Book chronicles courage, rage that drove civil rights movement
Special to The Seattle Times
The immediate rationale for publishing "Reporting Civil Rights," Library of America's massive two-volume collection of eyewitness journalistic accounts and in-depth magazine articles on the civil-rights struggle from 1941 to 1973, is to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Appropriately, some of the articles upend our warm, hazy view of that day.
True, E.W. Kenworthy of The New York Times wrote that the demonstration had "an air of hootenanny about it"; but Russell Baker reminds us that by the time Dr. King spoke, "huge portions of the crowd had drifted out of earshot," while civil-rights worker Michael Thelwell details how the Kennedy administration hijacked the march's original intent — a one-day sit-in to "completely immobilize the Congress" — and turned it into something "too sweet, too contrived, and its spirit too amiable to represent anything of the bitterness that had brought the people there."
Bitterness? The March on Washington? Indeed. In Marlene Nadle's Village Voice article, in which a busload of New Yorkers ride to the march, a white Peace Corps volunteer talks, with perhaps too much paternalism, about why he wants to help Nigeria. Suddenly a black activist shouts, "If this thing comes to violence, yours will be the first throat we slit. We don't need your kind. Get out of our organization."
Nadle's is the first article in the second volume and our first clue (excluding James Baldwin's essays) of the black rage which would boil over two years later in Watts. One year after that, the anger would erupt in chants of "Black Power!" during the march to protest the wounding by shotgun of James Meredith, a student trying to integrate the University of Mississippi. It's a rage that would effectively end white middle-class support for the movement, and thus the movement itself. Even at its pinnacle, in other words, the seed of the movement's destruction was blooming.
The collection begins in 1941 with the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, calling for a "March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense," and includes expected stops in Montgomery, Little Rock, Greensboro, Oxford, Birmingham, Selma and Philadelphia, Miss.
More fascinating are the forgotten battles: Ruth Powell, a student in North Carolina, practiced what was called "the stool-sitting technique" to confront segregationist lunch counters in 1942, while Bayard Rustin organized "Freedom Rides" in 1947.
Anyone remember the white mobs of Cicero, Ill., who virtually destroyed an apartment complex when a black man attempted to move his family there in 1951? What about the Tallahassee bus boycott of 1956, or school-integration battles in Sturgis, Ky., and Clinton, Tenn.? Time and again we're confronted with the harsh, insane face of racism. Typical is a White Citizens Council handbill passed out during the Montgomery bus boycott: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all whites are created equal with certain rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers."
This is history before it's history — permeated by a journalistic objectivity which (straining or not, ironic or not) shows both sides of the issue. The collection includes an excellent series by Carl Rowan, who wrote for The Minneapolis Tribune in late 1953 on the impending Supreme Court decision on segregation and what it might mean in places like Topeka, Kan., and Hockessin, Del., where the Rev. Martin Luther Kilson (yes), a black pastor, makes the case for segregation. "They don't want to be mixed up with no white folks," he says of his flock.
As the movement moved to the center of American life, though, journalistic objectivity moved with it. The moral issue was simply too stark, and segregationist logic too twisted. By June 1963, even The New York Times was referring to the White Citizens Council as "a racist organization," and one of the stories became the battle within the movement — among the various strategies of the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, CORE and the Urban League.
Are there problems with this collection? Minor ones, mostly. The editors include nothing on President Truman desegregating the military or Hubert Humphrey's civil-rights speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention. The biographies of each writer are presented at the end of each collection rather than at the beginning of each article, where they would be handier to read. And the pro-segregationist newspapers are hardly represented. But "Reporting Civil Rights" has so much original source material that anyone interested in American history should own it.
Since each volume is nearly 1,000 pages, most readers will, I assume, cherry-pick such famous authors as Ralph Ellison, John Steinbeck, Alice Walker, John Hershey and Joan Didion and ignore names like Claude Sitton, Jack Nelson, Dan Wakefield, Ted Poston and Pat Watters. A mistake. There's also something to be said for reading the collection straight through. There's a tragic grandeur in its arc, with horror on every other page, and hope on the pages that don't contain horror, and even a sad kind of comedy at the end.
The leaders are dead (Medgar, Malcolm, Martin) or ousted (SNCC's John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman), and togetherness has been replaced by animosity and apathy. Meanwhile the South finally proceeded to integrate its schools — to little notice. "We see on television that the Negro militants say integration doesn't matter anymore," one perplexed white Mississippian told Willie Morris. "Does it or doesn't it? We're acting on the assumption down here that it does. We're trying to believe in it."
Erik Lundegaard writes book and movie reviews for The Seattle Times.