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To whom it may concern: memoirs of civil rights leaders, some never written, put flesh on the story of the Movement.

"In including some of the things that follow, I have had to agonize, balancing my need to tell a complete and honest story with what I know to be my responsibility to respect the privacy and dignity of the living and the dead. I can only say that I have written nothing in malice and omitted nothing out of cowardice (or so I like to believe)."

--Ralph David Abernathy And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

Certain periods in human history demand personal memoirs that bear witness to the disappointments, hope and turmoil of their time, because of how that time stood at the very center of great changes in human history.

As with any important period, we expect major players to sit down and write their highly subjective memories of what was really going on. Often, as in the Civil Rights era, the major players either did not live long enough to write something, or for various reasons, they never got around to it.

Of the so-called "Big Six" (Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Roy Wilkins, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Whitney Young Jr., Urban League; John L. Lewis, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; and James Farmer, Congress of Racial Equality), King was cut down by an assassin's bullet at the young age of 39 and Whitney Young drowned off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria, at the age of 50 in 1971. They didn't get a chance to write a memoir.

For King, a memoir of sorts has been cobbled together from his many speeches, books and letters by his estate, and organized into a coherent whole by Professor Clayborne Carson of Stanford University. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Warner Books, November 1998) gives us some insight into the mind of Dr. King, as he and his colleagues started realizing, in short order, that they were standing at center on the world stage.

It was fascinating to read in tandem this book with his inseparable companion and fellow revolutionary, The Reverend Ralph David Abernathy's wonderful memoir And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (HarperCollins, November 1991). Both men give their insights into the great campaigns they led, starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Many say the Civil Rights Movement began on December 1, 1955, when the legendary Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and was arrested. One could also reasonably argue that it really began on May 17, 1954, with the United States Supreme Court's Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka decision outlawing school segregation.

Martin and Ralph

Whatever the case, it is undeniable that the Montgomery struggle threw two young, untested black men, only in their twenties, into one of the greatest movements for human rights in human history.

The compelling reasons for the boycott were clear to King: "The bus situation," he writes, "was one of the sore spots of Montgomery. If a visitor had come to Montgomery before the bus boycott, we would have heard the bus operators referring to Negro passengers as "niggers," "black apes," and "black cows." He would have frequently noticed Negro passengers getting on at the front door and paying their fares, and then being forced to get off and go to the back doors to board the bus, and often he would have noticed that before the Negro passenger could get to the back door, the bus drove off with the fare in the box."

As letters of support--and just as important, money--poured into their office from all over the world: Ralph Abernathy discovered that what they were doing was now much larger that just a bus boycott in a small, obscure southern city.

"I don't know," he writes in The Walls Came Tumbling Down, (a great title by the way, which explains everything) "precisely when we realized that what we were doing in Montgomery was the beginning of a genuine and important movement ... Neither one of us believed he (King) was ready to lead a national crusade ... But events began to change our perspective.

"Most important, perhaps, was the role television was playing ... Words accomplish only so much. Photographs move people more readily, and moving pictures on a screen are even more emotionally provocative. Without television, I doubt that we could have escalated the Montgomery boycott into the American Civil Rights Movement. With nightly films of atrocities and occasionally live reports, our opportunities were significantly enlarged."

One Lone Voice

Whereas Rev. Abernathy's memoir was deeply personal, with strong character studies that put human faces on the Civil Rights Movement, warts and all, Dorothy Height's memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir (PublicAffairs Books, June 2003), went in just the opposite direction.

Here, we find a highly intelligent, disciplined, religious woman, deeply committed to the struggle for human rights. From her position as a staff member of the national YWCA, and as president of the National Council of Negro Women, Ms. Height made her presence felt at every turn of the Civil Rights Movement.

Often she found herself as the lone black or the lone woman. Thus she found herself fighting a dun battle, not only for black civil rights, but also for equal rights for women.

One telling example of what she was up against was at the famous March on Washington, where she sat next to Dr. King when he made his famous speech, but she was not allowed to speak. "Even on the morning of the march," she notes, "there had been appeals to include a woman speaker, but Bayard Rustin held fast ... Mr. Rustin's stance showed us that men honestly didn't see their position as patriarchal or patronizing."

There is very little, however, in Ms. Height's memoir that gives us any real insight into who she is as a private person. Her career started in the 20s and continues to this day, but it is only in the second to last chapter that she come out of her many meetings with presidents, First Ladies, kings, queens, Captains of Industries and other notables and gives us a brief glimpse into her personal life.

That Others Might Know

There are other noteworthy memoirs, including, Stokely Carmichael's Ready for Revolution (Simon & Schuster, November 2003), John Lewis's Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (Harvest/HBJ Book, October 1999), and the one I enjoyed the most, James Farmer's Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (Texas Christian University Press, September 1998).

The very essence of any good memoir is that it is, first, well written; and that the writer deals honestly with the victories as well as the fears and inner doubts. In that sense, Farmer's and Abernathy's memoirs succeeded brilliantly, and are classics of the genre.

There is still time, however, for more memoirs of this period to be written. Several people who have not been published but should be come immediately to mind. The NAACP Chairman Julian Bond is one. Another is Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, former executive director of the NAACP. Both have had a long, distinguished history in the Movement. A memoir is not necessarily a full-blown autobiography, and does not have to be just the memories of bold-faced names. Anyone with a sharp eye and a strong sense of the inherent drama of human history, especially in trying times, can bear witness.

Fred Beauford is the former editor of The Crisis magazine and author of The Rejected American (Morton Books, April 2000, ISBN 1-929-18800-5).
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Title Annotation:bibliomane: Choice books from university pressesl and small publishers.
Author:Beauford, Fred
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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