Thursday, February 27, 2003
Force and Counterforce
Reporting Civil Rights, Part One: American Journalism 1941-1963. Library of America. 996 pages. $40.00
Reporting Civil Rights, Part Two: American Journalism 1963-1973. Library of America. 986 pages. $40.00
Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.
-- Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"
Early in 1941, the United States began to feel the rumblings of a war that had been a long time coming, and which had nothing to do with Germany or Japan. In January of that year, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, sent out a call for 10,000 black people to march on Washington to demand an end to segregation in the armed forces and in the hiring of defense workers.
By June, President Franklin Roosevelt was beginning to feel the heat. Late in the month, he met Randolph halfway, with an executive order prohibiting discrimination among defense contractors, but not in the military. Randolph was sufficiently mollified to call off the march, understandably losing some supporters. It didn't matter. Within a few months, civil rights for black Americans would be the last thing on anyone's mind, except black Americans. On segregated military bases and in major cities, decades of suppressed rage were beginning to boil over.
The tension only torqued up when Johnny came marching home. Black soldiers who had defended their country against Hitler came home to find his spirit alive and well, especially on city buses. In February of 1946, within ten hours of being discharged from Camp Gordon, Ga., a black soldier named Isaac Woodard was riding home on a bus with some white soldier pals. When the driver thought they were getting too rowdy, he ordered the whites to sit up front. Woodard complained, and when the bus stopped in Batesburg, SC, the driver had him arrested. Accounts would differ on what happened after that, except that a police officer beat Woodard so badly that he was left permanently blind. In what would become South Carolina's first Civil Rights case, the officer was brought before federal court in Columbia. After deliberating for 28 minutes, an all-white jury let him go; Woodard had "resisted arrest."
It was a story that would be repeated many times in the years to come. The Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers Ð who would go on to become one of the early martyrs for the cause -- recalled how he too was beaten "within an inch of my life" on his return trip home, after refusing to move to the back of the bus. "Hell, I'd just been on a battlefield for my country," he said. The attack had it's effect: "After that, I was a different man."
James Baldwin wrote some years later: "The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks, for me, a turning point in the Negro's relation to America. To put it briefly, and somewhat too simply, a certain hope died, a certain respect for white Americans faded. One began to pity them, or to hate them."
One black man, who would spend most of the war years in prison as a conscientious objector, chose neither. Bayard Rustin, a Randolph protege and a committed Gandhian, instead decided to test out non-violent civil disobedience at home. Boarding a bus in 1942 from Louisville to Nashville, he took a seat in the front and refused to move. When the bus pulled into Nashville, Rustin was greeted by a bevy of cops who beat, stomped, kicked and finally arrested him. Through it all, he refused to fight back, but still kept his wits about him long enough to win his case in court.
So begins America's longest struggle; one war ends, another begins at home -- along with the means to fight it, at least part way. Rustin would go on to convert a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., to the philosophy of non-violence, and Randolph and Rustin would organize another March on Washington, with King in the starring role. Some 250,000 people would gather for the event -- 40 years ago this week -- and this time, it wouldn't be called off.
This is just part of the story assembled in this magnificent two-volume set of Civil Rights journalism from the Library of America, a wide-ranging if necessarily patchwork history of three troubled decades of American life. There's no way to summarize nearly 1,800 pages of text and over 150 writers, but one must try.
First of all, it brings together star journalists like David Halberstam, Garry Wills, John Hersey, Renata Adler, Harrison Salisbury, Joan Didion -- all working at the top of their game -- and the largely forgotten foot-soldiers who were there on the front lines, sometimes getting their heads broken. There's a great 1952 profile by James Poling on Thurgood Marshall, written before he got his halo, when he was the country's ablest and wiliest civil rights lawyer. Superb pieces by L.D. Reed and Ted Poston on the Montgomery Bus Boycott illustrate the sacrifices of all those involved, and how the white citizenry fought and lost: blacks went without jobs and car pools got ticketed, but the buses stayed empty until the city fathers capitulated. William Bradford Huie's highly influential Life magazine stories are here: his coverage of the 1954 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at a white woman, and the 1963 murders of the civil rights workers Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman. The first volume nicely sequences three of the greatest hits together: Baldwin's "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind," Norman Podhoretz's response to it, "My Negro Problem -- and Ours," and King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," which still brims with the moral authority of "De Lawd," as King's followers called him.
There are great columns throughout by the late Murray Kempton, who could squeeze more truth out of a thousand words than almost any of his peers. Accounts from black reporters like Louis Lomax and Claude Sitton reveal the divisional rifts within the movement; one sees throughout that the NAACP didn't lead, it followed, and that groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) almost always took the initiative.
There are also first-hand reports from activists like Tom Hayden, Michael Thelwell, Anne Moody, Tom Dent, and Fannie Lou Hamer, as well as two students, Charlayne Hunter and James Meredith, who would find themselves at the center of separate whirlwinds -- in Mississippi and Georgia -- when they tried to attend college with white students. In an effort at balancing out the picture a bit, Tom Wolfe's "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers" finds that smug but often hilarious little man having a high old time explaining how black radicals take advantage of white guilt.
