Authors: Jon Meacham
One writes out of one thing onlyâone's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to re-create out of the disorder of life that order which is art.
One day in 1957, in Paris, Willie Morris, then a 22-year-old Rhodes scholar, got hold of Richard Wright's Left Bank telephone number. They had both grown up in Mississippi; on the phone, Morris, a descendant of the first territorial governor of the state, told Wright, the son of an illiterate sharecropper, that he was a white Yazoo City boy. “You're from Yazoo?” said Wright, who had expatriated himself to Europe ten years before. “Well, come on over.” They went out to an Arab bar and, in Morris's recollection, “got a little drunk together, and talked about the place we had both known. I asked him, âWill you ever come back to America?'Â ” “No,” the novelist said. “I want my children to grow up as human beings.” After a time, Morris remembered, “a silence fell between us, like an immense painâor maybe it was my imagining.”
And so there they sat on that awkward, liquid evening, two gifted writers, connected by a common heritage yet hopelessly divided by skin color. Fortunately for the rest of us, what could not be said could be written. “What had I got out of living in America?” Wright mused in his 1945 memoir
recalling the beginning of his instinct to write his life. “Yes, the whites were as miserable as their black victims. If this country can't find its way to a human path, if it can't inform conduct with a deep sense of life, then all of us, black as well as white, are going down the same drain.Â .Â .Â . I picked up a pencil and held it over a sheet of white paper.Â .Â .Â . I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”
A march of words.
The work of America's finest authors on race echoes down the decades, illuminating the conflicting, often subtle forces that would meet in the streets in the 1950s and 1960s. We already have many good sources on the great domestic story of the twentieth century, the civil rights movement: documentaries, memoirs, biographies, oral histories, and works of scholarship. What we have not had until now is a collection of the country's best writing on the midcentury crisis, a single volume of the strongest storytelling about the world in which the movement took shape and played itself out. In his
James Baldwin says that “it is part of the business of the writerâas I see itâto examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source.” The voices in this anthology do just that, capturing the complications behind the public spectacles and charting the competing impulses of grace and rageâthe proper province of reporting, reflection, and writing. There are luminous names here: Baldwin, Robert Penn Warren, Alice Walker, William Faulkner, E. B. White, Ralph Ellison, Rebecca West, Murray Kempton, Maya Angelou. There are writers you've never heard of, but whose stories resonate still. The contributors are reporters and artists, novelists and historians, even a poet or two. There are pieces of journalism drafted in the moment, and memoirs composed long after the action. Kempton, the New York columnist, summed up the spirit in which they were all written, and the overarching stakes of the age, when he wrote, from Nashville in the early autumn of 1957, “In my job we travel, wayfarers .Â .Â . and our moments of reward are our moments of engagement. They are moments when tragedy and comedy are all mixed up, and God and the devil contend like scorpions in a bottle inside the soul of a man before us.” This book is a record of some of the finest reports from that front. Read together, they tell not just what happened, but why.
As the years wear on, the civil rights movement is turning into a civic fairy tale. Datelines evoke images of combat: Little Rock, Birmingham, Selma, Jackson, Nashville, Tuscaloosa, Clinton, Oxford, Watts. On one side stood the segregationists, holding fast to an old order and unleashing police dogs. On the other were African Americans, marching peaceably or taking seats at segregated lunch counters. In retrospect, everything came together in August 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and conjured his Promised Land: a place where his “four little children are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (Watching King's speech on television in the White House, President Kennedy remarked, “He's damn good.”) A moment later, it seems now, the “White Only” signs came down, the polling booths opened up, and the Dream was more or less fulfilled.
But the truth about the movement is much more complicated. Ambivalence was thick; the death of legalized segregation did not end racial discrimination; the South was not the only region with sins to atone for. Without understanding what a close call the movement really was, we cannot appreciate the courage of those who tried to change a nation's habits of heart and mind, nor can we grasp the fact that even the most remarkable revolutions are never complete. The engines behind the prevailing myth are television and the powerful photographs of days when white people did unthinkable things to black people. However heartbreaking, though, the images do not tell the whole story. John Steinbeck learned this firsthand, in New Orleans in late 1960. The schools were integrating, and whites demonstrated each day. “I had seen photographs in the papers every day and motion pictures on the television screen,” Steinbeck wrote in
Travels with Charley.
He made his way to the city and watched as the protestors screamed first at a black girl coming to class. Then came what Steinbeck called “the real show”: The mob's most venomous taunts were hurled at a white father and child who were complying with the law. A telling detail: The whites feared blacks but reserved their greatest fury for those of their own kind who broke ranks.
