Drafting History of America's Second Revolution: Civil Rights

Article excerpt


Journalism is often characterized as a rough draft of history - sending signals (if not always sure ones) of what issues in a given era will likely have resonance for coming generations of scholars. Now comes a draft of the history of what has been called the Second American Revolution: the modern Civil Rights Movement that occupied much of the last half of the 20th century.

In two Library of America volumes of essays, columns, speeches, and news articles, "Reporting Civil Rights, Part One: American Journalism 1941-1963" and "Reporting Civil Rights, Part Two: American Journalism 1963-1973" the books chronicle America's journey from a land where blacks were second class citizens by law to a country transformed by the obliteration of de jure segregation.

This massive (and masterful) work - almost two thousand pages - edited by Clayborne Carson and others, provides fascinating eyewitness accounts of the Civil Rights Movement unfiltered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight.

Of course, historians and other commentators have already begun to assess the meaning of the Civil Rights - even as those meanings keep unfolding. A basic outline of the story has emerged, centering largely on iconic persons, moments and images: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, (the "anti-King," Malcolm X), Brown v. Board of Education, and the March on Washington. American school children learn of Ms. Parks' defiance and the young people who integrated Southern schools. Dr. King's birthday is a national holiday, and the March on Washington has become the gold standard of citizen activism.

Even Malcolm X has his own postage stamp. The Movement that emerges from these treatments seems far less radical than it actually was. "Reporting Civil Rights" reminds us of the very contingent nature of the struggle, and what was up for grabs as the Movement progressed.

What was most obviously up for grabs was the question of what it means to be an American citizen. The first volume of these two gives a clear picture of blacks' devalued status. Although racism - casual and virulent - existed throughout the country, in these pages, the South emerges as the "sick man" of American society.

Slights to blacks' honor, from the petty to the enormously grotesque, were a daily feature of Southern life. Nothing could compete with grotesquerie of the murder of Emmett Till - this was the South at its worst, the logical conclusion of aggressive white supremacy - and the articles devoted to this story adequately convey this.

But illuminating messages are found not just in the reports of outright depravity. The ordinary customs of the time were soul killing in "smaller" ways. Consider Hodding Carter's article "Mrs. Means Married Woman," a meditation on how in the early 1950s his newspaper, the Delta Democrat Times, came to refer to married black women as "Mrs.", just as married white women were. Mr. Carter was roundly criticized by whites, and applauded by blacks. Think of the states of mind of the whites who felt diminished by having this honorific applied to a black woman, and think of the blacks who lived at the mercy of such sensibilities.

Only a few individuals could participate in the Emmett Till lynching, the bigotry that denied the equal dignity of black family life was shared by a wide range of people with far reaching consequences.

Interspersed with the writings of workaday, and now less well known journalists, are the works of people who have gone on to great fame, and writings that have become classics. Langston Hughes, Carl Rowan, Murray Kempton, Robert Penn Warren, Hunter S. Thompson!, Garry Wills, Joan Didion, Tom Wicker, Jimmy Breslin, Renata Adler, and James Baldwin give their takes on these pivotal moments in American history.

Baldwin seems particularly to have been in his element, and it is hard to re-read his work without concluding that there is no one quite like him writing today, and we are all the poorer for that. …