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Expert's Picks: Civil Rights

We asked Clayborne Carson to pick a shelf full of essential books on the modern African American battle for full citizenship.

Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page BW05

Some of the most fascinating books on modern African American history have recast the civil rights movement as an expansive freedom struggle with visionary goals that reached beyond domestic legal battles and attained global significance. During the past quarter-century, these writings have shown that black political militancy sought not just civil rights legislation but also broader political and economic gains. Rather than assuming that this militancy was carefully orchestrated by Martin Luther King Jr., contemporary historians have increasingly directed their attention to the grassroots leaders who spearheaded local struggles for black advancement. They insist that leaders of national civil rights groups exerted little control over the sustained protest campaigns that took place after World War II. Even King struggled to keep pace with the tumultuous protests that occurred in Southern communities during the 1960s.

This trend toward bottom-up studies reflects the experiences of historians such as myself who participated in the mass activism of the 1950s and '60s. At the 1963 March on Washington, I admired King's "I Have a Dream" speech but was also moved by the controversial remarks of John Lewis, then chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lewis brashly linked our cause to anticolonial movements in Africa and called for a "great social revolution" that would reach "every city, every village, and every hamlet of this nation."


March to Washington, Lincoln Memorial (1963) (James K,w. Atherton)

By 1985, when Coretta Scott King asked me to edit her late husband's papers, the best studies of the modern African American freedom struggle had abandoned simplistic depictions of "King and his followers." While not ignoring King's uniquely visionary leadership, the most insightful studies of the past two decades have illuminated the complex relationship between him -- as well as national civil rights leaders -- and the grassroots organizers who pushed the black struggle in unexpected new directions.

LOCAL PEOPLE: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, by John Dittmer (Univ. of Illinois)

I'VE GOT THE LIGHT OF FREEDOM: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle,

by Charles M. Payne (Univ. of California)

These books are among the most notable titles that have focused on SNCC's grassroots organizing efforts. They document the evolution of political strategies devised by courageous organizers and indigenous leaders as they battled the brutal forces of white supremacy.

CIVILITIES AND CIVIL RIGHTS: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom, by William Chafe (Oxford Univ.)

REAPING THE WHIRLWIND: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee, by Robert J. Norrell (Univ. of North Carolina)

RACE & DEMOCRACY: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972, by Adam Fairclough (Univ. of Georgia)

BUT FOR BIRMINGHAM: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle, by Glenn T. Eskew (Univ. of North Carolina)

CARRY ME HOME: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, by Diane McWhorter (Simon & Schuster). Pulitzer Prize winner

The ever-expanding literature on local movements reveals that each community confronted the dilemmas of race relations in distinctive ways. These case studies extend to the roots of the modern black freedom struggle in the Depression era and even before.

ELLA BAKER AND THE BLACK FREEDOM MOVEMENT, by Barbara Ransby (Univ. of North Carolina)


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