Commentary Magazine

When the Civil-Rights Movement Was News

The 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard remarked that we live life forward and understand it backward. He was anticipated by William Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility. Philosophically, this idea is hardly foolproof, but it is true that people are not very articulate or comprehending under the influence of strong passion, and need time to remember and reflect before they can put together their sense impressions like so many clues in a puzzle.

These truisms come to mind, at any rate, in thinking about how literature—commonly retrospective, and at least semi-tranquil—enables us to understand the lives of representative figures, and more particularly whether journalism, understood as one branch of literature, can help us get a grip on the events of our time. How illuminating can be the daily, weekly, or monthly reports and summations of those who are said to be writing the first draft of history—and who do so in the heat of the moment as well as under deadline?

In at least one case, the answer is: pretty illuminating. I am speaking of the 188 items in Reporting Civil Rights, the new two-volume, nearly two-thousand-page record of how the American civil-rights movement passed from marches, court battles, and pacifist acts of civil disobedience in the 1940’s; to the glory days of Montgomery, Little Rock, and Oxford, Mississippi, where James Meredith was the first black to enter the state university in 1962; to the squalid riots in Watts, Detroit, Harlem, etc. from 1965 on; to the beginning of the era of affirmative action, which is where this narrative ends.1

Academic historians have too often emptied all these events of their physical pain, mental anguish, and moral ambiguity, tranquilly recollecting what happened in light of outcomes they themselves might happen to favor—the Supreme Court’s overturning of “separate but equal” schooling in 1954, the great Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and ’65, the emergence of the Black Power movement in the mid-60’s, the aggressive programs of preferential treatment thereafter. This imposition of a plot on what was just a story is not merely inevitable, it is admittedly helpful: it is how we “understand” backward. But no less helpful is recurring to the events themselves, or to those portrayals of events offered by contemporaneous journalistic accounts. Indeed, on the basis of these narratives of sit-ins, lynchings, demonstrations, marches, speeches, riots, voter-registration drives, assassinations, jailings, beatings, firebombs, “mau-mauings,” and so forth, we may even start to adjudicate the relative accuracy and pertinence of such thesis-driven (and excellent) books as The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy edited by Lee Rainwater and William Yancey (1967), The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward (1974), Parting of the Waters: America in the King Years by Taylor Branch (1988), or The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy, 1960-1972 by Hugh Davis Graham (1990).

Not that the editors of the new Library of America volumes are without their own agenda, though I would be hard-pressed to define it except negatively. Like the earlier volumes in the series entitled Reporting Vietnam, these give scant space to conservative (or ambivalently liberal) writers—by whom I mean not Southern segregationist reporters and editorialists, who are amply if not always fairly quoted by the liberals writing for mostly Northern newspapers and magazines, but Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, E.B. White, Walker Percy, and the early William Styron, all of whom can be found in Voices in Our Blood: America’s Best on the Civil Rights Movement (edited by Jon Meacham, 2001).

Still, the two volumes do offer both high literary quality and a variety of genres: breaking-news accounts from the dailies (not just the New York Times but the Pittsburgh Courier or the Baltimore Afro-American); contemplative or profile essays from weeklies (the Nation, the Reporter, the New Yorker, the New Republic) and monthlies (COMMENTARY, Life, Harper’s, Look, Collier’s); and, finally, substantive excerpts from important books like Robert Penn Warren’s Segregation: The Inner Conflict of the South (1956), John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961), John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley (1962), Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), and Willie Morris’s Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town (1971). The editors have also provided thorough indexes, biographical notes, and a chronology.



What, then, can we say of the writers who have furnished the pieces for these impressive volumes? To be plain, they did a splendid job recording events as they unfolded day to day. One can appreciate this by consulting the index and following, for instance, the story of Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old from Chicago murdered in Mississippi for being “fresh” with a white woman in 1955; or of James E. Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the civil-rights workers murdered by Mississippi law-enforcement officers in 1964. Other writers created thoughtful background pieces, placing immediate happenings in historical context and giving both participants and onlookers a perspective on larger issues. Finally, the best of them, coupling the autobiographical with the philosophical, the analytical with the prophetic, inscribed minor masterpieces of nonfiction that equal or surpass the achievements of our greatest fiction on racial themes.

