`Get a Negro to Drive It': the Civil Rights Movement Since Brown v. Board of Education
More than two decades ago, Robert Penn Warren, no stranger to the South's customs, and eccentricities, sought to determine Who Speaks for the Negro? Published in 1965, this collection of interviews led the author to conclude that "an enormous variety of attitudes and policies"(2) characterized the African American community. "We do not realize that there is, in one sense, no Negro leader. There are, merely, a number of Negroes who happen to occupy positions of leadership"(3) Similarly, the books discussed in this essay demonstrate the evolution of this issue from the question of who speaks for the race, to whose perspective on the history of the civil rights movement will become the dominant view?
For a long time, African Americans have been concerned about who speaks for them. In 1827, John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, the editors of Freedom's Journal stated "We wish to plead our own cause."(4)
Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick (sic) been deceived by mis-representations, in things which concern us dearly, though in the estimation of some mere trifles; for though there are many in society who exercise towards us benevolent feelings; still (with sorrow we confess it) there are others who make it their business to enlarge Upon the least trifle, which tends to the discredit of any person of colour;....(5)
The notion that there are several ways to recount the civil rights movement after Brown is demonstrated in recent writing. Ralph David Abernathy, Taylor Branch, and Robert Weisbrot have produced complementary texts. The direction of the books is in a line that goes from the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and '56, through the Sit-in Movement, Freedom Rides, the setback at Albany, Georgia, the Birmingham demonstrations, and the March on Washington, to the search, after 1965, for more radical solutions to the racial policies of the United States.
One effect of these books is to underscore the prescience of John A. Williams, the author. In The King God Didn't Save, Williams preceded both David Garrow and Taylor Branch in placing Martin Luther King, Jr. at the center of the civil rights movement. In many ways, Williams's book can be seen as an outline for Garrow's, Bearing the Cross, and Branch's Parting the Waters.(6) Events from Montgomery, to King's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize and subsequent assassination are covered by Williams. Even the FBI's attempted use of the Irish American ethnic community in its campaign to discredit King is reflected upon by the author.(7) Although published more than twenty years ago, The King God Didn't Save remains an extremely insightful book.
Ralph David Abernathy's autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down is the late activist's description of the civil rights movement from the perspective of one who was at the center of many of the events now recorded in history. Ironically, he shows a lack of confidence in written records by arguing that "historians do an excellent job of recreating the past, but for the most part they do so by superimposing their own abstractions on the concrete particulars of experience. They are great organizers and extrapolators, but all too often they ignore or discard the details of life in order to portray more clearly the truths they recognize"(p.xii). He states, "If an incident did not square with my recollections, I left it out of my narrative, no matter how important or how convincing it seemed to be"(xvi). Included among the omissions is the trip he and Dr. King made to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Abernathy asserts that "No one else experienced it all, so no one else can really tell the whole stow from the viewpoint of an eyewitness"(xiii).
Although a major concern of Abernathy is his historical fate, the argument he makes is part of the broader debate about who speaks, and whose "voice" gets heard by those who are in control of the apparatus of history. …