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The Political Legacy of Civil Rights : FREEDOM SONG--A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement by Mary King (Morrow: $19.95; 450 pp.) : FREE AT LAST--What Really Happened When Civil Rights Came to Southern Politics by Margaret Edds (Adler & Adler: $18.95; 313 pp.)

August 02, 1987| Harold Cruse | Cruse teaches at the University of Michigan and is the author of "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual" (1967), "Rebellion of Revolution" (1968) and "Plural but Equal--Blacks and Minorities in America's Plural Society" (1987). and

The agonies of idealism, the exultation of commitment and the lost illusions at the end of the crusade when hard realities become the killers of inflated hopes--these are the themes that are woven into these two highly informative books. "Freedom Song" and "Free at Last" are about the Southern Black Civil Rights Movement of the '60s. The first has the quality of an extended diary by a former participant in the struggle, written in wistful retrospection; the other is contemporary reportage seeking out the facts of the political aftermath of the political results of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the South of the 1980s. Both writers are white women lending a salutary flavor of gender perceptions and also cross-cultural objectivity to topics that are as racially provocative as they are politically controversial.

"Mine is not a definitive history of the civil rights movement, but a personal account," writes Mary King, author of "Freedom Song," but she emphasizes the fact that "I am a white woman writing about my experiences in a mostly black, largely male-led organization." By inference, the writer poses the question as to why the civil rights "movement" was "mostly black" and "largely male-led," but only partially answers it in terms of gender involvement. But as the author makes clear, even today many of the intimate facts about inner workings of the civil rights movement are not generally known. They have long needed retelling, and both writers have shed revealing light on a historic social movement that was much more than what recent history records as a "civil rights movement." King reminisces that as a social movement of a special kind, "It was everything; home, family food and work, love and a reason to live . . . when we were young and in the South." Here was capsulized the commitment of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or SNCC, which, the author says, was one of the most "enigmatic and elusive" types of radical group to define. However, because of the pioneering organizational activities of SNCC, the United States would never be the same again.

But for the benefit of historians, King imparts a special slant--an informed perception on the workings of a social movement, SNCC, which from its inception was neither a "gender"-inspired movement, nor was it programmed for civil rights of gender, but of race. Thus, in the feverish and contentious unfolding of the SNCC program, King viewed it as a unique movement made up of men and women contending for a new kind of freedom, but gradually becoming aware that freedom might mean different things for men and women. This was, the author says, the untold story of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. Inferentially, "freedom" would mean different things for black men and white men, black women and white women. In fact, the author makes the claim that the gender issue not only informed SNCC's loosely organized thrust, but argues that the real seeds of the women's movement were sown in the fertile groundings of SNCC's functional originality as a social movement without precedence in American history.

This, of course, is not (was not) a conventional interpretation of black civil rights movements in the 20th Century. While it is true, as the author implies here and there, that "It is an error by subsequent historiography not only to fail to recognize the role played by SNCC in the American civil rights movement but also to omit the role of that movement in building an American concern for the rights of women. This is all the more true because these two causes are historically linked. It takes away nothing but adds to the depths of the women's movement to acknowledge that part of its inspiration was in the civil rights cause." But it is also an error compounded not only by historical distance but also by the essential gender relativity vis-a-vis the disparities in the social position of the two races. To say that SNCC was largely "male-led" meant black male -led in the 1960s--as if to imply a flaw in SNCC's "radical" consciousness. The fact that American women did not get the vote until 1920 might have indicated a flaw in the political thought of the United States in 1820, except that the evolution of ideas is governed by a variety of motivations and restraints. However, the author shows that what was more important in the ideological evolution of the politics of SNCC was that it was "a radical movement" that "sat astride some of the major philosophical and political gulfs of this era." This not only entailed the relationships between blacks and whites, but also the choice of nonviolence as opposed to violence; the question of reform versus revolution; decentralized local authority as contrasted with centralization; relationships between men and women; democracy or authoritarianism; the question of leadership from the mass or leadership from above.

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