And what sort of history emerges from the journalists’ accounts? That is a longer story. At the beginning, in the mid-1940’s, the fledgling civil-rights movement was seen as a continuation of the war ending in 1945 to defeat the racialist totalitarianism of the Axis powers. Black soldiers, fighting in segregated units, had bled and died in the name of an American democracy whose Constitution guaranteed them “the privileges and immunities” of citizenship. They returned in 1945 to a country that, in the South, was not acting up to code.

Reading Reporting Civil Rights, one is reminded how uncertain it was that America would in the end square itself with its Constitution. In the Deep South, as Jack H. Pollack reports, white registrars were systematically preventing blacks from registering to vote by means of a nearly impossible test of “literacy”:

“What is a writ of habeas corpus?” and “What is an ex post facto law?” A Jackson [Mississippi] Negro attempting to register was greeted with: “Now let’s see whether you’re up on your civics. What does ipso facto mean?”

“That means I don’t vote,” replied the Negro, departing.

Nor was progress certain a decade later when, as Ben H. Bagdikian writes, Louisiana’s legislature passed laws “to prohibit all interracial dancing, social functions, entertainments, athletic training, games, sports, or contests and other such activities; [and] to provide for separate seating and other facilities for whites and Negroes.” As Bagdikian sardonically observes at the end of his story: “these same [Louisiana] legislators are the ones who have attacked the [1954] Supreme Court school-integration decision and civil-rights laws with the Southern battle cry: ‘You can’t legislate human relations.’ ”

In addition to being denied the right to vote, Southern blacks, many of whom lived in small towns or on farms, suffered the further indignity of Jim Crow laws, dating from the late 19th century, that established separate but equal (read: separate and unequal) facilities for education, eating, traveling, and going to the bathroom or to the theater. No wonder they were “tired,” like Fannie Lou Hamer in the Mississippi Delta, “of being sick and tired.” And Southern whites were sick and tired, too, though in the 40’s only a few of them knew it. They included Lillian Smith (1897-1966), a well-born teacher, essayist, novelist, and fund-raiser, who, writing in 1949, recalls how she first realized that the South’s entire way of life—customs, sentiments, and ideas learned from childhood—depended on a structure of inequality between blacks and whites. Nearly all whites and many blacks were used to and even comfortable with this inequality. It was not a matter of seating arrangements in a particular restaurant, bus, or train; it was everything people thought and felt about themselves and others.



In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, the egalitarians who were pledged to changing this everything were often white students from the North who went south to join the Freedom Riders testing the new federal laws forbidding discrimination on interstate buses, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee trying to register voters. What they faced together were mobs “using metal pipes, baseball bats, sticks, and fists . . . clubbing, punching, chasing, and beating both whites and Negroes.” Black and white together, fighting for equal opportunity: it was, as Norman Mailer has said of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and the runaway slave Jim, like being “back in the happy time when the love affair [between whites and blacks] was new and all seemed possible.”

Love: it is a motif that runs with striking vividness throughout the pages on those years in the Library of America volumes. And so does its opposite. Powerful white politicians like Senator James Eastland of Mississippi did their best to deny that such love was even thinkable: “Generations of Southerners yet unborn will cherish our memory because they will realize that the fight we now wage will have preserved for them their untainted racial heritage, their culture, and the institutions of the Anglo-Saxon race.” But Martin Luther King, Jr. meant what he said about countering such sentiments with Christian charity: “In our struggle for justice, even Senator Eastland is a child of God, although at times a straying one.” Nor, by the early 60’s, were King’s antagonists limited to white supremacists. In reply to Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslims, who regarded not only Eastland but all white people as “devils” slated for extermination, King clung to the doctrine of nonviolence and “the more excellent way of love.”

Turning the other cheek, loving them that hate you: as events would prove, and as King himself would acknowledge in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” this feat may have been possible for individuals, but for groups it was next to impossible. By August 1963, even as people were boarding buses in New York to travel to the March on Washington, some blacks, we read, were turning on whites with “We don’t need any white liberals to patronize us!” and “If this thing comes to violence, yours will be the first throat we slit. We don’t need your kind. Get out of our organization.” Two years later, during the Watts riots, we hear one black telling another: “We going to get every white motherf—ker comes down this street.” By then, the campaign against segregation was falling victim to black nationalism and reverse segregation, and years of slavery and Jim Crowism were being avenged by all-too-human, sub-Christian hatred and assault.



