Samuel C. Hyde, Jr., ed. Sunbelt Revolution: The Historical Progression of the Civil Rights Struggle in the Gulf South, 1866-2000.
Samuel Hyde has compiled an interesting collection of original essays that help bring to light the influence of the Gulf Coast in the Civil Rights Movement. Sunbelt Revolution examines some familiar situations, like Montgomery, and some less known, like the wade-in at the Biloxi beaches or the intersection of race and class among dockworkers in Texas. The essays place the Gulf Coast at the center of the struggle for Civil Rights; and, although this volume picks up during the Reconstruction Era, it could have just as easily been traced back to the Spanish and early American eras. What the essays detail is that the struggle for equality in America was an ongoing and progressive one that asked ordinary citizens to make extraordinary sacrifices.
The first third of the volume focuses on the period of national rediscovery after the Civil War. James G. Hollandsworth examines the activities of the newly free black population in New Orleans, Louisiana, between 1865 and 1867, focusing primarily on the July, 1866, riot and its aftermath. The riot was stimulated by the same general demands that would outline the next century of struggle: "equal accommodations on public transportation, access to public schools, parks, and libraries, and the right to vote." In late July, 1866, as many in New Orleans debated the validity of a new constitutional convention and the suffrage of black males, crowds outside the Mechanic's Institute were engaged in armed battle. Black supporters, many veterans of the recent war, were well armed and in defendable positions, but the overwhelming police and white mob presence proved too much and the slaughter of the blacks and many of their white supporters began. In the late afternoon on July 30th, the U.S. Army unit stationed in the city finally intervened. Events like this helped fire the Radical Republicans' call for a more direct approach at reconstruction, including the inclusion of black males into the electorate. Joseph Logsdon and Lawrence Powell remind us of New Orleans activist Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes' role in the challenges to segregation that inevitably led to the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896. Initially confident that the court would rule in favor of integration, his action backfired and a host of rights won earlier were lost.
The middle third of the work examines the methods of resistance and accommodation undertaken during the halcyon days of Jim Crow. Houston Robertson traces the importance of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church back to one of its founding members, Robert Chapman Judkins, who help create traditions of protest in a style Robertson labels "accommodating activism ... against a backdrop of persistent racial hostility and oppression." Most symbolic was the drive and commitment to build and maintain the church across from the state capitol, fully under the noses of the white community. Judkins organized a variety of self-help workshops (a la B. T. Washington) and helped to build self-confidence and hope among the black population. Rebecca Montes explores the intersection of race and class during the Great Depression among dockworkers in Texas, and focuses on ideals and activities of the International Longshoremen's Association. She argues that, while the union encouraged solidarity and advocated an agenda of inclusiveness, white workers were limited by the racial ideology of Texas and rarely saw their black and brown brothers as equal to the benefits of activism. In the hierarchy of inequality that developed, black workers fared better than their Mexican American brothers, who labored under the limitations of race and xenophobia. Gary Mormino examines the rise of the all-white primary in Florida in the early part of the twentieth century as part of the Southern progressive desire for reform and control. This practice all but eliminated the voice of blacks from the electoral process. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1944 that these white primaries violated the basic tenets of the Fourteenth Amendment, Florida was faced with the problem of redefining its party policies. Over the next decade, local and state black reformers worked to register new voters, adding over 100,000 within a decade. Florida's relatively quick transition identified it as one of the leaders of the New South movement and would open up the state for economic and social transition.
Focusing on four activities in the mature Civil Rights era--the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, the Biloxi beach riot, and the integration of the Louisiana State police--the work comes full circle. The second section outlines the rise of the Dexter Street Baptist church as the symbolic center of the struggle for equality, and in Raymond Arsenault's essay on the Montgomery Bus Boycott he reminds us that the situation that catapulted the movement generally "caught almost everyone by surprise." Few in the movement believed any type of movement could start in the heart of Dixie and the lack of clear planning "created more confusion than solidarity" as group rivalries and leadership issues indicated that the "road itself remained long and hard." Gregory Padgett's analysis of the lesser known Tallahassee bus boycott connects to the earlier essay on the changes that came with the demise of the all-white primary in Florida. His essay outlines the differences between the events in this Florida college town and Montgomery, as it was primarily begun by college students, involved some white students from Florida State University, and quickly transformed the "social, political, and economic institutions in the city." Begun in May, 1956, by two female Florida A & M University students, the event sparked immediate reactions from the white community. Administration pressure forced the leadership to be transferred to the newly formed Inter-Civic Council and its president, the Reverend Charles Kenzie Steele. Like Montgomery, divisions within the black community developed, and the city and its white residents employed a variety of tactics to limit support, including pressuring the State Board of Control to forbid "all student participation in civil rights activity." The boycott and segregated seating ended in 1957 and initiated a series of desegregation campaigns throughout the city. In one of the most interesting essays in the book, James Patterson Smith outlines the struggle to integrate the beaches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast from 1959 to 1964. With no organizational backing other than to right an obvious wrong, in May, 1959, Dr. Gilbert Mason and several friends drove to the beach to swim. They were stopped by a local police officer and as a result began the drive to open the beaches to all citizens. Over the next several months Mason and others tried to organize support but were rebuffed on virtually all fronts. Local authorities warned of bloodshed, black residents faced retribution, and when Mason finally went into the water, on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1960, he did so alone. His arrest and trial galvanized the black community to support the effort, and over the next several weeks, the area suffered through some of the worst race riots in its history. Even as the Justice Department intervened on the side of the waders, the city refused to budge and the wade-ins continued until the summer of 1963. The final essay, by Roman Heleniak, argues that Louisiana was able to avoid the major difficulties of its neighbors by using state troopers to protect all the citizens, and by recruiting black members to join that branch of service by 1967. These activities, directed by Governor John McKeithen, allowed for a smoother transition into the modern era and connected with earlier efforts aimed at tapping into the multi-racial heritage of Louisiana.
Sunbelt Revolution is an interesting and informative read. There is much to be gleaned from this work, and Hyde does well to create a unified volume of readings. However, with more than half of the essays on Louisiana or Montgomery, much of the Gulf Coast is left out. Excepting the Montes, Padgett, and Smith articles, most of the pieces tend to reflect the top-down approach of traditional civil rights scholarship and, while informative, tend to reinforce existing paradigms. Hopefully, these excellent essays will inspire other examinations of the many communities along the Golf Coast that challenged the limitations of civil rights and individuals who resisted and redefined the system.
Bindas, Kenneth J.
Kent State University, Trumbuli
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|Author:||Bindas, Kenneth J.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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