Roads to Freedom

Roads to Freedom

A rich crop of new books offers fresh insight into the ongoing struggle for civil rights in America.


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.)

The Times, anticipating conflict between returning black and white World War II veterans, set up its first Southern bureau in 1947, in Chattanooga. Its chief was Virginia-born Johnny Popham. Popham, who refused to fly, insisted the South was “strictly a grassroots region and must be covered and reported as such; it can’t be done from railroad depots and airports; you just don’t get the flavor that way.” Far from rushing to the story, Popham dawdled. “As long as the South moved at a slow pace,” Roberts and Klibanoff observe, “Popham and the Times were fine.” It was only when the South exploded that the Times realized that Popham’s method of “driving everywhere from Chattanooga, then writing around the edges of the race matter,” had led the paper astray.

The turning point was Little Rock. After Popham led his editors to believe that Central High’s desegregation in September 1957 would proceed in peace and quiet, the Times sent only its education editor, Benjamin Fine, to record the event. But the historic armed showdown there dominated international headlines for the next two weeks. (The Little Rock story is told with more intimate detail than ever in Elizabeth Jacoway’s gripping new Turn Away Thy Son.) Fine was overwhelmed. He was also drawn awkwardly into the spotlight when he couldn’t bear to stand by while a mob threatened the black student Elizabeth Eckford. Seeking to shelter Eckford, Fine got on the wrong end of the camera, raising hackles about his objectivity.

Hit by “the wrenching realization that they had blown the coverage of Little Rock,” Times editors called Fine back to New York and sent Pulitzer winner Homer Bigart to accompany the federal troops who occupied Central later that year. In the spring of 1958, the paper also replaced Popham with Claude Sitton, the Georgia-born adventurer who’d spent the early 1950s working at United Press and hanging out in Greenwich Village. Released back into his native land after landing a job with the Times, Sitton became an inspiration and model for the new breed of investigative reporters. “Sitton’s byline would be atop the stories that landed on the desks of three presidents,” Roberts and Klibanoff write. “His phone number would be carried protectively in the wallets of civil rights workers who saw him, and the power of his byline, as their best hope for survival.”

The Times‘s new efforts helped save its reputation but provoked the fury of white Southern editors, who felt robbed of their authority to interpret the region. While a few Southern papers, notably Little Rock’s Arkansas Gazette, “became their region’s conscience,” most Southern editors restrained their coverage, whether out of inertia, fear of inflaming violent racist rabble-rousers or a conservative desire to conceal precisely what black activists wanted to expose. Consequently, the “pack” of Southern papers “never got hold of the whole story in front of them,” and some “served as adjunct investigative bodies for” local police.

Even with Sitton–and other bloodhounds like David Halberstam, Harrison Salisbury, John Herbers and Roy Reed–the Times was late to report on the sit-ins of 1960, which surprised older civil rights leaders as well as newsmen. The paper also missed the dramatic attacks on the Freedom Riders of 1961 in Alabama; Times lawyers had ordered Sitton to stay out of the state, since state officials were suing the paper for allegedly libelous statements in an advertisement for Martin Luther King’s defense fund. But generally black activists used the Times and its competitors to make their voices heard and to raise the movement’s profile. Sitton was sympathetic to his sources: He “felt more comfortable on the civil rights side, where there was an openness with the press that didn’t exist among the segregationists, who were defensive under the scrutiny of the national news scope.”

Many reporters, whatever their initial sympathies, were willing to be used–or saw that they had no choice in the matter–because angry white mobs attacked them. At Marion, Alabama, in 1965, black demonstrators marched out of a nighttime church rally into a blockade of about fifty state troopers. “Suddenly, the streetlight flickered out,” Roberts and Klibanoff write. “Troopers began clubbing the marchers with nightsticks, and white bystanders assaulted journalists standing nearby. Two UPI cameramen were beaten as troopers looked on. UPI’s Leon Daniels heard a sickening sound like a watermelon being struck by a baseball bat, and saw Richard Valeriani of NBC crumple to the ground, blood spewing from his head.” As was so often the case, the white majority was more moved by violence against whites than against blacks–a selective form of compassion that civil rights activists understood well and turned to the movement’s advantage.

The black press–surprisingly ignored by most scholars of civil rights–plays a major role in Roberts and Klibanoff’s story. Since the New York Times and others missed the early story of the Montgomery boycott of 1955-56, “anyone wanting details from within the boycott had to read the Birmingham World.” Mobs attacked black reporters more viciously and with greater impunity than they attacked white ones. Chicago Defender editor L. Alex Wilson died, at age 5l, of complications arising from injuries sustained during the mob’s attack at Little Rock. Legendary black reporters Moses Newson of the Baltimore Afro-American and Simeon Booker of Jet and Ebony beat the Times and other white papers to one of the century’s great stories by getting on the buses with the Freedom Riders in 1961. Mobs set upon the buses, first at Anniston and then at Montgomery. Newson and Booker got “the most important eyewitness exclusives of their careers.” They barely escaped with their lives.

