Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom

Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom

Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom

Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom

Synopsis

Focusing attention on the political ideas that were influential as well as those that were central to the civil rights movement, this pathbreaking book examines not only written texts but also oral history interviews to establish a rich tradition of freedom that emerged from the movement. He also makes clear that, though liberal notions of freedom involving the absence of restrictions and equal protections were crucial to movement goals, the movement was as much about individual and collective self-transformation and political participation as it was about removal of barriers to social and political equality. Along the way figures such as Martin Luther King and Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael and James Forman, and political thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon are discussed and analyzed. Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom concludes that the civil rights movement helped revitalize the meaning of citizenship and the political importance of self-respect in the contemporary world with implications reaching beyond its original setting.

Excerpt

Remembering the origins of a book is about as difficult as recapturing those early experiences that shape our lives. Indeed, Freud suggested that the crucial memories of our early years, even and especially those that seem clearest and most authentic, are often composites of fantasy and experience that never happened the way they reveal themselves to us in memory. They are what he called screen memories (Deckerinnerungen). Furthermore, the degree of their distortion is proportional to the conflicted nature of the memory in question.

At any rate I have two memories which help explain why this book eventually came to be written. The first concerns a meeting I attended in Jackson, Tennessee, in the summer of 1965. I was teaching summer school at Lane College but had also spent some time under the wise and shrewd guidance of the college treasurer and local civil rights activist, Albert Porter. He took me to several black churches in nearby Haywood and Fayette counties where we helped set up a couple of "freedom schools." I was from East Tennessee and the flat, swampy part of the state might as well have been another country. It seemed (and was) like the Mississippi Delta, a place name filled with mysterious and frightening resonances even for a white Southerner.

It was in this strange yet also somehow familiar background that I attended a meeting with Mr. Porter. As I remember it, the meeting was held in a recreation center in the black section of Jackson and its purpose was to organize the local group that would apply for funds from President Johnson's War on Poverty. There was nothing worldhistorical at work here exactly; still, the reason why that meeting lodged in my memory, and was in fact quite vivid and moving at the time, was that I observed how a group of people, in this case black Southerners, for the first time confronted the "fact" that they were a group who had a choice. They could organize themselves, elect officers, then debate what their community needed and apply for . . .

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