In the writing of Hearts and Minds, Harry S. Ashmore seems to have been uncertain whether he was doing history or autobiography, with the fairly predictable result that he ended up doing neither. That is a pity, for Ashmore is a journalist of great distinction who was witness to and participant in one of the pivotal events of the civil-rights revolution--the 1957 crisis at Little Rock--and many of the related developments that followed it. He is a graceful writer and perceptive observer whose autobiography could be an important American document; Hearts and Minds, alas, is not that book.

This is not to criticize Hearts and Minds for failing to be the book that I wish it were; it is the author's right to write his book in any manner and shape he wishes, and the reviewer must receive it on its own terms. The trouble with Hearts and Minds is that it is extremely difficult to figure out what those terms are. The book is neither fish nor fowl, wavering as it does between relatively brief personal recollections and extended recapitulations of familiar chapters in American history. The autobiographical passages are far and away the best parts of the book, providing a tantalizing taste of what Ashmore might have come up with had he thrown aside his inhibitions and told his own story; but every time he begins to unwind, he retreats into the safe harbor of old news clippings, stale speeches and other people's books.

In 1957 Ashmore was editor of The Arkansas Gazette, a progressive newspaper in what most outsiders assumed to be, by the standards of the South, a progressive city and state. That fall "a handful of blacks were scheduled to be admitted to Little Rock's two- thousand-student Central High School," in what was expected to be an "orderly transition" that "might provide a model for thousands of other districts just now beginning to face up to the reality of the three-year-old mandate of the Supreme Court." But that forecast did not take into account the heated state of Arkansas politics, which drove the moderate governor, Orval Faubus, into a frenzy of racism that finally produced a critical confrontation between state and federal authorities. It was Ashmore, pleading in the pages of The Gazette for compliance and order, who more than any other public figure in Little Rock provided a voice of sanity and reason, for which the next year he won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.

In Ashmore's view, the "real significance of Little Rock" went well beyond the city limits: "Faubus had forced a reluctant president into an irrevocable commitment to use his powers to protect and guarantee the declared rights of black citizens wherever they might be denied. Those who soon would rally by the thousands to march with Martin Luther King and the new generation of militant young leaders were no longer at the mercy of local authorities, the mobs they so often encouraged, and the state courts that were usually rigged against them. And everywhere outside the shrinking redoubt where the Citizens Councils held sway, public opinion was beginning to form behind the black cause. Orval Faubus was a hero to the mob; the nine courageous children he failed to keep out of Central High were heroes to the world."

Here, as in so many other cases, Ashmore seems to me to be exactly on target. In looking back at the events that shaped the civil-rights revolution, we too often tend to overlook Little Rock, concentrating instead on the bloodier and more dramatic incidents of the 1960s: Ol' Miss, Birmingham, Selma, Watts. Yet Little Rock, like the Montgomery bus boycott, brought national attention to black grievances with an immediacy and forcefulness that made action mandatory. After Little Rock it was no longer possible for white America to put civil rights on the back burner or to content itself with what Ashmore describes as "reflexive paternalism, degrading the minority race without conscious intent--indeed, without even realizing they were doing so." Little Rock put the elected federal government as well as the courts behind the black cause, a position from which retreat was impossible for both moral and, at least for a while, political reasons.

Ashmore's recollections of Little Rock fall in the middle of Hearts and Minds. Elsewhere some fine moments occur. Ashmore has, for example, interesting things to say about the effect of service in the armed forces during World War II on both black and white Americans; he believes that for blacks "the summons to service in World War II marked the real beginning of the civil rights movement," and for whites it created a "new permissiveness" that left them "no longer prepared, as their fathers had been, to sacrifice their self-interest on the altar of white supremacy." He writes with inside knowledge about the difficult balancing acts that Adlai Stevenson maintained on civil-rights issues in his 1952 and '56 presidential campaigns. And he writes an especially poignant paragraph about Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington in the summer of 1963:

"I was the only Southerner in a group that watched the march on television in California. When King had finished sketching his vision of the beloved community, there was not a single wisecrack to be heard from those often brittle sophisticates, and I doubt that there was a dry eye among them. Yet I think that I, like all Southerners, was touched in a different way--in my case not so much by King's implied promise of absolution for guilt inherited from slave-owning forebearers, as by pride that this man, so uniquely one of the South's own, had become, for the moment at least, the nation's chaplain. There were still racists in the South, I knew, who would react to the spectacle with fear, and the twin passion, hatred. But no white Southerner would ever again dismiss Martin Luther King and his cause with contempt; he was certified as a force to be reckoned with."

Unfortunately, such moments are too few and far between in a book that is largely a shapeless recitation of material already widely available in newspaper clippings and existing histories of the period. Almost nothing in the book justifies its subtitle's assertion that it is a study of "The Anatomy of Racism from Roosevelt to Reagan"; it contains no systematic analysis of American racism, and it wanders back and forth in time with giddy disregard for chronology. Hearts and Minds badly needed editing, but there is little evidence that it got any. That is most regrettable, for Harry Ashmore is a far more consequential figure than the reader is likely to recognize in all but a few passages in this book.