Not surprisingly, black-owned papers suffered more for the role they played in the story. The Arkansas State Press in Little Rock, edited by local NAACP leader Daisy Bates’s husband, L.C. Bates, had to shut down. Its guilt by association with the desegregation movement led businesses to withdraw ads and readers to cancel their subscriptions. Yet the black press was not always at the forefront of movement politics and at times showed considerable conservatism, as Roberts and Klibanoff reveal. The Atlanta Daily World often opposed Martin Luther King’s crusades. Even the paper’s Alabama satellite, the Birmingham World, edited by the radically inclined Emory Jackson, suppressed coverage of civil rights activity. Jackson did so partly because local black advertisers shunned controversy but partly because he had become saddled by personal frustrations–including a decades-long infatuation with his married former student–by the time the movement put his city in the national headlines in 1963. Black reporters brought more than their share of commitment, initiative and inside knowledge to the race beat even as the Times and other national papers staked it out for themselves (and, a little later, began recruiting talent away from the black papers). But the black press as a whole was hampered by a lack of resources, including a sufficient supply of highly trained and experienced writers–and by its inability to reach a large or influential audience.

White and black papers alike treated the movement, however, as a story about black people–an emphasis that historians have faithfully reproduced. The young historian Jason Sokol finds this emphasis ironic, after decades of disappointment with the unfulfilled promise of freedom and equality for black America. Sokol, a visiting professor and postdoctoral fellow at Cornell, suggests that the movement wrought its deepest historic changes on the other side of the South’s racial divide. “As long as the spotlight remained solely on blacks,” he writes in There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975, “Americans underestimated the full power of the civil rights movement.” Sokol’s critics have complained that he overemphasizes the ambiguities of white Southern experience. This is a bit unfair. Sokol likes to let his sources speak for themselves–giving them the freedom to get their meaning across and his readers the freedom to grasp it. And there’s a profound historical insight hidden in the variety of voices: Ordinary white Southerners often disagreed with one another, even as their leaders claimed racial unity and worked harder than ever to enforce that unity.

The range of white responses to the movement that Sokol covers was bewilderingly vast–so vast that generalizations about white people cannot be sustained. At one extreme, Southern liberals celebrated the civil rights era for redeeming the white South from its once-blinding racial sins. At the other extreme–as liberals frequently complained–the movement’s successes concealed ever more insidious forms of racism.

Sokol’s book is most interesting when he finds white Southerners dancing back and forth between extremes. Ollie McClung Sr. fought against desegregation of his barbecue restaurant in Birmingham in 1964. He testified, “I would refuse to serve a Negro as well as a drunken man or a profane man or anyone else who would affect my business.” McClung won in the Federal District Court. But while the case was being appealed, his growing celebrity annoyed him. Life Magazine reported, “Ollie takes no delight in the fact that he has become the champion of segregationists everywhere.” A fervent convert to Christianity, McClung had recently taken time off to preach around the country. He said he found that “Many Negroes occupy a higher station in the eyes of God than whites do.” He didn’t serve black customers on the basis of their race, he said, but only because his white customers would refuse to sit among them. He went to court, he said, to fight “federal control of private property and dictation of private business.” But when five black customers showed up two days later, there were “no problems,” he said. “Everything was all right.” A fascinating theme runs through many of these stories that Sokol and other historians do not identify as such: Many white Southerners insisted that they were not racist but avoided association with black people because other white people were racist, and they feared attack. Thus white Southerners shunted responsibility–and sounded exactly like Yankee liberals, who for different reasons focused their attention on other people’s racism.

Sometimes white Southerners grasped racism’s absurdity, as when an influential white citizen of Selma, quoted by Sokol, told a public meeting in 1952: “We want the Negro to keep in his place, but it must be hard for him to know just where his place is. In buses it’s behind; on trains it’s up front; in white churches it’s up, and generally speaking, it’s down.” Eighteen years later, white students in Atlanta provided a jarring example of such absurdity–and of the civil rights movement’s remarkable impact–when, protesting against busing, they carried placards reading “We Shall Overcome.” (White students in Charlotte also sang that civil rights anthem in their protest against busing the same year.) More than a collector of such curiosities, Sokol makes a solid case that contradictory white motives opened up opportunities that black Southerners could exploit to their own advantage. When William Branch became the first black probate judge in Greene County, Alabama, in 1970, for example, he appointed as county attorney the racist Ralph Banks Jr., co-founder of a white supremacist organization that fought black candidates. Branch reasoned that his new black-dominated government needed experienced professionals and “more backing among local whites.” Banks at first responded, “Are you out of your mind?” and then accepted. Sokol writes: “Banks realized–before many others did–that whites would have to adjust to retain political power.”