Did it have to be that way? Journalists, even if they possess the requisite moral curiosity, are not usually equipped to answer such hand-wringing questions, at least insofar as they touch upon the deeper mysteries of the human heart. For that, we turn to the great poets and novelists, and no one with such imaginative genius was working as a journalist during the civil-rights movement. King himself was no literary giant, save in the famous “Letter.” But through his own experience, which included mastery of the Bible, he did know something about the human heart, and could appeal plangently to the compassionating side of the American public. What Michael Thelwell here calls “the torturous road” to the 1963 March on Washington would become, for most people looking back, the road to the mountaintop where King glimpsed the day when “on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood,” and “my four little children will . . . not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It is true that even the great Washington demonstration was plagued by internal dissent—some wanting confrontational speeches threatening a violent march through Georgia that would parallel General Sherman’s in the Civil War, others wanting moderate speeches that would calm white nerves. But the moderates on the whole prevailed. It is thus hardly surprising that King became something of a saint to white liberals, as well as to most blacks—or that his twenty-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in the spring of 1965, seen here through Renata Adler’s piece for the New Yorker, and monitored step by step on national television, seemed a secular equivalent to a Passion Play. Notwithstanding Alabama’s Governor Wallace and his fellow white “segs,” the nation at large knew that Jim Crow was dying and rejoiced at the fact. The federal government, sending several thousand soldiers to protect the marchers, had sided with “De Lawd,” as King was (not always respectfully) known, and in August 1965 President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

And yet by 1968 King was dead, and America was right back where it had been in 1961, when the black novelist James Baldwin described King as someone who “never went around fighting with himself like we all did.” Now everyone was fighting again, and the question was whether love or hatred would prevail—or, since that is simplistically phrased, whether some form of tolerance could “overcome” deep-seated racial animosities. The choice is posed in two rightly famous essays in the second Library of America volume that, by accident of chronology, precede King’s “Letter”: Baldwin’s 50-page “Down at the Cross,” from The Fire Next Time (1962), and Norman Podhoretz’s “My Negro Problem—and Ours” (COMMENTARY, February 1963).

Subtitled “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin’s meditation discloses a tension in the novelist’s own consciousness between, on the one side, a still-enduring commitment to “the cross where my Savior died,” implying a King-like love between the races, and, on the other side, a fear that, absent this love, the Black Muslims’ threat of violent racial strife would be carried out: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!” In short, an almost impossible love versus a very possible hatred.

Baldwin respects the Muslims’ appeal to force. As with England’s military conquests in the 18th and 19th centuries, as with the then-recent fight of the Jews of Israel to regain their homeland, so too, Malcolm X had argued, blacks must take up arms to defend themselves and win the respect of others. (Respect would come with territory: Malcolm wanted to claim the deep-Southern states for blacks as a separate nation, in reparation for the sins of slavery.) But when Elijah Muhammad, in Baldwin’s presence, prophesies “the holocaust awaiting the white world,” and invites Baldwin to save himself by siding with his avenging race, the writer stands aloof. “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white,” Baldwin tells Elijah, “and isn’t love more important than color?”

This effort to transcend what would become known as identity politics means that Baldwin has to oppose the fire-threatening Muslims with, essentially, a politics of personalism. That is, the only force that might manage the task of defeating, or at least regulating, the hatred between black and white is that of love and friendship. If enough individuals could share such feelings, then the groups, potentially at each other’s throat, might yet be content with the gradual improvement of things as they are. Such is Baldwin’s moving if quixotic hope, more easily entertained at his country place in France than back home in Harlem. (In time, he abandoned Harlem and America altogether.)

As the still-new editor at COMMENTARY, Podhoretz had commissioned Baldwin to write “Down at the Cross,” only to see the piece printed, with great sensation, in the pages of the New Yorker, which paid him a then-astronomical $12,000. In this instance, the loss turned out to be a win for COMMENTARY, for Baldwin’s essay stimulated Podhoretz to write his own momentous response.

In “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” Podhoretz does not focus on civil rights per se, though he implicitly acknowledges their importance. Instead, he too zeroes in on the personal, telling what it was like, as a Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn from the early 30’s to the mid-40’s, to be “in relation” to blacks. Contrary to what he would later be told about the supposed “realities” of American life, what he experienced as a boy, he writes, was not white supremacy and black victimization, but rather the opposite: it was he and his friends who were persecuted by young black males. Baited, bullied, and beaten, the young Podhoretz naturally feared and hated blacks—just as, noting their physical grace in sports or dance, or their ability to thumb their noses at authority in school or on the streets, he envied them.

