WE ARE STILL moved by that elderly black woman who walked weary miles to keep the hostile buses empty in Montgomery, and who, when Martin Luther King showed concern about her fatigue, replied: "Yes, my feets is tired, but my soul is rested." Perhaps we are especially moved today, a time when our feet are rested but our souls are uneasy.
In such a time, we must welcome the three books reviewed here, each of which stirs us in its own way. James Farmer's autobiography Lay Bare the Heart returns us to the excitement of the struggle: the songs, the jailings, the courage, the sacrifices, as well as the inner turmoil of a movement leader. In The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement Aldon Morris inspects that struggle meticulously for clues to the genetic structure, the molecular links that explain the development of a social movement. Charles and Barbara Whalen's The Longest Debate tells us, in pungent detail, how and why one of the most significant pieces of legislation in our time -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- made its way through the thickets of House and Senate.
Morris' The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement is a rarity. It will stand out for a long time, I believe, in that sprawl of analyses, histories, and memoirs of the movement years. Morris, who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and then experienced racism a second time in Chicago, is a sociologist at the University of Michigan. He does in his book what all of us who write sweepingly about people's movements, or who zoom in on the details of one phenomenon, dream of doing. That is, he tracks, like a persistent helicopter flying low over desert sands, the buried footprints of travelers who knew not one another but came together out of a thirst for freedom.
He finds those invisible connections -- among individuals and institutions -- which explain surprises and clarify "spontaneity." He shows us how the movement was born out of alliances, alliances which do not appear in the official records or the newspapers, but are blessed by passion and commitment. He concludes (from interviews with participants and a sifting of the documents) that the modern civil rights movement -- the boycotts, sit-ins, court decisions, street demonstrations -- was not an accidental combustion of ingredients blown together by chance. There was organization.
There were black churches, repositories for centuries of indignation, ready to be called on for practical organizing, for inspirational singing. There were staid black colleges turning out young men and women who sat down on the forbidden stools of the lunch counters and rode the forbidden sections of buses. There was the support of the elders, the teachers, ministers, working people. There were local "movement centers" ready to consolidate and extend actions already begun.
Some of those elders came out of the movements of the '30s: socialists and pacifists like Bayard Rustin and James Farmer; labor organizers and teachers like A. Philip Randolph and Myles Horton; NAACP workers and Harlem activists like Ella Baker; southern white radicals like Carl and Anne Braden. They passed on knowledge and primed the newcomers with their spirit. To the "movement halfway houses" (Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, the Southern Conference Educational Fund, the Fellowship of Reconciliation), where pacifism and direct action were being taught, visitors came: E.D. Nixon and M.L. King from Montgomery, Fred Shuttlesworth from Birmingham, Marion Barry, Diane Nash, James Bevel and John Lewis, from the student sit-ins in Nashville.
The Montgomery bus boycott did not just "happen." Rosa Parks, who refused to move from her seat that cold day in December 1955, was not just a tired seamstress making a spur-of- the-moment decision. She was a long-time activist in the NAACP, and a visitor at the Highlander Folk School. The boycott itself did not fall from an empty sky. It was preceded by a bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1953, whose leaders were in touch with King and Ralph Abernathy in Montgomery, and with C.K. Steele, leader of the Tallahassee boycott of 1956. Indeed, the thread of protest, traced back in history, never stops, but, as Morris says, "is forever present in some form." For instance, between 1900 and 1906, blacks in 25 southern cities had boycotted Jim Crow streetcars.
Between the 1955 Montgomery boycott and the 1960 sit-ins, most accounts have blank pages. Morris fills them in. In the three years before 1960, there were sit-ins in 16 cities, and in that period "the organizational foundation of the civil rights movement was built." Like Rosa Parks, the four students who began that sit-in in Greensboro, February 1, 1960 were not innocents. They had been members of the NAACP Youth Council, had been at action meetings in Durham churches. The whirlwind spread of the sit-ins to 28 southern cities in eight states in February, and then to cities in six more states, was not accidental. Adult organizers spread the message: Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, James McCain and Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality, Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham, Daisy Bates in Little Rock.
