Civil Rights Movement
By Jim Carrier
Harcourt, 362 pp., $14 (paper)
Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day 1863. But when the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 1922, a principal speaker at that ceremony, Dr. Robert Moton of the Tuskegee Institute, was seated in the "Colored Only" section. He had to be. The Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment did nothing to stop the greater force of Jim Crow, and Jim Carrier's A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement never lets us forget it.
Carrier does more than guide us to the better-known museums and memorials and lesser-known byways of the civil rights movement: He traces the move-ment's very geography across 10 Southern states and the District of Columbia, with side stops stretching from Massachusetts to Kansas -- a "heritage tour" in book form but one with some unexpected but significant entries.
Case in point: Amzie Moore's house in Cleveland, Mississippi, a private home still but a former "revolving dormitory" and "safe house" for activists during the movement's voter-registration drives in the 1960s. (Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, and John Lewis knew the place well.) But Carrier also lists Moore's boarded-up gas station on Highway 61, a station "said to offer the only restrooms for black drivers between Memphis and Vicksburg," and what better way to illustrate the temper of the times?
On another scale: 1406 Orange Street in Wilmington, North Carolina, the home of Dr. Hubert Eaton, an African-American physician who fought to admit black doctors to the staff of an all-white Wilmington hospital. A tennis enthusiast, Dr. Eaton also hosted and helped train a struggling high school student -- a Harlem teen-ager by the name of Althea Gibson -- on his own backyard court, and what better way for Carrier to indicate the economic divide within the black community and the full extent of the period's prejudice?
We read of James Meredith in Oxford in 1962, of course. But consider, because Carrier does in some detail, the case of Clyde Kennard, who left the University of Chicago in 1959 to care for his ailing father in Eatonville, Mississippi. When Kennard sought to enroll at the University of Southern Mississippi, he was instead sentenced to seven years in Parchman Penitentiary on the trumped-up charge of stealing chicken feed. "On his deathbed," Carrier writes, "Kennard told author John Griffin that his death would be worthwhile 'if only it would show this country where racism finally leads. But the people aren't going to know it, are they?'" Thanks to Carrier, they do.
Carrier is especially good at sites where no marker exists at all. Case in point: Groveland, Florida, where in 1951 four black men were charged with assault and rape by an "estranged" white couple. A posse killed one of the men. Another, a 16-year-old, got life. And Sheriff Willis McCall shot the remaining two, killing one instantly, while they were manacled together and in McCall's custody. State NAACP chair Harry Moore called for McCall's resignation, and one month later, on Christmas night, Moore's house was bombed. Moore was killed; his wife died nine days later. No one was ever arrested for the bombing, but Carrier keeps his comments to a minimum.
That isn't the case when it comes to the author's occasional editorializing on other issues. Carrier, a journalist from Mobile, makes clear John F. Kennedy's lackluster record on race legislation, and he makes sly reference to Ronald Reagan's non-record in favor of "states' rights." "Except for a few, the forty-three most powerful leaders in U.S. history ranged from hypocrites and racists to men reluctant to get involved," Carrier writes. "[T]hey consistently subordinated minority rights to the political clout of whites." Any reason to quibble, then, when Carrier spotlights Lyndon Johnson after his advisers recommended he pull the civil rights bill until after the 1964 election? None. "What the hell is the presidency for if I can't use it for something like civil rights?" Johnson said, to his credit and the country's benefit.
To Carrier's credit: His book is just in time for the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. And this month, Black History Month, the book comes as an excellent primer for students and adults alike. Further evidence? See Carrier's sidebar "Jim Crow in a Nutshell," a checklist ready-made for classrooms and a reminder to us all.