Fear, hatred, and envy were in any case no basis for feeling neighborly, which is why Podhoretz in this essay believes, for reasons very different from Elijah Muhammad’s, that the integrationist program is doomed. Doomed, too, are Baldwin’s (and King’s) pleas for love, which are all right in the home or on the Sabbath but of little relevance to the weekday world of politics. And besides, the hatred on both sides is too strong for love to overcome. Something like “regulated hatred” might, accordingly, be the best we can hope for in the medium term. As for the longer term, Podhoretz puts forward a very American, and very desperate, proposal: let the races blend together through mixed marriage.



As we know from Podhoretz’s later writings, two objections from the black novelist Ralph Ellison stopped this interracialist thinking in its tracks: first, the children of white-black marriages would simply be looked on as black, and would accordingly suffer from white prejudice; second, black culture had, in America as well as in Africa, produced music, literature, religion, and folklore worthy of respect, and rather than cast their culture off as a “stigma,” blacks ought to continue building upon it.

From the perspective of today, four decades later, Ellison’s well-taken strictures have assumed a bitter poignancy. White prejudice, by every relevant index, is weaker than ever in the United States, and black economic and social progress has reached, overall, a stage unimaginable in the 1940’s. In the meantime, the efflorescence of African-American studies programs in our colleges and universities has given young people ample opportunity to build upon black culture.

But the self-ghettoization of such programs is a far cry from W.E.B. Du Bois’s elation, nearly a century ago, over the erasure of color bars between himself and the great artists of any time, place, or race, and the promise of “multiculturalism” has too often been frustrated by blacks-only dorms, study centers, and tables in dining-halls. The post-King outbreaks of rioting in our major cities, the heated and sometimes violent controversy over court-ordered busing of school children, the traps of self-pity and self-righteousness set by today’s religion of victimology, and of course the morally flawed, legally questionable practice of preferential discrimination in college admissions, hiring, and political appointments—all these have contributed to raising walls instead of breaking them down.

One can indeed sometimes spot the birth moments—scattered, occasionally simultaneous—of these troubles in the Library of America’s record of events up to 1973, and the pundits’ ruminations on those events. A crucial series of episodes centers on the emergence of Black Power in the mid-60’s, both under the Muslims and through the rhetoric of New Left-allied spokesmen like Stokely Carmichael (chronicled in pieces by Gordon Parks and Sol Stern). The effect on black neighborhoods in the cities was disastrous, especially when Black Power theorizing spiraled into “burn, baby, burn!”: city blocks were incinerated, businesses ruined, outlying whites made fearful and suspicious, and lives (mostly black) lost in exchange for ripped-off cans of peaches and boxes of stereo equipment.

The effect on educated whites was not good, either, as one can see from Joan Didion’s supercilious, impercipient portrait of Huey Newton (1968), or from Tom Wolfe’s almost zoological exposé (1968-69) of the methods by which “mau-mauing” ruffians off the black streets emasculated the guilt-bearing white “flak catchers” on city councils and in corporate board rooms, shaking them down for money for “poverty programs”:

The [Chicago] police would argue that in giving all that money to gangs like the Blackstone Rangers the poverty bureaucrats were financing criminal elements and helping to destroy the community. The poverty bureaucrats would argue that they were doing just the opposite. They were bringing the gangs [the “real leaders” of the black community] into the system. . . . This didn’t mean that crime decreased or that a man discontinued his particular hustles. He wasn’t a hustler or a hood. He was a fighter for the people, a ghetto warrior.

Did someone say Al Sharpton for President?

But not much good can be done, now, by lamenting the indisputably wrong turns the civil-rights movement took from the day after the 1963 March on Washington. Ours is a different moment, and a radically transformed society. That, however, is also why it is useful to remember the heroic struggle waged up to the March, and afterward, in securing equal access to public accommodations and facilities and in giving the largest American minority a pride in themselves that was matched by a new respect from the white majority. That pride and respect can be affirmed now as they were then: by celebrating not what, because of color, was given but what, thanks to character, was achieved.



1 Reporting Civil Rights, 1941-1973. Library of America. Volume one, 996 pp. Volume two, 986 pp. $80.00.


About the Author

Thomas L. Jeffers is the editor of The Norman Podhoretz Reader, to be published by the Free Press this month.

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