The Movement as History

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  • The Movement as HistoryFreedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement by Robert WeisbrotReview by: John DittmerReviews in American History, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Dec., 1990), pp. 562-567Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2703055 .Accessed: 06/12/2014 13:27

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  • THE MOVEMENT AS HISTORY

    John Dittmer

    Robert Weisbrot. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton, 1990. xv + 350 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $21.95.

    Americans have rediscovered the civil rights movement. The acclaimed PBS series, "Eyes on the Prize," the Pulitzer prize-winning volumes by David Gar- row and Taylor Branch, the fatally flawed film Mississippi Burning-all have found audiences fascinated with this period and its people. Courses on the civil rights era are proliferating on college campuses, and no respectable U.S. history survey fails to include a section on the movement. In light of this renewed interest, historian Robert Weisbrot's effort to incorporate the grow- ing body of civil rights scholarship into a single volume is significant. Freedom Bound traces the development of the modern civil rights movement from the 1954 Brown decision through the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and then turns to the movement's transformation and decline dur- ing the Nixon and Reagan years.

    To cover so much territory in 317 pages is in itself an achievement. Weis- brot's "central aim is to relate the civil rights movement to broader currents in American political reform, in the belief that the black quest for justice and the national crusade for a 'Great Society' are best understood in relation to each other"; he focuses on "the increasingly turbulent relations between black activists and white liberals" (p. xiv). Readers unfamiliar with the black free- dom movement will come away from this book with an awareness of the complex racial dynamics of the period, as well as an understanding of the major issues, campaigns, victories, and defeats. A synthetic work should also reflect the most recent scholarship and acknowledge historiographical trends, and here Freedom Bound falls somewhat short.

    Fully half the volume deals with the two decades following passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With its primary emphasis on events occurring outside the South, and analysis of major political and intellectual develop- ments, this section is the strongest in the book. Here Weisbrot assesses the limitations of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, examines the "white back-

    Reviews in American History 18 (1990) 562-567 ? 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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  • DITTMER / The Movement as History 563

    lash" that propelled George Wallace onto the national political scene, and analyzes the impact of the Vietnam war on the politics of race. He discusses the relationship between school desegregation and the courts, and cuts to the heart of the controversy surrounding community control of the schools in the Ocean Hill section of Brooklyn. And in rehearsing the measures taken by the Nixon and Reagan administrations to reverse many of the gains blacks had made in the 1960s, Weisbrot provides a forceful reminder of the distance still to be travelled before the goals of the movement are to be realized.

    The author devotes considerable time to the development of black nation- alism, beginning with the Nation of Islam and the impact of Malcolm X, and including a discussion of "Black Power," cultural nationalism, and the emer- gence and decline of the Black Panthers. He is comfortable exploring the con- nections between the New Left and black radicalism, and his discussion of the 1967 Chicago Conference for a New Politics presents a devastating portrait of white sycophancy. ("We are just a little tail on the end of a very powerful black panther," stated one white delegate. "And I want to be on that tail-if they'll let me," p. 255.) Weisbrot concludes that the black-white polarization that marked the late 1960s and 1970s intensified as African-Americans moved beyond their earlier political agenda to demand economic justice, a conces- sion white America was unwilling to make.

    While adequate, the first half of Freedom Bound, focusing on the southern freedom movement from 1954 to 1965, is somewhat disappointing. In a sense, this part of the book is already dated, for the author apparently drafted these chapters before the publication of the works by Garrow, Branch, and Adam Fairclough (To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Con- ference and Martin Luther King, Jr., 1985). With the exception of two brief foot- note "updates," Weisbrot has not incorporated their work into his revisions. (For Martin Luther King's activities, he relies most heavily on Stephen B. Oates's less reliable biography, Let the Trumpet Sound, 1982.) Failure to include this new material not only deprives the reader of lively anecdotes; such omis- sions also call into question several of Weisbrot's interpretations. For exam- ple, in his ongoing account of the uneasy relationship between the Kennedy administration and the movement, Weisbrot does acknowledge the criticisms leveled by activists against the Kennedys. But anyone familiar with Taylor Branch's extensive research on this topic would question Weisbrot's conclu- sion that the violent events accompanying James Meredith's entry into the University of Mississippi "did much to reshape President Kennedy's thinking about race, politics, and his role in civil rights reform" (p. 67), or his obser- vation that Robert Kennedy's appointment as Attorney General "was a boon to the civil rights movement, for he turned the Justice Department into a ver- satile force in the battle against racism" (p. 51).

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  • 564 REVIEWS IN AMERICAN HISTORY / DECEMBER 1990

    The drive to obtain the franchise is central to civil rights history. Weisbrot examines the voter registration campaigns in Mississippi, and includes a chapter on Selma and the successful effort to enact a strong voting rights act in 1965. Given the importance of this topic, Weisbrot's failure to use (or even cite in his bibliography) Steven F. Lawson's Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969 (1976), the definitive work in the field, is regrettable to say the least.

