Record Of Wrongs: Majestic collection of civil rights journalism opens the heart to the pain of injustice
Reporting Civil Rights
Part One: American Journalism 1941-1963
LIBRARY OF AMERICA; 996 Pages; $40 .
Reporting Civil Rights
Part Two: American Journalism 1963-1973
LIBRARY OF AMERICA; 986 Pages; $40
To try to reckon with the power of this remarkable, two-volume collection from the Library of America, “Reporting Civil Rights,” it might be helpful to do a little thought experiment: Imagine what it would do to George W. Bush to read these two fat volumes.
The question is not whether the book would change Bush. Oh no. That much is certain. The question is whether, in a real sense, he could even survive the experience. Bush, like many Americans, has staked much on a good-natured lack of awareness of what it is like to live at the opposite end of the power spectrum from the one he has always known. Bush’s charm, such as it is, rests on the impression he conveys of being eminently comfortable with this stunted perspective. He seems to like who he is, in short, and not to fear all that he fails to be.
No one who reads — not skims — all 1,982 pages of this kaleidoscope of writings on America’s greatest struggle of self-definition can come away without a deeply humbling sense of that human quality that most unites us all: the certainty that we all have a knack for fooling ourselves and finding ways to justify everything from petty slights to grievous harm.
The point is not to pick on Bush. Nor is it to kick fresh life into that pathetic old zombie, white liberal guilt. The ultimate subject of this collection is not the ways in which some of us have failed others but rather the way that we as a people have failed ourselves. It’s a theme not without relevance here at the outset of the 21st century.
“Buchenwald was one of the worst things that ever happened in the entire history of the world,” James Baldwin wrote nearly 40 years ago in “Nobody Knows My Name.” “The world has never lacked for horrifying examples; but I do not believe that these examples are meant to be used as justification for our own crimes. This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling. The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes.”
Baldwin, it may go without saying, is one of the stars of this collection of 188 pieces of writing, some of them book excerpts, but most newspaper and magazine journalism. That is because the tone of pain and outrage and hard-
won clarity that defines his work comes across here differently than when it stands alone. Here it comes almost as a relief, after so many numbing and disturbing details, rather than a challenge.
What the collection can offer the reader is something no mere book can: membership (albeit it only honorary, or provisional membership) in a community.
No reader, especially no white reader, can ever really know what it felt like to be forced to the back of the bus, or whacked on the head or just plain ignored. But by getting to know the people who played the major roles in the civil rights struggles of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, a reader can at least come a little closer to gaining a lasting sense of what those struggles meant and how they can never really be over.
Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” wraps up the collection with a 1973 New York Times Magazine article in which she explores a variation on this theme. “When Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter were first seen trying to enter the University of Georgia, people were stunned: Why did they want to go to that whitefolks’ school? . . . I had watched Charlayne and Hamp every afternoon on the news when I came home from school. Their daring was infectious.”
The reader might not have watched on television but can claim an intimate knowledge of what Hunter’s experience was like. Her account of her 1961 experiences has a simplicity and ingenuousness that makes its small, human details more powerful and unforgettable. The night a mob gathers outside her dorm room, and someone breaks her window with a Coke bottle, sending shards of glass all over her clothing, she finds herself musing not on hate but human kindness.
“(O)ne of the most genuine persons it has been my good luck to meet came down and began talking to me,” she writes. “Though it was clear that she herself was nervous, she did all she could under the circumstances to take my mind off what was going on. . . . After she had left I wondered how many people, myself included, would have had the courage to do what she had done.”
Much later, a weary Stokely Carmichael pauses in 1967 to look back at all the battles fought earlier in that difficult decade. He talks to Gordon Parks about the fatal church bombings in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, and by this point, those are much more than buzzwords to the reader. The 15 sticks of dynamite tossed into the 16th Street Baptist Church that year killed four young girls — Cynthia Wesley, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Addie Mae Collins, 14. Claude Wesley wandered around after the blast, looking for his daughter, done up like the others in her Sunday best, and finally went to the hospital.
“They asked me if my daughter was wearing a ring,” Wesley told reporter Karl Fleming. “I said yes, she was, and they pulled her little hand out and the little ring was there.”
Carmichael also talks to Parks about the famous murder of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Miss., the next summer, and again the names Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James E. Cheney are much more than mere bits of data. We can almost see, again, the look on Sheriff Lawrence Rainey’s face as Schwerner’s widow, Rita, sits down with him in his car, and even though he won’t look at her or address her directly, tells him: “I feel that you know what happened. I’m going to find out if I can. If you don’t want me to find out, you’ll have to kill me.”
As Carmichael talks to Parks, who was with Malcolm X’s widow and children the night he was killed, the reader starts to feel, like actual physical pressure, the weight of these and so many other inhuman episodes.
“Stokely recalled how in Montgomery he had broken after seeing a pregnant black woman knocked head over heels by water jetting from a fire hose, and other men and women being trampled by police horses,” Parks notes. ” ‘Suddenly, ‘ he said, rubbing his eyelids, ‘everything blurred. I started screaming and I didn’t stop until they got me to the airport. That day I knew I could never be hit again without hitting back.’ ”
From there it was a short step to black power and a distancing from King’s nonviolent strategies, and another short step to Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers (“Every time you go execute a white racist Gestapo cop, you are defending yourself,” Newton tells the Times Magazine in 1967.)
Hitting back meant full-scale rioting — with fires, snipers and looting — in Watts and other L.A. neighborhoods, in Newark, N.J., and, most horrifically,
in Detroit, all of which is painstakingly recorded here. Bob Clark, covering the Detroit riots for Ebony, is arrested, even though he has a press pass, and tells of sadistic beatings in the filthy cell where he and the others are kept,
and of a black sniper in their midst, telling them, “Man, I got four of them” — meaning white people, most likely police officers — “last night! I sat up there with my bottle of wine and they didn’t know what was happening.”
The collection is not without flaws. Despite the obvious care and debate that went into choices about how much attention to give which people and events, Malcolm X somehow gets short shrift. To cite the space given to him, only seven lines are required in the index; the King references occupy 54 lines.
A February 1965 Village Voice interview with Malcolm, shortly before his death, offers a moving portrait of his complexities. “I care about all people, but especially about black people,” he says. “I’m a Muslim. My religion teaches me brotherhood, but doesn’t make me a fool.”
That’s not to take anything away from the collection, merely to note that anyone who takes it seriously — and that ought to be everyone — can’t help but have strong feelings about the choices that shaped it.
Overall, though, the vastness of the panorama surveyed is a statement unto itself. Not only the famous civil rights episodes of the ’60s, but also glimpses of the ’40s and the ’50s, add up to the readerly equivalent of a headache. It’s too much! Too many petty put-downs and slights. Too much pointless and cowardly violence. Too much gradualism, and way too many deaths. But that, of course, is just the point:
“For years, I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there,” King tells David Halberstam in May 1967, a year before he was killed. “Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society,
a revolution of values.”
Or, as Fanny Lou Hamer tells Jerry DeMuth in May 1964, “All my life I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
A reader knows what she means.
Steve Kettmann, a former Chronicle reporter, lives in Berlin and reviews regularly for The Chronicle.