A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement
by Robert Weisbrot; W. W. Norton & Company; 319 pages .
It all started with lunch counters. “To our mind, lunch counter segregation was the greatest evil facing black people in the country and if we could eliminate it, we would be like gods,” the activist Julian Bond recalled of the student sit-ins of 1960. The civil rights movement soon grew from localized action against racist restaurants into a nationwide struggle the likes of which had not been seen since the Civil War. In telling the story Robert Weisbrot brilliantly examines the course of American race relations over the last thirty years, linking grassroots protest campaigns to national political trends.
Civil rights leaders envisioned the beginning of a new era of national change with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. When Kennedy proved hesitant to introduce sweeping reforms, interracial “freedom riders” boarded segregated bus lines throughout the South. The veteran civil rights advocate Roy Wilkins characterized this as a “desperately brave, reckless strategy … that made those touch-football games played by the Kennedys look like macho patty-cake.” But Kennedy became convinced of the need for action after witnessing the violent response to James Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi in October 1962 and to Martin Luther King’s peaceful campaign against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, a year later.
Following Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson quickly pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. Blacks cast 95 percent of their ballots for Johnson in 1964, and he soon came through for them again with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nevertheless, the movement now began to fall into disarray. The interracial, nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King came under fire as advocates of more militant tactics emerged.
King’s harshest critic was Malcolm X: “Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily-pad park pools, with gospels and guitars and ‘I Have A Dream’ speeches? And the black masses of America were—and still are—having a nightmare.” Coalitions split along generational, gender, and philosophical lines. King saw his campaigns in Albany, Georgia, and in Chicago end in failure, while provocative spokesmen for the movement like Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver alienated white audiences. The House minority leader Gerald R. Ford vocalized white frustration in a 1966 speech following a series of riots in sixteen cities across the United States: “How long are we going to abdicate law and order—the backbone of civilization—in favor of a soft social theory that the man who heaves a brick though your window or tosses a fire bomb into your car is simply the misunderstood and underprivileged product of a broken home?”
More wanton violence broke out in the shadow of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., after King’s assassination in 1968. The subsequent murder of Robert F. Kennedy “removed the last remaining figure able to calm the polarized forces sweeping the country,” Weisbrot writes. Issues that once seemed clear degenerated into shouting matches over the politically charged questions of forced busing and affirmative action.
Weisbrot chooses to stress the movement’s many successes, however, and this spirit of triumph makes Freedom Bound an eminently enjoyable work. In one of the book’s finest passages, Weisbrot examines the political transformation of the former Alabama governor George Wallace. Less than twenty years after physically barring the University of Alabama to black students, Wallace renounced racism in his successful 1982 run for governor. “Whatever Wallace’s deepest sentiments,” Weisbrot concludes, “his actions were a striking testament to the legacy of civil rights protests he once vowed to crush but that instead have left an indelible imprint on [the] nation’s moral landscape.”