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Reporting from the revolution

Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963, 1963-1971, Edited by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Bill Kovach and Carol Polsgrove, The Library of America: 996 pp., $40 (Vol. I), 986 pp., $40 (Vol. II)

March 09, 2003|Eric Foner | Eric Foner is the author of "The Story of American Freedom" and "Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World."

"History," observes James Baldwin, "does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, ... history is literally present in all that we do." The civil rights movement is a compelling illustration of Baldwin's insight. Today, with the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday, colleges and thoroughfares named after Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks chosen by Time magazine as one of the 20th century's 100 most important people, the movement has achieved iconic status in our historical self-consciousness. On the other hand, the outrage generated by Sen. Trent Lott's remark that the country would have been better off had segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond been elected president in 1948 suggests the wounds of that era have not yet completely healed.

"Reporting Civil Rights" is a good starting point for anyone who wonders why Lott's comments aroused such a furor. Weighing in at nearly 2,000 pages, this two-volume addition to the Library of America series includes more than 150 examples of American journalism -- daily reporting, investigative accounts, opinion pieces and memoirs -- about the struggle for racial justice. It begins in 1941 with A. Philip Randolph's call for a March on Washington to protest discrimination in the war industries and ends with a reflection on the extent and limits of racial change in Mississippi, written in 1973.

The editors -- historians Clayborne Carson and David Garrow, former Atlanta Constitution editor Bill Kovach, and journalism professor Carol Polsgrove -- do not, unfortunately, discuss the criteria of selection. Some of their choices seem questionable. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail" is a magnificent statement of the movement's moral outlook, but it hardly qualifies as journalism. Nor does Tom Wolfe's famous essay "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers," a brilliant, sardonic work of the imagination rather than an account of actual events.

Nonetheless, the editors are to be commended for scouring the era's newspapers and magazines and for including numerous pieces by writers unknown today alongside familiar names like Anthony Lewis, David Halberstam and Joan Didion. They present accounts of the struggle's familiar high points -- Montgomery, Little Rock, Birmingham. But they also devote considerable space to less well-known parts of the story, such as the bus boycott in Tallahassee that followed the Montgomery campaign and demonstrations in places like Danville, Ky., and St. Augustine, Fla. They make clear that the movement rested not only on national leaders such as King, around whom the media tended to congregate, but even more on grass-roots people of extraordinary courage who refused to bend to savage retribution.

The editors have been especially successful in mining the often-neglected black press, which published some of the best reporting on the movement. They include a harrowing 1942 piece by L.O. Swinger from the Atlanta Daily World about the police beating of Morehouse College professor Hugh M. Gloster. His offense was to ask a train conductor if blacks in an overcrowded Negro car could move into the all-but-empty adjoining coach. One of the most moving pieces in the collection is James D. Williams' stark newspaper account in the Baltimore Afro-American of the funeral of a young victim of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.

Black reporters seem to have had a style and method all their own. Among the collection's most hilarious pieces is a 1961 account by George Collins, a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American, of posing as a diplomat from the nonexistent African nation of Goban and seeking to eat in Maryland restaurants. Dressed in African attire and declaiming on the virtues of Goban's "betel nut," Collins and a colleague are treated with unfailing courtesy. As far as blacks are concerned, Collins concludes, in Maryland "everybody eats but Americans."

Taken together, the pieces in this collection offer a gripping account of a momentous epoch in American history. And while the editors, in keeping with the series format, do not provide an introductory essay, the volumes make a compelling case that the modern civil rights movement began not in the mid-1950s with the Brown desegregation decision and the Montgomery bus boycott, but during World War II. The war redrew the nation's racial map by drawing hundreds of thousands of blacks out of the segregated South into the Army and industrial employment in the North and West. The contradiction between the Roosevelt administration's rhetoric promising a postwar world based on the Four Freedoms and the reality of racial violence, segregation and disenfranchisement inspired a new black militancy. The early selections in "Reporting Civil Rights" remind us that, as in the 1960s, World War II was a time of freedom rides, sit-ins and urban race riots.

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