ONE OF THOSE people who ran the dangerous but exhilarating relay race, and passed on the baton from one generation to the next, was James Farmer. His memoir, Lay Bare the Heart, is eloquent and it is honest. He grew up in Texas and Mississippi, and although his father was a PhD, the early incidents of humiliation, the feelings of rebellion were not much different from those described by Richard Wright in Black Boy. Farmer became active, as a University of Chicago student of religion, in the Gandhian Fellowship of Reconciliation, (which gave birth, with his help, to CORE, Congress of Racial Equality). He voted for socialist Norman Thomas in 1940, and was a conscientious objector in World War II. After the war, he organized furniture workers.
Farmer tells of one of the forgotten links in that chain of black protest that winds through centuries. In early 1942 he and friends talked. "Let's go to the Jack Spratt Coffee House," one of them suggested. And so, "we began what I believe to be the first organized civil rights sit-in in American history." It worked. He supplies another b history, another piece of evidence of how the emancipation proclamations of the mighty derive (as Lincoln's did) from the agitation of the underclasses. Truman's famous Executive Order 9981, of July, 1948, desegregating the armed forces, followed by four months an announcement by A. Philip Randolph (who was experienced in such matters, having pushed FDR into his Equal Employment order of 1941 by the March on Washington threat) that he would urge black youths to resist the draft.
Farmer, now head of CORE, organized and joined the Freedom Rides of 1962, and recalls for us the flaming buses, the bloody beatings, the courage of the Riders, the caution of the NAACP, the nervousness of the Kennedys ("If you'll cut out this Freedom Riding and sitting-in stuff, and concentrate on voter registration, I'll get you a tax exemption" -- Robert Kennedy). He has some juicy anecdotes, about Roy Wilkins, Malcolm X, football star Jim Brown. Through it all, he weaves his personal life and private fears, his loves and marriages, his battle against blindness, the stumbling from job to job in later years, a former champ looking for work, his gloves off, his sight dimmed, but the heart still strong. His final words are good: "Living was tenuous in movement days, but the grasping at liberty, and the reaching toward happiness ennobled life for this nation."
THE LONGEST DEBATE, by former Ohio Congressman Charles Whalen and his wife Barbara Whalen, a journalist and television writer, takes us into the House and Senate Chambers, the committee rooms, the presidential meetings (using a hundred interviews and recently-released White House tapes) to follow, step by step, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It took a whole year for the bill to pass. Its provisions on equal accommodations and fair employment rankled its opponents, who staged a filibuster for 83 days, the longest in history, to try to block passage.
The Whalens' account of the compromises, the deals, the deceptions, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, is a fascinating lesson in how a bill really gets passed. They also understand that none of this would have happened if blacks had not taken to the streets and filled the jails, if thousands of children had not marched against firehoses and billy clubs in that Birmingham Spring, 1963. It was five weeks after that march that John Kennedy, who in Congress "had been relatively uninterested in the problems of blacks" and for whom tax laws were still more important than civil rights laws, announced his sponsorship of an omnibus civil rights bill.
By then, the Birmingham uprisings were spreading; in the 10 weeks following the children's march, over 13,000 people were arrested in 758 demonstrations in 75 southern cities. By the end of 1963, protests had taken place in 800 cities across the country. Such information should be given to every young person in America who learns in school "how a bill becomes a law," as if reforms spring solely from the work of noble legislators.
The Whalens tell us interesting tid-bits: how "sex" was added to the list of prohibited job discriminations by segregationist Congressman Howard Smith, in an attempts to kill the bill. And so he got stuck with both blacks and women. And how that same fair employment provision was amended by the House so that Communist blacks and women are not covered.
We come back to Aldon Morris, ponder his findings for this uneasy time, and conclude that small acts of protest are not wasted. Silent individuals sometimes begin to speak, and feeble organizations may grow formidable. Invisible connections happen; the resources are already there. And, at certain times in history, exactly when we cannot know, great movements for justice burst forth and the world changes. Up to now, only modestly, erratically. But the future may hold surprises. The past did.