Sokol lets Gunnar Myrdal make his overall point: As a poor, oppressed minority, the black American “had little other strategy open to him than to play on the conflicting values in the white majority group.” White Southerners could often, despite themselves, serve the movement’s purposes–if in no other way than by failing to unify behind various segregationist schemes.

Black Southerners didn’t always unify behind the desegregation platform. In A Class of Their Own, Adam Fairclough–a professor at the University of Leiden and one of the most diligent and careful historians of civil rights–explores the often overlooked complexities of black Southerners, emphasizing teachers and education leaders.

The psychologist Kenneth Clark, whose expert testimony was crucial to Brown v. Board of Education, had argued that black segregated schools made black children feel inferior and that separate schools were bound to be unequal. Black teachers in these schools often strenuously disagreed. (The great novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston also fiercely rejected that idea, and segregationists did their best to publicize her view.) Exclusion from the white system inspired initiatives from within the black community. Teachers built schools with their own sweat and savings; they won what advantages they could by making deals with white officials, including white supremacists. While schools, like churches, could encourage quietism, Fairclough argues that “black teachers did far more than black ministers to breed dissatisfaction with and opposition to racial discrimination.”

For all these reasons, black teachers (who joined the NAACP in high numbers), were reluctant to follow Thurgood Marshall’s Legal Defense Fund when it changed its goal from school equalization to desegregation in 1950. It wasn’t that they opposed desegregation in the abstract. But they feared that desegregation couldn’t be achieved in the way that Marshall intended. With no assurance that any genuinely liberating system would soon replace the black schools that teachers had fought so hard to improve, they were in no rush to send their charges into the clutches of those who had shown such contempt for them. Civil rights lawyers accused the teachers of protecting their self-interest, arguing that they should sacrifice their jobs for the betterment of black children. But Fairclough establishes that the teachers were often deeply respected community leaders, and many black Southerners saw their reluctance to put all black America’s eggs in the desegregation basket as sensible realism. (Many parents and students, who took great pride in their schools, believed that the threat of desegregation would give them what they wanted–equal funding.) Desegregation, by contrast, was a gamble devised by a band of legal visionaries. As NAACP lawyer Constance Baker Motley noted, “We didn’t really get any grassroots activity around school desegregation.” Fairclough has no doubt that, on balance, school desegregation was best for the majority of black students and even teachers. But he recognizes that it came at a price–the black community lost a valued institution–and that it did not bring the broader equality that civil rights leaders hoped to achieve.

Fairclough revisits the ticklish problem that Christopher Jencks raised in his 1972 book Inequality: Do desegregation and other school reforms put the cart before the horse? In hindsight, school desegregation “could not be separated from the political and economic dimensions of white supremacy,” Fairclough writes. “Not only could blacks never establish equal educational opportunity in the Jim Crow South, but also education, by itself, could never produce equality.” In any event, few Southern districts experienced significant desegregation until the 1970s, and since then, white flight and resegregation have undone much of the progress that did occur.

As prominent as education has been in battles over segregation and in the civil rights literature, it was only one aspect of Jim Crow. The white South needed a lot more than bad schools to keep black labor exploitable. As Michael Honey, professor at the University of Washington-Tacoma, reminds us in Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, some civil rights protesters fought for more immediate material rewards than those promised by schools.

In 1968 Echol Cole and Robert Walker met a grisly end in Memphis. The two black sanitation workers were crushed in a faultily wired garbage truck in which they had sought shelter from bad weather–as black men, they were barred from all other shelter. Their deaths, the culmination of decades of degrading treatment, galvanized the community, especially black workers, who were already engaged in a labor struggle. Unions, with their history of barring black members, were distrusted by black workers; however, the fearless local leader of the black sanitation workers, T.O. Jones, had obtained AFSCME support. AFSCME opposed strikes, which depleted union resources, as a matter of principle. But nothing could hold back the anger that swelled in the wake of Cole’s and Walker’s deaths. As a Memphis labor council official put it, “Hell, T.O. nor anybody else couldn’t have stopped those people from coming out. Hell, if you would have gone back there…and told those people to go back to work, they’d have killed you.” While Jones tried to downplay race for the sake of white union support, in Memphis, black solidarity was ultimately a wiser bet than working-class solidarity.

