Two Books I Wish I’d Read While I Was Still Teaching Civil Rights (Teaching Civil Rights, 1)

A Review of:

Peniel E. Joseph, Dark Days, Bright Nights:  From Black Power to Barack Obama.  New York:  Basic Books, 2010.

Glenn Browder, with Artemesia Stanberry, Stealth Reconstruction:  An Untold Story of Racial Politics in Recent Southern History.  Montgomery, Ala.:  NewSouth Books, 2010.

[For a number of years I occasionally taught a one-semester course on the history of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., and I never really got much beyond the death of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.  Part of the reason for this, I suppose, was the time element, especially because I always began the course with a long, detailed examination of the Age of Jim Crow, so that the students would have a good idea of what it was that the Civil Rights Movement was working to overturn.  With a third or so of the semester given over to all things Jim Crow, there never seemed to be enough time remaining to pursue the topic past the late ’60s.

Another part of my inability to get beyond Dr. King was, I think, autobiographical.  I have vivid memories about the King assassination and the events surrounding it (the topic of another post), and the man was–and remains–one of my heroes.  I just could not get much distance from the time, despite the passage of, now, four decades. I kept reading, but I seldom incorporated much of the new stuff into my course, at least in any detail. And, since I hung up my white board in May 2010, I’ve read two additional works about the Movement and its consequences that I wish I’d encountered sooner.  Neither of them is destined to become a classic , but  both made me look beyond 1968.]

* * * * *

Piniel E. Joseph’s book of essays, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, was definitely an interesting read.  I especially liked the first chapter, which reconceptualized  the Civil Rights and “Black Power” movements so they  fit the so-called “long Civil Rights Movement” timeline (that is, both began long before Brown v. Board in 1954 and continue to influence events to this day in some ways); and the biographical chapter on Stokely Carmichael.  The chapter on Malcolm X was not all that informative to me, since I used the thorough PBS documentary, “Malcolm X:  Make It Plain,” several times in the Civil Rights class over the years, and Joseph’s treatment of Malcolm in this volume really didn’t add much to what was in the video.

The final chapter, on Barack Obama, really could have used a ruthless editor:  it reads like a compilation of op-eds, short talks, and/or book reviews produced by Joseph and in this book simply tied together rather clumsily (e.g., lots of word-for-word repetition) so that the material could be included to take advantage of the interest in Obama in the wake of his election.

I found Joseph’s take on “Black Power” interesting, but not persuasive.  He adopts the usual strategy of the “revisionist” historian, reducing the interpretation he dislikes (the notion that “Black Power” was little more than the Movement’s evil twin) to a “straw man”; and (to me, anyway) exaggerating the seriousness of “Black Power” as a practical approach to achieving “civil rights.”  (My problem, of course, is that I lived through the turmoil of the ’60s and Joseph did not. This doesn’t mean I’m right and Joseph is wrong; rather, it simply reflects my inability to separate myself from personal memories of that period as a “good historian” should.)

I also wish Joseph had devoted some attention to the role of  “Black Power” in urban politics.  Joseph refers to Richard Hatcher, Maynard Jackson, and other successful local African American politicians, but he does so almost in passing.  He could have developed an important, if far from “sexy,” aspect of “Black Power” had he focused on how these leaders were able to win power on a local level and how much they were able to do, or not do, with that power once they had it.

On the other hand, I was taken by Joseph’s idea that the real reason the Civil Rights Movement lost traction following the assassination of Dr. King was not simply that there was no obvious successor to King (as I’ve always believed–and taught), but also that King, before his death, and those who succeeded him for years after he died, were pushing a “civil rights” agenda that included the attainment of socio-economic justice for African Americans, which scared the fool out of many whites, including non-Southerners.  In other words, the “heroic narrative” of the Movement, as Joseph labels it, broke down as whites began to fear that African Americans were after more than just “freedom” in the abstract. I think he’s on to something.

The second work is Stealth Reconstruction, by Glen Browder and Artemesia Stanberry, a composite work, part political science tract, part political autobiography (Browder’s). It pursues an interesting question from many different angles:  How were the well-known gains of the “heroic period” of the Civil Rights Movement transformed into laws and policies on the state and local levels that tried, with mixed success to be sure, to incorporate the needs and aspirations of African American citizens into the political systems of the Southern states, where many whites  claimed to see their “way of life” under assault?

Browder, who from the 1970s through the 1990s served in the Alabama legislature; as secretary of state of Alabama (where he was quite involved in issues of voting and representation); and in Congress, offers his political career as a case study of what he calls “stealth politics.”   He describes how white, racially moderate Democrats like himself strove to serve both their traditional white constituents and the new voters empowered by the landmark legislation and court decisions of the “heroic period” of the Civil Rights Movement.  Browder labels this approach “stealth politics,” and he characterizes it as moderate, bi-racial, and, above all, quiet (he even says several times that he seldom talked about this approach, he simply tried to implement it).

Browder contends that, before the rise of a genuine two-party South and the emergence of effective African American politicians capable of constructing organizations that enabled them to win office for themselves, made such “stealthness” outmoded, white moderate politicians helped bring about nothing less than a “stealth reconstruction” on the local and state levels.  He admits that the moderate, mostly white Southern politicians he focuses on do not come across as “heroic figures.”  In his telling, there were a lot of deals cut, alliances made, and endorsements given through means that might appear in retrospect to be the sort of “backroom dealing” that self-styled “reform” candidates were not supposed to engage in.

While Browder and Stanberry’s approach to their topic is at times repetitive, the authors do incorporate the voices and recollections of other politicians from that time and place, black and white, most of whom seem to think that the “stealth reconstruction” thesis has merit, though several of them aren’t nearly as enthusiastic about the concept of “stealth politics” as are Browder and Stanberry.

I would not have assigned either of these books to my Civil Rights class as texts, though I  think an excerpt from each might have been useful–Joseph’s first chapter and Browder’s account of his years in Congress, for instance.  Neither volume is a work you “can’t put down,” but both force the reader to look beyond what both books term the “heroic narrative” of the Civil Rights Movement, and to think seriously about what it took to make the legislative and legal gains of the movement a reality once the cheering stopped.

The process, especially as described by Browder and Stanberry, seems far from “heroic”; perhaps “pragmatic” is a better term; maybe, at times, “mundane.”  “Speaking truth to power” might have earned headlines and even popular recognition, but the scut work of transmuting allegedly “historic” gains into effective legislation over the long haul, while equally important, was easily overshadowed by the blare of trumpets and the glare of klieg lights.

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About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in Civil Rights Movement, History, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History. Bookmark the permalink.

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