[sixties-l] Voices in Our Blood: Americas Best on the Civil Rights Movement

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Thu Feb 01 2001 - 20:15:23 EST

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    Stirring Recollections


    How do you pick the best writing to come out of the civil-rights movement?
    Tom Wicker, who has covered the politics of race since the '60s, examines a
    new anthology and finds some long-lost treasures.

    byTom Wicker
    January/February 2001

    Voices in Our Blood: America's Best on the Civil Rights Movement
    Edited by John Meacham.
    Random House. 640 pages.

    Labeling any anthology as "best" (of the year, of the century, in English,
    by Native Americans, etc.) is a chancy proposition. In this collection, a
    single volume purporting to reprint "America's Best on the Civil Rights
    Movement"some readers will mourn pieces inexplicably left out from the
    immense literature of that memorable time and those traumatic events;
    others will wonder how some of the writings included could possibly have
    made the editor's cut in preference to their choices.
    That might well have been my reaction to Voices in Our Blood, were it not
    for two items in its list of contents that quickly stilled my incipient
    One is that remarkable, and remarkably prescient, picture of a pre-movement
    South lingering in the age of lynchings, unprepared for, and hardly able to
    conceive of, the storm about to burst: "Opera in Greenville," by Rebecca
    West. I had not read it in nearly half a century, since not long after its
    appearance (I learned from the credits) in the New Yorker on June 14, 1947.
    I had never since been able to locate a copy.
    The other is "Bloody Sunday"a chapter from one of the great memoirs of the
    movement, Walking With the Wind, by one of its greatest men, John Lewis. In
    1965, Lewis (now a member of Congress from Georgia) was the leader of the
    600 marchers who started peaceably across the Edmund Winston Pettus Bridge
    on their way from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in quest of their voting
    Even Lewis in the front rank did not know that waiting on the other side of
    the high arched bridge over the Alabama River was "a sea of blue-helmeted,
    blue-uniformed... state troopers, line after line of them... Behind them
    were several dozen more armed men... some on horseback... many carrying
    clubs the size of baseball bats."
    Lewis marched on, though he noticed "several troopers slipping gas masks
    over their faces." When a member of the group asked for a "word" with the
    officer commanding the state troopers, the officer replied, "There is no
    word to be had... you have two minutes to turn around and go back..."
    Unable to go forward and unwilling to retreat, Lewis told the marchers to
    kneel and pray. But not everyone had time to do so before the "troopers and
    possemen swept forward as one, like a human wave, a blur of blue shirts and
    billy clubs and bullwhips." A white woman shouted from somewhere, "Get 'em!
    Get the niggers!" But John Lewis felt "strangely calm" as he thought: "This
    is it. People are going to die here. I'm going to die here."
    Lewis suffered a skull fracture that day. Dozens of his followers were
    injured, many severely, but the charging horsemen and club-swinging
    troopers, the beaten and bloodied Americans, all featured on national
    television that night, aroused the nation as had few other outrages. The
    more formal, highly publicized march on Montgomery and Governor George C.
    Wallace proceeded several days later, and the seminal Voting Rights Act of
    1965 was a primary result.
    There's far more here than these favored articles of mine. Others will find
    plenty to extol: including pieces by John Steinbeck, William Faulkner,
    James Baldwin, Robert Penn Warren (who quotes one candid Southerner's
    eulogy for the Solid South: "Hell, all Southerners are Republicans at
    heart, conservative, and just don't know they're Republican"); by some of
    our best journalists, Murray Kempton, David Halberstam, Russell Baker,
    Marshall Frady; by writers not primarily thought of in connection with the
    movement, E.B. White, William Styron, Tom Wolfe, Calvin Trillin; and
    excerpts from incomparable works such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
    and Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch's biography of Martin Luther King Jr.
    Among many other items, I was intrigued by a short sketch from 1963,
    "Mystery and Manners," by Flannery O'Connor, in which she observes that
    outside the South "the race problem is settled when the Negro has his
    rights." But for white or black Southerners, "that's only the beginning.
    The South has to evolve a way of life in which the two races can live
    together with mutual forbearance. You don't form a committee to do this or
    pass a resolution: both races have to work it out the hard way. In parts of
    the South these new manners are evolving in a very satisfactory way; but
    good manners seldom make the papers."
    As it pertains to the South (though not to the rest of the nation), that
    made much sense 30-odd years ago. Today, it may well define why black and
    white seem to get along better in the former Confederacy than in many a
    crowded Northern city or high-rise office.
    But the "best" of the movement? Let's just say that in Voices in Our Blood,
    Jon Meacham, Newsweek's managing editor, has done about the best job of
    anthologizing the movement that I've seen.

    Tom Wicker wrote about the civil rights struggle as a columnist for The New 
    York Times in the 1960s. He is the author of Tragic Failure: Racial 
    Integration in America. 

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