Voices of the Civil Rights Experience

By Juan Williams

Sterling. 214 pp. $19.95

The capacity of one person to alter the course of history is the stuff American dreams are made of. We assume that almost all change begins with the transformation of an individual, who then agitates to make the world conform to his or her new beliefs. Indeed, as former Washington Post staff writer Juan Williams proudly reminds us in the introduction to "My Soul Looks Back in Wonder," "The best of American history is made up of people . . . who experience a moment of revelation that inspires them to fight against injustice." Individual transformation is the organizing theme that holds together the 33 personal narratives Williams has compiled in "My Soul Looks Back in Wonder." The speakers' rhythms lend texture to the lives they recount.

In the book's first section, "The Weight," people share what they learned about how the world defined race and where it placed them in the racial ordering. There is humor in the telling, although it often shares the same breath as tragedy. We can imagine how "thrilled as all get out" Endesha Holland's mother must have been upon meeting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. As Holland tells how their home was set ablaze in response to her civil rights activism, we share her anguish when we learn that "a large ball of fire floated across [the] yard . . . rolled over and turned into" her mother. Surely such loss is "the weight" Holland carried with her even after she left Mississippi, earned her doctorate and chronicled her life in a best-selling book and play.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s is central to many but not all of the book's narratives. This is not surprising, considering the breadth of the movement's impact on almost every aspect of our society -- from politics to family dynamics to popular culture. But the stories of those years seem fresh because events played out differently for each contributor. For example, in the book's second section, "We Shall Not Be Moved," Carolyn McKinstry recalls one Sunday when she had finished her duties at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. As she passed a ringing phone, she answered it and heard a voice say, "Two minutes," just before an explosion shattered the morning, killing four of her childhood friends. It is a moment she relives often, since she still attends the church and volunteers there as a guide.

For Diane McWhorter, another Birmingham native, the bombing figures largely in the landscape of her past, but in a different way. She grew up as a member of the town's white middle class, and she recalls her family's and others' firm belief that the tragedy had nothing to do with them. Yet the bombing haunted her long after she left Alabama. For many years she sought to answer a nagging question: Had her own father been a member of the Klan? In the end, the answer was less important than what McWhorter sees as her mission: "I was the last generation to grow up under segregation, and I'm a witness to that era. And that's my responsibility: Ripping off the veil of amnesia."

In the book's final section, "The Wings of the Future," people from different walks of life speak of more contemporary battles against injustice from a global perspective, such as the fight for immigrants' rights, for the physically challenged, for same-sex unions and against racism. Here, too, we see the influence of the civil rights movement. As Michelle Steger, who became an activist for the disabled, writes: "I stress that we've tried the nice stuff -- the letter writing, the polite requests -- so when it comes down to it, we're willing to put our lives down and get it done. That's the lesson the Civil Rights Movement taught me."

An intriguing note throughout the book is its ambiguity over the connection between choices people made and the effects of those choices. A few of the interviewees are forthcoming about feeling unsure whether they actually changed much of the world around them. Yet even in this respect, they share a vision of what it looks -- and feels -- like to take a risk, especially since a particular outcome cannot be guaranteed. More important, they force us to weigh whether outward indicators of success even matter, since they never really thought to live their lives any other way. Consider, for example, Diane Wilson of Seadrift, Tex., a fishing town on Lavaca Bay. As with many others in the book, her activism was born out of a simple but passionate sentiment: love for the waters of the bay that had supported her family and many others for generations. Wilson put everything she had on the line in fighting against the corporations responsible for polluting the bay -- her livelihood, place in the community and ties with family members. She marvels, "Today after all these years, people still ask, 'What is it you really want?' They cannot believe I was doing it only because I honestly cared."

Not all the stories end on a high note of personal transformation or great social change. There are some that come quietly to a close with a sigh of resignation over all that is left to do, but with hope that others will carry on. Constancia Romilly reflects that "our institutions are organized in a very racial way. . . . I don't know what will change that. . . . I guess I'm counting on the next generation to pick up the battle flag." Susan Brownmiller notes that she's no longer an active participant in the women's movement, yet she remains steadfast in her belief that "at some point in the future, a new period of militants will arise." If so, they will have her story and others to put next to their own.