King accepted an invitation to come to Memphis in March 1968, hoping he could help prevent another outbreak of the violence that had erupted there. He was invited by the Rev. James Lawson, whom he had known from Lawson’s earlier work training Nashville students, including many of the founders of SNCC, in nonviolent discipline. Until King arrived in Memphis, he had never had the chance to prove his longstanding commitment to “an economic-justice agenda that went far beyond civil rights.” (Honey corrects the widespread misconception that King was radicalized only late in his career–promoted by both gun-waving Black Power activists, who claimed credit for educating the popular but naive leader, and later by Reaganite conservatives, who accused King of deviating from a benign “original” movement.)

What threatened unity–apart from the ever-present white racial hatred and electoral exploitation thereof–was, in Lawson’s words, the “nihilistic romanticism” of some young black Memphians who, by breaking windows and looting, stole much of the attention of the police and press. Lawson and later King tried to work with Charles Cabbage and other violence-preaching young Invaders–and even succeeded in getting them to pledge themselves to nonviolent discipline for a while.

Before the world found out whether that conciliation effort could redirect–could politicize–the self-destructive impulses of so many energetic young men in the slums, James Earl Ray’s bullet changed national perceptions forever. But the sanitation workers’ march resumed–the day before King’s funeral, with Coretta King at its head. Eight days later, sanitation workers reached a victory that, one suspects, King would have wanted America to remember more than it does: recognition of the union, a dues checkoff and an end of racist selection in promotions. “White supremacy thus fell” with the last provision, Honey writes, and “a great cheer went up” from the strikers when it was announced. They unanimously accepted it. The victory had its limits, Honey painstakingly acknowledges. But it was more than most poor communities ever achieve.

And though the 1960s are forty years past, the civil rights struggle continues to transform the workplace. In Freedom Is Not Enough, Nancy MacLean, a professor at Northwestern University, examines employment laws and policies that arose in response to pressure from the civil rights movement. She argues that we belittle the movement by restricting its impact, or its membership, to the youthful boomers in the streets and schools. She traces popular lack of interest in “adult working people” to “the tragic tendency in our market-driven culture to worship the new and toss out the old…to value youth for its own sake and so lose the wisdom that elders glean from long experience and observation.” In real life, she argues, grown-ups “spearheaded critical and creative thinking about virtually every activity of our common life.” Credit for social change–even in the 1960s–“belongs to middle-aged working people as well as to middle-class student activists.” After black Southerners got the ball rolling, white women and Hispanics, not just African-Americans, began to seize and widen the job opportunities created by affirmative action. By petitioning and litigating their new rights, they used affirmative action to uproot a “culture of exclusion” in which most Americans had blithely assumed that good jobs naturally belong to native-born English-speaking white men. These job-market activists met resistance at every turn from employers and conservative ideologues. The ideologues turned widespread anxiety about the shrinking job market of the 1970s and early ’80s against the masses of workers whose opportunities within that market were suddenly improving. For that reason, MacLean suggests, the labor movement split over affirmative action, and more than half of America’s union households voted for Nixon in 1972.

Though MacLean’s book should be read alongside more evenhanded treatments of the electoral swing to the right–especially Matthew Lassiter’s brilliant Silent Majority (2006), which rejects “race-reductionist” assumptions–it is vital to understanding where the struggle for civil rights has gone since the 1960s, and the case she makes for equal-employment laws is powerful. In her telling, the beneficiaries of those laws are far less ambivalent about their new job opportunities than the beneficiaries of desegregated schools were about their new educational opportunities.

Like Honey, MacLean speaks with critical appreciation of the radical coalition strategy to which King–in death and in life the most popular black leader to both black and white Americans–devoted himself. That strategy alienated potential allies at different points for the sake of other, more promising allies. In Memphis and other places, the coalition strategy bolstered the solidarity of the black community. That community sometimes sought to win white sympathy by dramatizing its victimization at the hands of employers and police. But even after mass attention was exhausted or confused, the logic of coalition-building continued to yield incremental but significant benefits. Those benefits, MacLean emphasizes, paid off for vast numbers of white female and Hispanic as well as–not at the expense of–black workers. As all these books make clear, coalition-building is a strategy that is extraordinarily difficult to understand, let alone to re-create. Coalition-building undergirded and was compatible with all the other strategies pursued by successful civil rights leaders in the past. Though African-Americans suffered unique deprivations in American history–and the original justifications for affirmative action stressed those unique deprivations–it is hard to imagine any future gain in racial equality that does not build on the coalitions of the past.

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