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Expert's Picks: Civil Rights

The origins of the modern women's liberation movement can be traced to the indelible experiences of articulate female civil rights activists. Their stories have been told well in several anthologies, the best of which include the collection assembled by Collier-Thomas and Franklin as well as Curry's project, which features her reminiscences along with those of eight of her fellow activists. Fleming's biography of SNCC worker Robinson and Lee's study of Hamer, a stalwart leader of the Mississippi freedom struggle, also shed illuminating and necessary light.

FREEDOM'S SWORD: The NAACP and the Struggle Against Racism in America, 1909-1969, by Gilbert Jonas (Routledge)

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

THURGOOD MARSHALL: American Revolutionary, by Juan Williams (Three Rivers)

FROM JIM CROW TO CIVIL RIGHTS: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality, by Michael J. Klarman (Oxford Univ.)

Despite all the attention now being paid to the foot soldiers of the black struggle, it would be wrong to suppose that the generals have been ignored. During the past two decades, many revealing studies of major civil rights leaders have appeared. Jonas renders a sympathetic treatment of the NAACP, while Williams creates a riveting portrait of the NAACP leader most responsible for the landmark Brown decision, yet whose national prominence declined with the rise of mass militancy. Klarman's ambitious effort provides ample evidence that national legal norms did little to stem the most egregious types of racial oppression.

BEARING THE CROSS: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, by David J. Garrow (Perennial)

PARTING THE WATERS and PILLAR OF FIRE, by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster)

There is no paucity of studies regarding King, the one national civil rights leader whose influence extended from the conference rooms of the Washington power brokers to the mass meetings of powerless Mississippi cotton pickers. During the mid-1980s, as my colleagues and I began preparing a definitive edition of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., two major studies of King were beginning to incorporate elements of SNCC's bottom-up perspective. Thus, Garrow's meticulously researched, Pulitzer Prize-winning book concludes with Ella Baker's corrective judgment: "The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement." Branch incorporates Baker's sentiment into the first two volumes of his projected trilogy on "America in the King Years." His sprawling narrative, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, shows how national political leaders deftly channeled southern mass insurgency into a successful campaign for historic civil rights legislation.

EYES OFF THE PRIZE: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955, by Carol Anderson (Cambridge Univ.)

RACE WOMAN: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois, by Gerald Horne (New York Univ.)

TOWARD THE BELOVED COMMUNITY: Martin Luther King, Jr., and South Africa, by Lewis V. Baldwin (Pilgrim)

THE COLD WAR AND THE COLOR LINE: American Race Relations in the Global Arena, by Thomas Borstelmann (Harvard Univ.)

The growing body of writings on King reveals his unique ability to express the visionary long-term goals of the mass movement from which he emerged. He consistently reminded us that the African American struggle was part of a global battle for freedom. Anderson, Horne and Borstelmann's books are among those published during the past decade that follow up on this insight by reminding readers of the international dimension of African American political militancy. We can expect, therefore, that some historians will continue to look closely at African American grassroots activism, even as others persuasively link that activism to a global freedom struggle that changed the lives of a majority of humanity. •

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