Stirring Recollections

How do you pick the best writing to come out of the civil-rights movement? Tom Wicker — who has covered the politics of race since the ’60s — examines a new anthology and finds some long-lost treasures.

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Voices in Our Blood: America’s Best on the Civil Rights Movement Edited by Jon Meacham. Random House. 640 pages. $30.

Labeling any anthology as “best” (of the year, of the century, in English, by Native Americans, etc.) is a chancy proposition. In this collection — a single volume purporting to reprint “America’s Best on the Civil Rights Movement” — some readers will mourn pieces inexplicably left out from the immense literature of that memorable time and those traumatic events; others will wonder how some of the writings included could possibly have made the editor’s cut in preference to their choices.

That might well have been my reaction to Voices in Our Blood, were it not for two items in its list of contents that quickly stilled my incipient dissent.

One is that remarkable, and remarkably prescient, picture of a pre-movement South lingering in the age of lynchings, unprepared for, and hardly able to conceive of, the storm about to burst: “Opera in Greenville,” by Rebecca West. I had not read it in nearly half a century, since not long after its appearance (I learned from the credits) in the New Yorker on June 14, 1947. I had never since been able to locate a copy.

The other is “Bloody Sunday” — a chapter from one of the great memoirs of the movement, Walking With the Wind, by one of its greatest men, John Lewis. In 1965, Lewis (now a member of Congress from Georgia) was the leader of the 600 marchers who started peaceably across the Edmund Winston Pettus Bridge on their way from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in quest of their voting rights.

Even Lewis in the front rank did not know that waiting on the other side of the high arched bridge over the Alabama River was “a sea of blue-helmeted, blue-uniformed… state troopers, line after line of them… Behind them were several dozen more armed men… some on horseback… many carrying clubs the size of baseball bats.”

Lewis marched on, though he noticed “several troopers slipping gas masks over their faces.” When a member of the group asked for a “word” with the officer commanding the state troopers, the officer replied, “There is no word to be had… you have two minutes to turn around and go back…”

Unable to go forward and unwilling to retreat, Lewis told the marchers to kneel and pray. But not everyone had time to do so before the “troopers and possemen swept forward as one, like a human wave, a blur of blue shirts and billy clubs and bullwhips.” A white woman shouted from somewhere, “Get ’em! Get the niggers!” But John Lewis felt “strangely calm” as he thought: “This is it. People are going to die here. I’m going to die here.”

Lewis suffered a skull fracture that day. Dozens of his followers were injured, many severely — but the charging horsemen and club-swinging troopers, the beaten and bloodied Americans, all featured on national television that night, aroused the nation as had few other outrages. The more formal, highly publicized march on Montgomery and Governor George C. Wallace proceeded several days later, and the seminal Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a primary result.

There’s far more here than these favored articles of mine. Others will find plenty to extol: including pieces by John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Robert Penn Warren (who quotes one candid Southerner’s eulogy for the Solid South: “Hell, all Southerners are Republicans at heart, conservative, and just don’t know they’re Republican”); by some of our best journalists — Murray Kempton, David Halberstam, Russell Baker, Marshall Frady; by writers not primarily thought of in connection with the movement — E.B. White, William Styron, Tom Wolfe, Calvin Trillin; and excerpts from incomparable works such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr.

Among many other items, I was intrigued by a short sketch from 1963, “Mystery and Manners,” by Flannery O’Connor, in which she observes that outside the South “the race problem is settled when the Negro has his rights.” But for white or black Southerners, “that’s only the beginning. The South has to evolve a way of life in which the two races can live together with mutual forbearance. You don’t form a committee to do this or pass a resolution: both races have to work it out the hard way. In parts of the South these new manners are evolving in a very satisfactory way; but good manners seldom make the papers.”

As it pertains to the South (though not to the rest of the nation), that made much sense 30-odd years ago. Today, it may well define why black and white seem to get along better in the former Confederacy than in many a crowded Northern city or high-rise office.

But the “best” of the movement? Let’s just say that in Voices in Our Blood, Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s managing editor, has done about the best job of anthologizing the movement that I’ve seen.

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