Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movements

By Roefs, Wim | Journalism History, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movements


Roefs, Wim, Journalism History


Polsgrove, Carol. Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001. 296 pp. $26.95.

Carol Polsgrove tells a compelling story of how several dozen intellectuals responded in the 1950s and 1960s to African-American demands for immediate racial equality and the South's often violent resistance to it. Most liberal white intellectuals, she suggests, ended up supporting a "gradual" approach to Civil Rights and, as such, skirted their political responsibility.

Polsgrove writes well. Using private correspondence, interviews, and writings by and about her main characters, she moves the narrative along briskly. She tells of cautious white novelists, historians, and editors and of courageous black and white historians at Southern universities suffering repercussions for their writings and activism. She writes of black intellectuals who, disgusted or red-baited or both, took off to Africa and Europe. And she tells of others who stayed but were not any less frustrated with white liberals and the federal government emphasizing patience.

Polsgrove's parade includes historians Lawrence Reddick, C. Vans Woodward, James Silver, John Hope Franklin, and Howard Zinn. It also contains literary figures such as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Robert Penn Warren, Lillian Smith, and William Faulkner. Among the editors and critics are Irving Howe and Norman Podhoretz. There's theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, philosopher Hannah Arendt, psychologist Kenneth Clark, and psychiatrist Robert Coles. And there's James Baldwin, lots of James Baldwin. Carrying their articles were general-interest magazines, such as Life and the Saturday Evening Post, and high-- brow ones, such as The Nation, The New Republic, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, Commentary, The New Leader, Reporter, Dissent, and The Antoch Review. The gradualism of many white intellectuals dominated many publications, and Polsgrove's criticism extends to them.

Despite her interesting, and often insightful, narratives, the book has drawbacks. …

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