    Errors of fact also creep into the early chapters. Brownsville, Tennessee is not fifty miles from Jackson, Mississippi; Ross Barnett, not J. P. Coleman, was governor of Mississippi during the Freedom Rides; James Farmer spent his early childhood in Holly Springs, Mississippi, not Texas; Martin Luther King, Jr., was absent from Selma on "Bloody Sunday" because he was preaching at his home church in Atlanta, not Montgomery; and in 1965 Robert Moses did not change his name to "Paris." While certainly not egregious, taken together these and other mistakes leave an impression that the author is not entirely comfortable on southern terrain. And unlike the later chapters, where Weis- brot can stretch out to examine larger questions in greater depth, the first half of Freedom Bound has about it a breathless, lock-step quality-"If it's 1957 it must be Little Rock." Reducing over a decade of civil rights militancy to 153 pages is both a frustrating and thankless task. Racing through history in chronological fashion is perhaps the most effective way to introduce the movement to new students. But depth of analysis is almost impossible here.

    Placing the southern movement in the context of presidential politics pro- vides this section of the book with its chronological structure. Thus the events in chapter 3-the Freedom Rides, the Albany Movement, Meredith and Ole Miss, Birmingham, and the March on Washington-fall under the heading "Mass Protest in the Kennedy Years." Linking black protest and White House responses directs attention to the efforts of the major civil rights organizations and their leaders to press a reluctant federal government to take action. Given the confines of time and space, as well as the author's thesis, such emphasis is understandable. What is lost here is the power of the movement at its most basic and dynamic level-the grass roots. The chapter on Mississippi, titled "The Great Society," highlights the 1964 summer project and the challenge of the new Freedom Democratic party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. The relationship between the movement and President John- son takes center stage, crowding out the story of the courageous commitment of the local people, whose struggle is the major theme of movement history. While Weisbrot acknowledges that the grass-roots organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) provided most of the staff for COFO (Council of Federated Organizations), the umbrella agency of all move- ment organizations operating in the state, he concludes that SNCC did so "in

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  • DITTMER / The Movement as History 565

    an effort to exploit its new line to the White House" (p. 95). And in reference to the 1963 Freedom Vote, Weisbrot mistakenly gives credit to an outsider, Allard Lowenstein, for his "skilled but abrasive direction of the registration effort" (p. 96). SNCC did realize the importance of convincing a reluctant White House to take action to end the terror in Mississippi, but its primary goal was to work in small towns and on plantations to develop indigenous leadership. And while Lowenstein recruited northern volunteers to assist in the mock election, local people and their SNCC allies ran the Freedom Vote campaign.

    Civil rights scholars have only recently begun to take note of the critical role played by women in all phases of movement activity. Women constituted a majority at almost all mass meetings. They worked door-to-door in the voter registration drives. They were beaten, went to jail-and ran for Congress. Weisbrot does recognize the important work of Ella Baker in the founding of SNCC, and credits Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer for her impact at Atlantic City. But for the most part, Freedom Bound records the exploits of important black and white men. Most of the major players are familiar: Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Bob Moses, and Stokely Carmichael; John and Robert Kennedy, Lyn- don Johnson, and George Wallace. And of course Martin Luther King, Jr. Except for passing mention, we learn little about the leadership of Diane Nash, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, and Jo Ann Robinson, to name but a few. And there is no discussion of women on the local level, where they were the backbone of the movement. Weisbrot's preoccupation with the business of men carries over into his section of photographs: of the fifty-three people mentioned by name in the captions, Rosa Parks is the only woman.

    Weisbrot perpetuates the stereotype of women as an oppressed class in the movement, victims of male chauvinism: "Notions of male supremacy were nonetheless so ingrained in the civil rights movement, as in the wider society, that only a small minority of women dared protest and nearly all the men reacted with amusement," he concludes, citing as evidence Stokely Carmi- chael's oft-quoted remark that "the only position for women in SNCC is prone" (p. 112). SNCC activists Joyce Ladner and Martha Prescod Norman, among many others, have emphatically denied that they were second-class citizens in a movement dominated by black men. Drawing upon their own experiences in SNCC, they also point to the powerful influence of women such as Baker, Nash, Hamer, and Robinson. As for the Carmichael quote, it simply will not go away. In her Freedom Song (1987), SNCC worker Mary King placed Carmichael's observation in context: it occurred at a SNCC party, after he had poked fun at himself, Trinidadians, and black Mississippians. Upon hearing his concluding outburst, King recalls, "We all collapsed with hilarity. His ribald comment was uproarious and wild. It drew us all closer together,

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  • 566 REVIEWS IN AMERICAN HISTORY / DECEMBER 1990

    because, even in that moment, he was poking fun at his own attitudes" (p. 452). Sexism did exist. Yet while the movement of the 1960s failed to eliminate gender discrimination, it came closer to the ideal of an egalitarian community than has any other major social movement, before or since. Although sec- ondary materials on the crucial role of women in the movement are limited, Weisbrot needs to acknowledge this important development in movement historiography.

    Over the past two decades civil rights scholarship has shifted from an em- phasis on national movement organizations and leaders to intensive scrutiny of activity on the grass-roots level. Yet as we learn more about community organization in the towns and counties, additional questions arise. Why, for example, did the movement take hold and build in certain areas and not in others, where conditions appeared to be equally promising? To what extent did interorganizational rivalry and differences in social class inhibit the de- velopment of local movements? And what were the responses of both south- ern and northern whites to black demands for social change?

    If movement scholars are guilty of stereotyping today, it is more likely to be in their treatment of whites rather than blacks. The caricatur...