As any casual observer of mega-bookstore shelves knows, the history of the modern civil rights movement is a well-studied field. Over the past decades it has attracted a sizable army of historians, sociologists and other scholars who continue to produce an apparently endless stream of innovative monographs,
biographies and overviews that chronicle and analyze the struggle to overturn Jim Crow. Movement participants too have filled many thousands of pages with their recollections of the history they made, while documentary filmmakers have put to excellent use the dramatic footage of racial violence that cast the struggle in an often appropriately manichean light.
On a popular level, the civil rights movement has been absorbed into–indeed, appropriated by–our political culture; its story is commemorated with a national holiday and venerated in proliferating historical museums and exhibits, as well as primary and secondary school curriculums. Politicians of all stripes pay ritual homage to the movement’s goals of equality and dignity, bending them to fit their particular agendas. If the Founding Fathers and the Civil War exert a greater hold on the national imagination, no other social movement in American history–neither abolitionism, feminism, socialism or communism, nor trade unionism–even approximates the attention the civil rights movement has received.
J. Mills Thornton’s contribution to our understanding of the modern civil rights movement is substantial, if idiosyncratic, and does much to dispel simplistic views that dominate public discourse. A historian at the University of Michigan and the author of a previous book, on slavery and politics in Alabama, he does far more than simply revisit the familiar stories of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, the 1963 desegregation demonstrations in Birmingham and the 1965 voting rights struggles in Selma; rather, he situates each of these crises in deep local context, constructing a narrative around the evolving strategies of hundreds of black community leaders and activists, machine and antimachine white politicians, white federal judges, white racial moderates and business progressives, and blatant white supremacists. But unlike so many studies, Thornton’s is less a morality tale (though his sympathies obviously lie with the effort to end segregation and racial violence) or romantic celebration than a tenacious inquiry into the timing and local variations of the movement. Why, he asks, “did the civil rights movement manifest itself as mass direct-action campaigns in certain Southern cities and towns, and not in others in which social conditions were apparently so closely comparable?” Why “did the direct-action campaigns happen in these places when they did, rather than earlier or later in the period?”
Setting the stage for the new movement were the broader transformations of Southern and American society. In recent years, historians have argued that US competition with the Soviet Union for the allegiance of decolonizing nations during the cold war fostered a domestic environment more receptive to a movement against black subordination. Thornton focuses closer to home, emphasizing the collapse of the sharecropping regime, new economic prosperity for some, increased urbanization and rising educational levels among blacks. In a city like Birmingham, for instance, a growing number of black professionals, expanded access to credit and rising income levels in the post-World War II years seemed to portend a “brightening future” for some African-Americans. But these broad social, economic and political forces, which presumably affected blacks all across the South (or at least much of the urban South), cannot account for the uneven timing and character of local responses.