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Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom

By William H. Chafe | Go to book overview

Introduction

"The problem of the twentieth century," W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1903, "is the problem of the color line." This book began because I wanted to know more about how that color line operated, what kept it in place, and how the challenge to it evolved to the point of open rebellion during the years of the civil rights movement. In the largest sense, I hoped to probe the dialectic of social control and social change on the issue of race. What patterns of accommodation and paternalism had to be broken before change could occur? Which forces paved the way for protest? What triggered the immediate decision to sit-in or march? How did family, church, and school influence the people's response to civil rights? Who led the forces of resistance? Were "red- necks" the problem? And if not, who was?

Much of the existing literature on civil rights fails to answer these questions. 1 Journalists have described flash points of conflict such as Selma and Birmingham. Public opinion analysts have measured popular attitudes toward race. And scholars have traced the history of civil rights organizations, the impact of federal legislation, and the significance of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet most of these studies have been written from a national perspective, distant from the day-to-day life of the local people most affected by the movement. Some historians have even suggested that presidential actions--hundreds of miles away from civil rights demonstrations--were responsible for initiating the challenge to American racism. While all these studies contribute to our understanding, very few have examined the story of social change from the point of view of people in local communities, where the struggle for civil rights was a continuing reality, year in and year out.

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