King is at liberty to pass on his crown

The Civil Rights Movement
June 15, 2001

The civil rights movement continues to attract the attentions of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet despite a plethora of monographs, texts and articles on the African-American freedom struggle, only recently has the focus begun to shift away from Martin Luther King, Jr to a more refined conceptualisation of one of the most significant reform impulses of the 20th century.

This text - a collection of 12 previously published essays by leading authorities, together with supporting documentary materials - supplements and complements these studies. The civil rights movement, Jack Davis suggests, "is more fully realised when viewed as a constellation of localised social movements that worked at times within and at times independent of the national narrative". It was also "two struggles: the black struggle for equal access and opportunity and the white struggle to maintain the racial status quo".

Arranged in six topical and chronological sections, this reader treats such issues as the New Deal origins of the civil rights movement in the South (Patricia Sullivan); the tensions between organised labour and the civil rights movement in Mobile during the second world war (Bruce Nelson); white resistance to integrated neighbourhoods in Detroit (Thomas Sugrue); the largely negative effects of the cold war and anti-communist hysteria on civil rights activities (Adam Fairclough); the ambivalent relationships between African-Americans and Jews in Miami (Raymond Mohl); African-American women and the movement (LaVerne Gyant); and the agenda of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in North Carolina (Raymond Gavins).

There are also essays on civil rights and political reform in Atlanta (Ronald Bayor); the desegregation of baseball training camps in Florida (Jack Davis); cultural manifestations of Black Power ideology (William Van Deburg); the intersection of civil rights and environmental issues (Eileen Maura McGurty); and the consequences of affirmative action policies since 1964 (Hugh Davis Graham).

Each section has a bibliography, while a chronology lists significant events and issues in the African-American experience from 1863 with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation to 1998 and the conviction of Sam Bowers, former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, for the 1966 murder of Vernon Dahmer, a civil rights activist, in Mississippi.

Davis provides brief introductions to each section. His intention was to stress the "pre-1950s beginnings" of the civil rights movement, its grass-roots sources, and "widespread social, cultural and intellectual consequences". In the main he has been successful. Moving away from a "King-centric" focus, these pieces convey the dynamics of and obstacles to the civil rights struggle, and the conflicting aspirations of its supporters and opponents. The essays are uniformly excellent. Less satisfactory is the rather sparse representation of (otherwise well-chosen) documentary extracts.

In a recent review of civil rights historiography, Charles Eagles suggested that "fresh ways of conceiving the field may be attained when a younger generation of scholars who did not experience 'America in the King years' begins to write about the movement". Davis's judicious anthology illustrates that even those who did "experience" these years have already offered incisive estimates of America's racial climate - before, during and after King's ascendancy.

John White is reader in American history, University of Hull.

The Civil Rights Movement

Editor - Jack E. Davis
ISBN - 0 631 22043 7 and 22044 5
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
Pages - 314

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