Steinbeck's nuanced reporting and powerful narrative are typical of the writing in this book. Journalismâand many of the pieces here are journalisticâisn't often thought of as art. Dispatches on deadline are usually, as Philip Graham, publisher of
The Washington Post,
once put it, “the first rough draft of history.” But the most memorable pieces can be both: They make order out of disorder and capture the passions of a given time and place. Reading the writers collected here, small details and chance thoughts stay in the mind, casting light on big things. There's E. B. White's Florida vacation trip to watch spring training: “A few [blacks] turn up at the ballpark, where they occupy a separate but equal section of the left-field bleachers and watch Negro players on the visiting Braves team using the same bases as white players, instead of separate (but equal) bases.” And there's George Wallace's strange surge into the life of the nation, so cinematically captured by Marshall Frady. All these years distant, you can almost smell the stale smoke of the Alabama governor's White Owl cigars and see his sweat as he drawls, “Nigguhs hate whites, and whites hate nigguhs. Everybody knows that deep down.” In 1955, Faulkner jotted a quick line to a Memphis newspaper, warning that “We speak now against the day when our Southern people who will resist to the last these inevitable changes in social relations, will, when they have been forced to accept what they at one time might have accepted with dignity and goodwill, will say, âWhy didn't someone tell us this before? Tell us this in time?'Â ”
But people were telling them plenty; too many just didn't want to listenâand never had. The movement's roots lie deep in the American experience. The question of slavery bedeviled the Founding and gave us the Civil War. The stage for the civil rights movement of the twentieth century was set in the nineteenth: in
Plessy v. Ferguson,
the 1896 Supreme Court decision that gave legal authority to the Jim Crow system of “separate but equal.” This book begins with the United States of the thirties and forties, the milieu in which whites assumed superiority and blacks had not yet found the legal or political means to fundamentally alter the landscape. Daily life was a curious stew of racism and intimacy. “My boyhood experience,” William Styron writes of growing up in the Virginia of the preâWorld War II years, “was the typically ambivalent one of most native Southerners, for whom the Negro is taken simultaneously for granted and as an object of unending concern.” Morris recalls both violence and common interests: He once knocked over a black boy just for sport, but then walked to school with a black quarterback, talking football. “I don't know why they treat these niggers so bad,” Morris's father would say. “They pay taxes just like everybody else. If they pay taxes they oughta get to vote. It's as simple as that.” The language shocks today; the condescension rightly enraged even then. Maya Angelou remembers a white lawman coming to her grandmother's country store to warn her uncle against night riders. For the sheriff it seemed an act of generosity; to Angelou, it was infuriating. “If on Judgment Day I were summoned by St. Peter to give testimony to the used-to-be sheriff's act of kindness, I would be unable to say anything on his behalf,” Angelou writes. “His confidence that my uncle and every other Black man who heard of the Klan's coming ride would scurry under their houses to hide in chicken droppings was too humiliating to hear.”
What made the nation, in the early fifties, begin to listen to voices like Angelou's? In retrospect, there's a neat theory: that the broadening experience of World War II, and the growing conviction that America could not very well fight communism abroad if so much of its population at home was chattel, created a climate in which Jim Crow could not long survive. There is much truth in this. Carl Rowan, reporting in the mid-fifties, saw it: “I know that this is not the South I left in 1942. In the greasy apron behind the counter at that flyspecked honky-tonk there's a guy who talks about Salerno and Anzio and the gay madames of Paree; in the pool hall, shooting craps with two white guys, are three Negroes who have been to Guadalcanal, Okinawa, and Heartbreak Ridge.Â .Â .Â .” Still, the movement snuck up on most blacks and whites. As a youth in rural West Virginia, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. remembers, “Civil rights took us all by surprise.”
Little things added up. For one, the national press was finally paying attention. That had started around 1947, when Turner Catledge, the Mississippi-born managing editor of
The New York Times,
dispatched John Popham, an elegant reporter with a thick Virginia Tidewater accent, to cover the South full-timeâthe first journalist to make a permanent beat of the old Confederacy. Garrulous and charming (a colleague once likened his delivery to “dollops of sorghum sugar fired from a Gatling gun”), Popham became the godfather of the Southern story, interpreting the locals to the press corps, and vice versa. At the Emmett Till murder trial in Sumner, Mississippi, in 1955, Popham arranged the journalists' seating, once staring down Sheriff H. C. Strider, who had declared he wouldn't have any “nigger reporters” in his courtroom. In a column written from Sumner headlined “He Went All the Way,” Kempton recounted how Till's uncle dared to testify against the white men who had murdered his nephew. For that time and place, it was a remarkable act of courage, a defiant and dignified blow against the cruel, white-run prevailing order. In December of that year, Rosa Parks took her stand when she chose not to get up. Small moments, but they loom large. Parks's decision not to surrender her seat on the bus was, she said, “spontaneous.” Once it was made, though, E. D. Nixon, the longtime president of the Alabama branch of A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was determined to take advantage of the moment. He called Martin Luther King, Jr.ânot quite 27, with a new babyâand asked if a meeting to discuss the Parks case could be held at the young minister's church, not because Nixon sensed greatness in King but because Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was closest to downtown. When the session ran long, a frustrated minister got up to leave, whispering to King, “This is going to fizzle out. I'm going.” King replied, “I would like to go, too, but it's in my church.”
He didn't go, and the movement began. Nothing was foreordained. John Lewis recalls how the Selma-to-Montgomery march was almost cancelled on March 7, 1965. It happened anyway, and the public push for the Voting Rights Act gathered force that night, when ABC interrupted its broadcast of
Judgment at Nuremberg
to play the footage of Sheriff Jim Clark's troops' attack on Lewis and Hosea Williams as the marchers crossed the Pettus Bridge. In Lewis's voice you can hear the fear and the anger of those who prayed they would win, but didn't know. There were moments, in fact, when they couldn't be sure they would live, much less carry the day. As the tear gas spread and the troopers advanced on Lewis, he thought, “This is it. People are going to die here.
going to die here.” The movement was anything but monolithic. In
Louis E. Lomax details the fissures between the old and the young within the black community; Lewis recalls how quickly the nonviolent movement found itself threatened by the rise of Black Power. King seemed antiquated: to many young eyes he was out of touch. Stokeley Carmichael, by contrast, was the future, offering a radical solution in 1967: “Black people have not only been told they are inferior, but the system maintains it. We are faced in this country with whether or not we want to be equal and let white people define equality for us on their terms as they've always done and thus lose our blackness or whether we should maintain our identity and still be equal. This is Black Power.” By the time King went to Memphis in the spring of 1968, the minister was on the cool side of the mountain. He was becoming increasingly interested in Vietnam and economic justiceâreal issues, to be sure, but they lacked the focus of a campaign to integrate restaurants and buses and the ballot box. For King, the shadows were lengthening at the time of the assassination.