Monday, October 19, 2009

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963

Reading this book affected my view of the civil rights struggle profoundly. First, it introduced me to the spirit of the non-violent movement, which was not orderly at all but somewhat chaotic and full of internal debates and rivalries. Then, it shocked me with the level of violence perpetrated against those who were demonstrating for rights I had taken for granted. The description of segregationist mobs who attacked the Freedom Riders, in particular, and out-and-out violence and intimidation against civil rights protesters in general made me think twice about my perception of an empathetic response to the civil rights movement. Many white Southerners were blinded by hatred and bigotry to the extent that they would justify atrocities to defend segregation; there was precious little empathy in the response to the protests. Finally, the book opened up the federal government's response, including anti-Communist paranoia at the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and quite a bit of foot-dragging on the part of the Kennedys in responding to the civil rights movement's activities. The march on Washington, which established Martin Luther King as a national leader capable of swaying the nation, also resulted in very little specific progress on the civil rights bill, in part due to the Kennedys' dependence on Southern Democrats who were also segregationists. The chapter after the march on Washington is entitled "Dreams and Nightmares" and puts the "I Have a Dream" speech in context with the Birmingham church bombing that followed close on its heels. The story as a whole is gripping and intense, and despite the huge cast of characters (history isn't as simple as a novel), it provides a powerful insight into how this change in American life came to be.
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