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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African writers in 2013: what has changed and what hasn’t

Pleased as I was to read Taiye Selasi’s new novel, Ghana Must Go, I could not help thinking too little has changed since the writers I described in Ending British Rule in Africa struggled to get their books published in London in the 1930s and ’40s. Despite the many honors paid to Chinua Achebe on his death, the truth is that writers from sub-Saharan Africa still face great obstacles to getting into print, or, if published in their home countries, drawing attention on the world stage. READ MORE OF THIS MAY 24 POST ON THE MANCHESTER UNIVERSITY PRESS BLOG.

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Weaving the cloth of historical fiction

Elaine Neil Orr and I shared a childhood in Nigeria as missionary kids, so it was a special pleasure to read her new historical novel. After an adulthood apart, we met again one afternoon in Asheville, N.C., and talked about how the story of actual nineteenth-century missionaries Lurana and Thomas Jefferson Bowen became the story of fictional Emma and Henry in A Different Sun. READ MY INTERVIEW WITH HER HERE.

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Appeal Qatari poet’s sentence

The international writers’ organization PEN asks that writers protest the continuing imprisonment of Qatari poet Mohammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami. In an email to members today, PEN wrote, “This week, an appeals court reduced his sentence to 15 years, but the conviction on charges of ‘inciting to overthrow the ruling system’ and ‘insulting the emir’ still stands—a clear violation of al-Ajami’s right to freedom of expression.”

Please protest this sentence at https://www.pen.org/content/demand-immediate-release-mohammad-ibn-al-dheeb-al-ajami.

–Carol Polsgrove, February 28, 2013

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Wendell Berry at Home

Wendell Berry’s Imagination in Place is mostly a book about the lives of writers, including his own. Reading it recently, I was reminded of the visit I paid to him and his wife, Tanya, on their farm in Kentucky nearly two dozen years ago, when the relationship of writers to their place in the world was much on my mind. To read my story of that visit, published first in Sierra magazine, November/December 1990, see http://carolpolsgrove.com.

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Life Sentence for a Poet

From CounterPunch, December 12, 2012 –

The life sentence handed out to a poet in Qatar is an unsettling reminder to me of the last time I tried to speak up for a writer in prison. That was in 1995, when Ken Saro-Wiwa was being held by the government of Nigeria for his advocacy on behalf of his people in the oil-rich eastern region. A newspaper finally and belatedly published my small appeal, but by that time Saro-Wiwa was already dead, executed.

Now, today – not tomorrow or next week or next month – is the time for poets, writers of all kinds, anyone who believes that people cannot be free if words are not free to fax or write government officials in Qatar, asking for the release of Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami. You can find officials’ names and addresses here: http://www.pen-international.org/newsitems/qatar-poet-sentenced-to-life-imprisonment-fears-for-safety/.

Reports vary on which poem landed this poet in prison, but no one seems to doubt that he was imprisoned for what he said as a poet.

So far, I see no evidence that governments, either the U.S. or any other, are condemning the imposition of this sentence, which so transparently violates international accords on human rights, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights.

When I asked the PEN International Writers in Prison Committee if any governments had lodged protests of this sentence, I received an email December 12 from Ghias Aljundi, the committee’s Middle East Research and Development Officer: “According to my knowledge, no ambassadors launched any protests. Unfortunately, Qatar is the little baby of the western and the US governments. Only human rights organisations have been protesting.”

Please join them.

Carol Polsgrove is author of Ending British Rule in Africa: Writers in a Common Cause.

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