Writers and the Civil Rights Movement

For journalists who wonder if the little bit they do, day by day, week by week, makes a difference, paging through the Library of America’s anthology, Reporting Civil Rights, newly reissued, should reassure them.

I was reminded of that recently when an invitation to appear on the Tavis Smiley radio show sent me back to those two volumes, which I and three other editors helped to edit.

Many of the writers of these 1,800 pages were not professional reporters but people in other walks of life who felt moved to bear witness.

Lawrence Reddick, a professor at Alabama State, wrote about the sit-ins his students were staging – and lost his job for his efforts on their behalf.

Anne Moody (Coming of Age in Mississippi) was herself a Tougaloo student caught up in the movement in Jackson, Mississippi – and scared her mother so much that “she said if I didn’t stop that shit she would come to Tougaloo and kill me herself.”

Novelist James Baldwin was in Paris when he saw a photo of a young African-American girl braving a hostile crowd and came back home to travel south, where he seriously feared for his life. Meeting the students determined to make things different, he wrote a series of magazine articles that led finally to the powerful New Yorker piece we know as The Fire Next Time.

The writers’ bios at the end of the Reporting Civil Rights volumes don’t begin to describe the work that went into these chronicles and meditations – or the sacrifice: the dangers run, the personal prices paid. For that readers may want to go to The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff or my own Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement.

But readers can imagine from the stories themselves what it was like for the writers writing them:  to be Murray Kempton, crowded into a pew in that Montgomery church with a mob howling outside…  or Julian Mayfield, caught up in the melee of Monroe, N.C. (and later fleeing the country to live the rest of his life in exile)… or Garry Wills, riding the bus to Atlanta with the striking Memphis garbage workers bound for the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As my fellow editor Clayborne Carson pointed out in the Tavis Smiley interview, important as he was, Martin Luther King Jr. was not the Civil Rights Movement. The movement was powerful because so many were involved – giving up their lives, temporarily or for good, to bring change about. Among those were the writers who walked alongside them, taking notes.

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