Equally impressive are the on-the-spot accounts; although sometimes it's hard to tell if youÕre reading great writing or if a terrible event just wrote itself. There's Pulitzer Prize Winning Relman Morin, phoning in his story from a Little Rock phone booth as he watches the city turn into a war zone; Robert Richardson, another prize-winner for his reportage on the Watts riots; the photographer Bob Clark, also in Watts, telling what it's like to nearly get beaten to death by white cops. CORE leader James Farmer describes in riveting detail how he barely escaped from a Louisiana lynching.
Not every piece holds up. In this company, Robert Penn Warren's book-length Segregation does not justify all the space it eats up in Volume I; the same can be said for Pat WattersÕ piece on the Poor People's March in Volume II. The brilliant New Yorker critic Elizabeth Hardwick sounds completely out of her element in Mississippi, and Nora Sayre's gooey piece on the Black Panthers succeeds only in making her seem just the kind of white liberal Wolfe had in mind. There are also some lapses. Given the range covered, you can't help but wonder how the editors could have overlooked either Hubert Humphrey's 1948 pro-integration speech to the Democratic Convention, or the Dixiecrat revolt that came about as a result. The book also could have included an excerpt from Marshall Frady's book on Wallace, and maybe Rustin's "From Protest to Politics." But these are quibbles; as a whole, these books are a startling and sobering experience.
Of all the books' multiple impressions, two in particular stand out. One is that dramatic social change demands everything from the people involved, especially if they're going up against centuries of tradition. For anyone who wasn't there or has forgotten, account after account reminds you of how deeply segregation was woven into the fabric of the country, particularly in the laws and attitudes of the South, but by no means strictly there. This fact sometimes eludes the people writing about it. In HuieÕs story on the killing of the three civil rights workers, which involved the participation of a deputy sheriff, the Mississippi governor tries to downplay the death by saying such murders happen nightly in New York. Huie lectures in reply that murders in New York "are not the result of plans in which the police have participated." He was wrong; Lez EdmondÕs story on the 1964 Harlem race riot shows cops gripped by sheer homicidal rage, randomly beating and shooting blacks right and left.
In retrospect, the response of King Ð who stands astride these books like a colossus -- looks like a stroke of genius; he and his followers met violent hatred with a peace that confused and wore down their oppressors. They engaged by disengaging, and by disengaging they pulled the plug on the system.
The other thing that struck me wasn't so much a revelation as a stark reminder: when things heat up, the press doesn't just report the story; it becomes the story, unavoidably. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the press held a mirror up to America, and the face looking back only got more frustrated, more ugly.
In Montgomery, Alabama in 1961, a mob of thousands made no distinction between the Freedom Riders testing interstate bus segregation and the reporters on hand to cover them. Dan Wakefield, reporting for The Nation, was attacked by a band of hoodlums after leaving a meeting of the White Citizens Council during "Salute to Law and Order Night." Amidst the rioting in Oxford, Mississippi, as James Meredith tries to enter Ole Miss, a man with a gun walks up to the French reporter Paul Guilhard and kills him.
"Why can't you report the facts without romanticizing the Negro race?" a newspaper subscriber pitifully writes, after reading about school integration in Memphis. More to the point is the angry young woman who stares down a wire reporter in Little Rock, after a day in which whites had stormed the school and brutalized black students: "Why don't you tell the truth about us? Why don't you tell them we are a peaceful people who won't stand to having our kids sitting next to niggers?"
Just as they were affected by events, the press shaped them, too. Huie scored a coup in his coverage of the murder of Emmett Till when his magazine, Life, paid $4,000 to the exonerated killers to tell what really happened. Huie would also report on how he personally offered a reward for information in the murders of the three civil rights workers. Willie Causey, a black Alabama farmer, would find the future of his family seriously imperiled after telling Life magazine about the racial problems in his home town. James N. Rhea and Ben H. Bagdikian report on how they broke the law in Louisiana by entering an all-black nightclub. (The law of segregation cut both ways in many places; whites were forbidden from entering certain black businesses.)
Things really heat up, of course, with television; as both Robert Coles and David Halberstam point out, the racist tactics of Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor (firehoses, dogs) and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark (nightsticks, random brutality) did as much for the movement as Dr. King. Every time "a bomb went off, a head smashed open," Halberstam writes, "the contributions would mount at King's headquarters." They werenÕt the only one, of course; counter productivity ruled the day in every state in the South, as well as in New York, Philadelphia and California. No matter how bad things got, how out of control, how incendiary, the elected officials and police were always there to make sure they got worse for everyone involved.
In the end, perhaps nothing so disproved the myth of white supremacy as white supremacists themselves. The following reflection by a young black girl in a newly-integrated school in Americus, Ga., in 1970 has the bell-like ring of common sense: "After all these years now, we realize that the whites are just human beings, not supermen without any faults or weaknesses. I can sit there and look at them now and think, `You're not like we been told -- you're no different from me.' Maybe this is what the whites have been scared of all these years, us catching on to the fact that there are some of them just as dumb as anything ever walked on two feet. Why, a boy in one of my classes, he just sits there all the time eating pencils."