A Reporter’s Retrospective of the Movement
Reviewed by W. B. Ragsdale, Jr.
Vol. 14, No. 1, 1992, pp. 23-25
Free at Last, The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It. Fred Powledge. (Little, Brown, 1991. xxiii, 711 pp.).
It has been more than two decades since the peak years of the Civil Rights Movement. The Movement is now almost legendary. Legends tend to give more credit to some actors in the drama, not enough to others, forget some entirely, and distort facts to make a better story.
Fred Powledge says that the thousands of people who
put their lives on the line deserve to have the facts brought out as to what the Movement was, and was not.
“…the Movement in the South was self-generating, self-fueled, self-motivated and free-standing,” he says, adding:
A native of North Carolina, Powledge draws on his personal experiences in covering the Movement for the Atlanta Journal and the New York Times and on interviews with hundreds of those who actually took part in the events–on both sides.
The Movement, he says, was far from being all-black, or from involving all the black people in the South. It was, however, essentially black-directed with little help from elected officials anywhere, until Lyndon Johnson began to move legislation through Congress in the mid-sixties.
After the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954, “At that time when national leadership was badly needed, one president (Eisenhower) was waffling and talking about how difficult it was to change people’s emotions, another (Kennedy) was appointing journeymen racists to be judges in the South.” The Kennedy Administration’s reluctance to antagonize white Democratic leaders in the South and the FBI’s outright antagonism toward the Movement have been glossed over by revisionist historians, Powledge says.
Even when the Kennedy Justice Department decided to aid the Movement, J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation did nothing at all to halt the violence against civil rights activists. In fact, Hoover, with the approval of Robert F. Kennedy, tapped Martin Luther King Jr’s telephones for several years. The excuse was that the Movement was part of some vague Communist plot.
Tapes of these conversations were distributed far beyond the White House. I remember a Republican Congressman from Alabama offering to let me listen to a recording of King having an alleged extra-marital affair in a motel.
Some now hail the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as the “creator, leader and embodiment of the movement.” This Powledge feels is unfair to other leaders, and especially to the thousands of foot soldiers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and King’s own Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). “The heroism of a Martin Luther King was inspiring, but equally important were the heroic acts of thousands of other people who joined the Movement for a day, a year, five years, a lifetime.”
Powledge also objects to Jesse Jackson being labeled a leader in the Southern Movement, “a perception he rarely has denied, although he spent most of the Movement years in Chicago.” Jackson’s major claim to Movement fame
Powledge also shoots down the myth that Rosa Parks was merely an old Negro woman too tired to move back in the bus. Before that afternoon in 1955, Rosa Parks had been an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1943. The summer prior to her arrest she had attended the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a center for education in the fields of labor organization and anti-discrimination work.
Powledge does a lot more than simply recount the events that characterized the movement in the fifties and sixties. After each episode, he interviews some of the participants, getting their perspective these many years later.
Some who were on the segregationist side have changed their minds. Others have not.
Although the Movement usually projected a united front to outsiders, those Powledge interviewed readily fill in the details of the squabbles over territory and tactics,
the battle for power, the sometimes petty jealousies.
This is a book that belongs in the library of anyone seeking the full story of one of the crucial events in United States history. It does not attempt to tell the whole story, but fills in many gaps left by other accounts.
It is not, however, for those readers simply wanting to get a quick overall view of the movement, although Powledge does provide a chronology of significant events affecting the status of blacks from 1619, when the first slaves were brought to these shores to 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King.
One conclusion he reaches is that the success of the Movement fundamentally eliminated the terror by which the whites had kept blacks in inferior roles.
That terror was readily obvious, even to white reporters covering the story in the South. In those days, many reporters felt safer in the black community than in the white.
It was readily apparent to this reporter in 1956, covering a murder trial in Sumner, Mississippi, six months after the Till case, in the same courtroom. The circumstances were essentially the same, a white man killing a black man, only this time in broad daylight with witnesses.
One prospective juror and a young man outside the courtroom–after the white man had been acquitted–both expressed what seemed a general view:
“I don’t think you should ever convict a white man for killing a Nigger.”
The defendant, a close friend of one defendant in the Till case, expressed his own feelings this way:
“I wasn’t sure justice would be done. I should have knowed.”
That kind of thinking may exist still, but public officials, aware of the power of black voters in most of the South, are inclined to be a lot more zealous in upholding the law for blacks today than in 1956.
The Movement as it was in the fifties and sixties may be gone, but as evidenced in the 1991 governor’s election in Louisiana, the need for it has not died.
Warner Ragsdale, now retired and living in Durham, N. C., for over three decades reported for Associated Press and U.S. News and World Report, often from the South.