The Movement: History from the Bottom Up

Article excerpt

The Movement: History From The Bottom Up.

These three excellent books represent a developing and welcome trend in civil rights historiography.

Previous histories have described the modern-day 20th-century civil rights movement from the top down -- as a story whose main characters are Martin Luther King, Jr., and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Most have also described the development of the movement within a restricted time line -- from the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education and the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott that introduced King and his espousal of nonviolent resistance to the passage of important civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965.

Under that time-bound restriction, the movement began suddenly out of nowhere in the middle 1950s; by the middle 1960s it had triumphed. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King and the active cooperation of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, segregation had been vanquished. The battle had been won.

In their books, Adam Fairclough, John Dittmer and Charles Payne expand that narrow time-line and enlarge the cast of characters to give readers a bottom-up view of a movement which began far earlier than the middle 1950s. They place the federal government in perspective as an always reluctant participant, usually siding with segregationists and eager to avoid politically dangerous associations with Blacks.

In these books, the civil rights movement is rich in personalities, most of them sadly unknown to history.

All three authors also represent the growing genre of community studies -- Fairclough and Dittmer closely examine the civil rights movement in the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, respectively, and Payne focuses his scholarly microscope on the Mississippi community of Greenwood.

All demonstrate convincingly that organized opposition to white supremacy in southern Black communities stretches far back through time. Each shows how early organizing, rather than protests alone, created a base for later movement activity and each convincingly illustrates the importance of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

But the NAACP isn't the only organization fighting discrimination and harsh treatment in these narratives; voters' leagues formed by returning servicemen after World War II, little-known organizations like Louisiana's League for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights and the People's Defense League, New Deal agencies like the Farm Security Administration, the Black press -- these and many others are all part of the tale these authors tell.

Fairclough traces civil rights activity in the Pelican state from the founding of the New Orleans Branch of the NAACP in 1915 to 1972, and concludes with a look at present day Louisiana and an examination of the emergence of Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.

His story, while focused on Louisiana, does not neglect larger currents that influence events in the state -- world wars, the Depression, anti-Communist witch hunts, and the cry for Black Power.

Fairclough's NAACP is situated in a network of Black institutions including fraternal groups, businesses, professional associations, and labor unions.

Nor does he neglect to highlight the central role played by now-forgotten heroes and heroines of the early twentieth century -- New Orleans Attorney A.P. Tureaud; the integrated Southern Conference for Human Welfare; federal judges J. Skelly Wright and John Minor Wisdom and many, many others. He reminds us that Louisiana Blacks faced a white opposition as brutal, fierce and unyielding as did their Alabama and Mississippi counterparts.

Dittmer's aptly titled "Local People" is just that; the story of how Black Mississippians, against impossible odds, struggled from the end of World War II through the more celebrated modern movement of the 1960s.

His story, too, is filled with brave and unknown warriors, women and men, who dared to challenge racism in the nation's most resistant state, persevering over decades of quiet battles against rampant terror, and the villains who resisted them with lynch mob justice and sophisticated political back stabbing. …