Depending upon the biases one brings to it, this intelligent, provocative book can be read either as a study of the fruits of activism or as proof of the futility of idealism. By examining the history of one southern town, Robert J. Norrell shows how a determined local civil rights movement produced, over many years, "fundamental changes" in the town's social and political life, changes that greatly expanded the rights of the town's black residents. At the same time he shows how these changes failed to produce significant economic improvement, leading many black and white citizens to conclude that the movement had been, if not a failure, a disappointment.
The town is Tuskegee, in eastern Alabama about midway between Montgomery and the Georgia line. Like Macon, the county of which it is the seat, Tuskegee historically has been preponderantly black, but until quite recently it was completely dominated, in every aspect of public and private life, by its white minority. This scarcely made it unusual in the Deep South, but for one important exception: As the home of Tuskegee Institute, the famous black college of which Booker T. Washington was the first president, Tuskegee for more than a century has had a substantial black professional class -- educated, moderately prosperous, eager to claim its full rights.
Thus it is that civil rights activity has a far longer history in Tuskegee than in most southern towns, a history that Norrell recounts thoroughly but concisely. Even though Washington was known for his accommodationist views on racial matters, the mere presence of his institute made white Tuskegee residents aware of black aspirations and intensified the white oligarchy's fear of black majority rule. Black activism was muted from Reconstruction until World War II, but the white leadership seems always to have known that sooner or later its day of reckoning would come.
The process began during and immediately after the war, when blacks under the forceful, patient leadership of Charles Gomillion began to challenge Macon County's stringent, brutally discriminatory voter-registration procedures. This challenge was a long, exhausting process that encountered vehement, ingenious resistance but that had the effect of uniting black residents as never before, breaking down the town-gown division between institute employes and other blacks. Their strategies included numerous legal actions and a two-year boycott of the city's white businesses that started in 1957, well before such drastic steps had been taken elsewhere.
The boycott was a great success, putting half the white-owned retail enterprises out of business by the spring of 1958, and reducing sales 45 to 60 percent at those that survived. As a result, white sentiment for accommodation began to increase, and a more flexible administration was voted in. Registration procedures gradually eased, and as the federal courts began to respond to black suits, the day whites had dreaded at last arrived; blacks held the political majority by the mid-'60s, while at the same time federal pressure for school desegregation intensified.
It was the school crisis that tore Tuskegee apart. Strong efforts by black and white leaders to desegregate peacefully -- 13 black students were to enter Tuskegee High in 1963 -- were thwarted by George Wallace, who closed the school and blatantly encouraged white resistance. The result was a disaster. Whites fled en masse to the newly established Macon Academy, a citadel of "racial purity, segregation, and white political control," and when at last Tuskegee High reopened it was attended by only a handful of blacks. By the spring of 1964, the town's white "liberals" had been routed:
"The desegregation of the schools had failed completely. A year earlier they could hardly have imagined a worse outcome than the total withdrawal of whites from the public schools. The school crisis had resulted in neighbors turning on one another, families dividing bitterly, social institutions becoming battlegrounds over race. Perhaps most disturbing, the school crisis accelerated a tendency among whites, begun during the boycott, to abandon Tuskegee altogether."
The division between black and white -- and, subsequently, the division among blacks themselves -- was deepened by the emergence of a new black leadership in the mid-'60s. It was younger, angrier and less patient than that of Gomillion and his generation, whose "gradualist" approach it strongly rejected. The new black political majority rejected biracial government and voted in black candidates up and down the slate; by the 1970s, the day white conservatives had for so long feared had arrived and the town was completely controlled by blacks.
Now Tuskegee is a black town in every sense of the word. The positive aspects of this change need no elaboration: the disappearance of Jim Crow, the evolution of a more realistic relationship among blacks and those whites who remain, the clear demonstration that black officials are fully as capable of governing the town as whites. The negative aspect, as many blacks see it, is that political control has not produced economic growth, and as a result there has been the disillusioning awareness that "political control did not lead to economic equality."
Perhaps the real moral of Tuskegee's experience and Norrell's book is that nothing ever turns out to be precisely what we had feared or hoped. The coming of the black revolution neither destroyed the lives of whites nor ended the deprivations suffered by blacks. What it did do, as Norrell most convincingly argues, was to replace the sterile politics of the old white oligarchy with a livelier and more representative system that made local government far more responsive to the real needs of its constituents. To say that is no small accomplishment is certainly an understatement.