A Highway Up From Darkness

A Highway Up From Darkness

Reviewed by Robert J. Norrell

Vol. 25, No. 1-4, 2003 pp. 17-18

J. Mills Thornton III, Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2002.

At the end of the Selma march, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a kind of valedictory address of the Civil Rights Movement near the front of the Alabama state capitol in which he reflected on the sequence of events that had brought them to that moment in history. King recalled the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, and then the Birmingham demonstrations which made “the conscience of America begin to bleed,” and finally Selma, the most honorable and inspiring “pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen” in the nation’s history. Over the past decade, King concluded, the Civil Rights Movement had gone “from Montgomery to Birmingham, from Birmingham to Selma, from Selma back to Montgomery, a trail wound in a circle long and often bloody, yet it has become a highway up from darkness.”

Dividing Lines takes us up this highway and gives anyone interested in understanding the Civil Rights Movement our most sophisticated explanation for activism in arguably the three most important places for understanding what the movement did and did not accomplish. It contains three separate studies of communities–Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma–in the Civil Rights Movement. Although connections between the communities are made occasionally, J. Mills Thornton treats each one’s history as unique and autonomous.

His central point is that civil rights activism emerged in each place when city politics developed “cracks” in the entrenched order and presented African Americans with opportunities to seek improvements in their conditions. Out of the dynamic of white political fracture and black political opportunism grew the movement that ended segregation and disfranchisement.

Thornton’s method offers a chronological description of developments that reveal the contingency of events-how one occurrence in a particular circumstance begat another set of actions in a slightly altered context until, after many such cycles, the community had been transformed. Readers must make a commitment to the book, with well over 300,000 words and extensive detail about each place. The author assumes that the reader knows the larger narrative–the “Eyes on the Prize” story line–and he mostly ignores historiographical debates in the text, even with those authors he flatly contradicts.

Several distinctions set this work apart from the existing literature. Readers familiar mainly with the King-centered narratives of David Garrow, Taylor Branch, and Adam Fairciough will find here far more hard-nosed criticism of King’s motives and actions, at least as they pertained to these cities. A fiercely independent mind, Thornton does not defer to King’s heroism, explores his failures as a leader and the inconsistencies of his decision-making, and frankly does not give him his due until the end of the book. Fred Shuttlesworth, the courageous Birmingham ally of King, is at the center of Birmingham story, but he also is held to much stricter account than he got in Diane McWhorter’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning Carry Me Home.

Certainly no history of the movement has dealt more seriously with white conservative attitudes toward civil rights activism, which until now has been a glaring lacuna in the literature. He explains how white attitudes toward blacks hardened when challenged but also how splits among segregationists emerged as white violence threatened economic progress. Nor have the so-called “moderate” whites been so precisely and sympathetically characterized. Similarly, he demonstrates sensitive understanding of the black middle-class in the three cities, especially when they were at odds with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s national strategy for change.

Better than anyone else, Thornton explains the crucial relationship between black activists and the posture of the individual federal courts in Alabama and reveals how the emerging symbiosis between street protests and particular judicial rulings represented one of the most important contingencies in the civil rights story.

Some of Thornton’s boldest analysis comes when he carries his story past 1965, especially as he dissects

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attitudes in Selma. Positing that politics usually finds a practical settlement to disputes through compromise, even if it creates much ill will, he writes that “in Selma, as in other southern communities like it, the historical division of race can seem so completely to submerge other distinctions, and the fears and resentments surrounding race can remain so powerful and so obdurate, that the capacity of political institutions to locate an acceptable accommodation is severely diminished.” Blacks then sought favorable solutions from an external source, the federal courts, and whites were left believing that “federal power was engaged in an essentially vindictive persecution of their region and city, requiring a series of revolutions in social and political practice.” Moreover, the younger generation of African Americans lacked the sense that their parents gained during the civil rights struggle that they could change their world. Thus on both sides, people believed “that their destiny was no longer theirs to determine,” and Selma and other communities like it “lost the will to make its own compromises.”

Notwithstanding this great admiration for the work, two notes of dissent must be made. Thornton argues so vigorously for a political explanation for why activism emerged in these three cities that he does not acknowledge that some of his evidence supports alternate explanations. For example, at crucial points in all three cities, white businessmen challenged the harshest forms of white supremacy as a detriment to future economic progress. Thornton provides the facts but does not entertain analytically the possibility that economic motives had overridden political concerns. Nor does he address the sociologists’ “mobilization” argument-that the movement followed the accumulation of blacks’ resources in improved education, communications, and group institutions-for which he also provides abundant support.

Similarly, the focus on the internal political developments in the three cities is not connected to Martin King’s powerful ideological appeal. His invocation of American democratic values and Judeo-Christian morality moved national politics and the federal government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Events in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma were crucial in making King’s ideological appeal. As Thornton suggests at one point, the highway up from darkness was lighted by King’s ability both to show the contradiction between segregation and American democratic values and to attract the attention of people far beyond Alabama’s borders to that reality.

Robert J. Norrell holds the Bernadette Schmitt Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is author of the award-winning Reaping the Whirlwind: the Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee, and other books.