Forty-four years after the March on Washington, the civil rights movement is in no danger of being forgotten. The image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is familiar to every American. Ground was broken on the national King monument in Washington, DC, in November 2006, within a year of huge media extravaganzas over the funerals of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Nearly all American politicians pay lip service to the memory of the struggle–even President Bush had himself photographed hugging Mrs. King in front of King’s tomb in Atlanta on King’s seventy-fifth birthday in 2004, over a chorus of boos from protesters.
A rich crop of new books does much more than continue to remind the nation of its great radical movement. These works compel readers to see that civil rights leaders’ choices were never as straightforward as people today nostalgically assume. One of the most durable clichés of recent history is that the age of Jim Crow, for all its horrors, had the virtue of moral clarity. Because racism was built into the law, it was simple–easy to identify and to fight. Since the abolition of legal segregation and disenfranchisement, however, racism went underground. According to the cliché, it became subtle, complex, elusive and insidious. These books demonstrate that racism was never simple and the fight against it never clear-cut. Civil rights protesters had to choose among untested strategies. Any choice tended to close off alternatives and was liable to provoke controversy among contending Black leaders. Few activists had full confidence that any strategy would work perfectly.
One strategy was to publicize the terrors visited upon black Southerners. That strategy lies at the heart of the most fascinating new book on the subject, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s The Race Beat, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for History. The Race Beat brings the movement to life–and provides a sense of its wholeness–as no previous book has. There has long been a gap between great reads like Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice (1976), which narrated the prehistory of the desegregation struggle up to the 1954 Brown decision, and J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground (1985), which laid bare the heartbreaking disillusionment with desegregation in the 1970s, when the focus of civil rights activism shifted to Boston and other Northern cities. At last Roberts and Klibanoff have filled the narrative gap with a beautiful, one-volume study of the main act of the civil-rights drama. In doing so they challenge some hitherto unquestioned assumptions about the movement.
The conventional wisdom on the American press’s performance during the civil rights era was voiced by the eminent scholar Charles Payne of Duke University: “Rushing to tell the story, they missed much of its substance.” Roberts and Klibanoff persuasively rebut this view. They vindicate the assessment of Congressman John Lewis, former Freedom Rider and president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). According to Lewis, the movement succeeded “because we had a group of men and women who were prepared to get up there to write the words or shoot the pictures.”
Yet as Roberts and Klibanoff amply document, the press did not initially rise to the occasion. (They leave implicit the parallels with today’s media, which began to report thoroughly on the Iraq War only after missing the early story.) Some brave reporters and editors had to battle employers who were as oblivious and superficial as Payne says they were. The Race Beat does not shy away from these failings, particularly those of the New York Times, for which Roberts worked from 1965 to 1972. (Klibanoff, currently managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also has long experience chafing under the constrictions of his industry.)