward the end of his career as well as the end of his life, King was trying to put together a march on Washington, DC in which the participants would put up tents on the lawns of the capitol, sit in the Attorney General’s office and refuse to leave, until…and there, the list of demands was ever-changing. This was never going to happen, and he was frustrated by the lack of support he received from others in the movement when it came down to this plan.
If you are unfamiliar with the various organizations and individuals within the Civil Rights movement, you may have difficulty keeping up with the names and the acronyms. I had no trouble, but I also came to the book with the basics under my belt. The most famous organization, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was fiercely jealous of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). They saw it as divisive to have more than one civil rights-based organization. They also saw it as a threat to their dues base. Everything possible was done to keep these backroom skirmishes out of the public eye and present a solid front, but sometimes word leaked out. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was the group that brought the lunch counter sitters and the Freedom Riders. They were bitter, and at times rightfully so, because they went out on a limb and did things that SCLC promised to reimburse and then failed to do so. When the big collection was taken at one march or another, they expected their gas money back, and money for car repairs. They’d gone into this with little other than the shirts on their backs, and when the money promised them never arrived, they were pissed. They also never forgave King for refusing to go on the Freedom Rides with them.
But when all is said and done, King did the very best, if not better, than any man in his circumstances could be expected to do. He knew it would cost him his life, and he did it anyway. Without his leadership, what would have happened? History always marches forward, never backward, but things might have played out very differently. A lot more people might’ve gotten dead trying to achieve the same objective.
For those seeking the definitive biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, look no further. This excellent, Pulitzer winning work deserves a place of pride in everyone’s library.

Book review One Mississippi Two Mississippi: Methodists, Murder, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in Neshoba County by Carol VR George ***-****

onemississippi I was drawn to this title because it deals with the Civil Rights movement. Fifty years have gone by since the pivotal events of that time, and now, as a second movement unfolds in response to the disproportionate jailing of African-Americans and out-of-control cop violence, it seemed like a good choice. I have no particular interest in Mississippi as opposed to any other part of the USA, and absolutely no interest in the Methodist church, but I was willing to slog through the various ins and outs of church history in order to find the nuggets that were salient to the political struggle. Thank you to Net Galley and Oxford University Press for the DRC. I’ve rated this book, which reads as if it was perhaps someone’s thesis at some point, a 3.5 for general interest levels, but for those with a particular interest in Methodist history or the history of Mississippi, I suspect it would rate five stars.
Methodists take great pride in having participated in the Underground Railroad prior to the American Civil War, and George takes the church to task for having failed so miserably in upholding this standard following Reconstruction. As Jim Crow laws became the rule of the south, Caucasian Methodists in Mississippi closed their doors to African-American worshippers, and the central church administration, after a certain amount of struggle, folded like a card table. Separate churches became the law of the land. Only in recent years has this changed, and even then, change has been slow.
Neshoba County is of particular interest to Civil Rights scholars because it is there that the Freedom Riders, in addition to countless local black voters that opened their homes to Civil Rights activists and helped run the Freedom School, were murdered by the Klan and the cops; it was opened in the (black) Longsdale Methodist church to assist black voters in running the gauntlet of red tape and assorted obstacles through which its citizens had to pass in order to use the power of the ballot. In contrast to Longsdale, the Neshoba County town of Philadelphia is overwhelmingly Caucasian, and its vicious racism, along with that of most of white Mississippi, was a tough nut to crack. There has been progress made, but much work yet to be done.
I was aghast to see that 96 percent of white Mississippians supported the continuation of Jim Crow laws, and it was because of their conspiracy to keep the Old South in entirely white hands that it was nearly impossible to bring the killers of the Civil Rights workers to justice. Only recently have its residents been open to change. The Choctaw Indians opened a casino in the area and in doing so created more jobs, and therefore more turnover in those that reside in Neshoba County, and this is partially responsible for recent progress.
Should you go out and spend money on the hard cover book? I guess this depends upon how deep your pockets are, and whether or not you are interested in the history of Mississippi and of Methodism. I am glad I read it, although the recently re-released biography of Dr. King is unquestionably the definitive story of the Civil Rights movement. Still, for those that have the time and interest to read more than one book on the topic, and I hope you do, you could do much worse than to read this interesting study. I’m glad I did.