Speaking Truth to Power in Pursuit of Civil Rights
Asim, Jabari, The Crisis
Because a rich tradition of eloquence is as nearly inseparable from the American civil rights struggle as its history of bravery, resourcefulness and sacrifice, it would be hard to ruin a project such as this. Josh Gottheimer, a former speech writer for President Bill Clinton and editor of this collection, quickly realized that the greatest difficulty lay in choosing what to include.
"I had to decide what came under the broad umbrella of civil rights," he writes. "I defined the category as any speech delivered with the express intent of advancing liberties for an oppressed group."
As Gottheimer makes clear, there's been no shortage of such groups in the United States. As a result, there are speeches here from women's-rights pioneers, Asian and Latin American activists, and gay-rights advocates. The heart of the collection, however, is taken from the vast body of speeches delivered in pursuit of full citizenship for African Americans.
For Gottheimer, the centrality of such speeches is easily explained. He persuasively argues, "In one way or another, the various civil rights movements had their roots in what I call the African-American or black movement, which at first encompassed the anti-slavery movement and later the struggle for equal rights and opportunity."
Ripples of Hope succeeds largely on the strength of Gottheimer's choices not that there aren't a few worth quibbling over. For example, Clinton, whose progressivism and eloquence continue to be overrated, is included but Paul Robeson is not. Because Gottheimer used to work for the former president, his infatuation with him is almost understandable. More puzzling is his inclusion of Anita Hill's testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and his exclusion of Fannie Lou Hamer's speech at the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City or anything by Ida B. Wells.
Neither of these complaints is sufficient to sink Ripples of Hope. It succeeds as an "old photo album" that provides an informative sampling of American rhetoric, and as a cultural history that enables readers to consider the impact of particular speeches "not only on an individual movement but also on the larger expanse of civil rights history."
This latter approach shows how certain patterns developed. For instance, readers can track the progress of human-rights arguments from Hubert H. Humphrey's brilliant triumph over the Dixiecrats at the 1948 Democratic convention - "The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of state's rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights" - to Eleanor Roosevelt's address to the United Nations on "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" delivered later that same year, to Malcolm X's famous 1964 speech, "The Ballot or the Bullet," in which he urged, "We need to expand the civil rights struggle to a higher level - to the level of human rights. …