Mon January 10, 2005
A Dream of Freedom
This painstakingly detailed account of the Civil Rights Movement opens up that part of history to young adult readers.
By Don Noble
For her study of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Carry Me Home, published in 2001, Diane McWhorter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history.
That fairly narrow-focus study was a labor of nearly 20 years, and in the course of researching that book, McWhorter learned an immense amount about the movement that she could not fit into Carry Me Home.
It is to be expected that there will be a series of books from McWhorter exploring the movement in other ways. A Dream of Freedom is the first.
A Dream of Freedom is, overtly, a book for young adults and the first such to be reviewed in this space, but, as is often the case with young adult books, there is nothing shallow or simple about it.
McWhorter tells here the story of the Civil Rights Movement in prose that is clear and clean and in no way watered down or condescending.
She has realized, as many have, that even adults who were alive and sentient during the 50s and 60s don?t know as much about the movement as they think they do, and our young adults, alas, black and white, know very little at all.
McWhorter has organized her book chronologically, year by year, with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Emmett Till murder in ?55, and the triumphant Montgomery bus boycott of ?56.
She brings the reader along through the Central High integration in Little Rock (?57), the sit-ins of 1960, the Freedom Riders (?61), and in 1962 the riots at Ole Miss, where the mob was swollen with non-student citizens of Mississippi armed with Molotov cocktails, iron pipes, shotguns, and squirrel hunting rifles.
28 federal marshals were injured by bullets before 31,000 soldiers established order.
Bobby Kennedy reminded Governor Ross Barnett that Mississippi was in fact part of the United States, and Barnett replied, ?I don?t know whether we are or not.?
This book will reward any reader of any age. There is hardly a page that does not yield a remarkable fact.
In the chapter on segregation, for example, the laws concerning water fountains, restrooms, railroad cars, etc., were familiar.
But who would remember that Birmingham had passed a law expressly forbidding ?blacks and whites to play checkers together,? that there was a laundry service in Birmingham with delivery cars that boasted on their sides ?We wash for white people only.? That black witnesses in courtrooms were sworn in with a separate Bible marked ?colored?? And that in South Carolina, never to be outdone in racial lunacy, ?Black cotton-mill workers could not look out the same windows as the white workers.?
It doesn?t hurt to be reminded either that the poll tax, $1.50 in Alabama in 1900, which was a lot of money then, was also cumulative and retroactive, so if a person of 40 attempted to vote for the first time, he owed not $1.50 but $28.50. 98 percent of Alabama voting age blacks did not vote.
It also doesn?t hurt to be reminded that the Plessy of Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that established the separate but equal laws, had eight great-grandparents, like everyone else, and seven of them were white. Thus Plessy also reinforced the one-drop rule in American society.
McWhorter closes her thumbnail history with short chapters on the rise of the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers, the effect of Malcolm X on the movement, the failed Poor People?s March on Washington, and of course the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis.
An epilogue tells us briefly ?where are they now??.
John Lewis is in Congress. Huey Newton was shot dead in a drug deal. Stokely Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture and moved to Africa. James Meredith, after becoming a lawyer, decided that white liberals were the enemy of the movement and went to work as an aide to North Carolina?s Senator Jesse Helms. I guess he was safe from contact with white liberals in that job.
An enormous amount, of course, was accomplished by the Civil Rights Movement, but the saddest part of it all was the failure to achieve what King called ?The Beloved Community??blacks and whites together exerting ?soul force? against ?the enemies of harmony and progress.?
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.