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  • The Movement as HistoryFreedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement by Robert WeisbrotReview by: John DittmerReviews in American History, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Dec., 1990), pp. 562-567Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2703055 .Accessed: 06/12/2014 13:27

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  • THE MOVEMENT AS HISTORY

    John Dittmer

    Robert Weisbrot. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton, 1990. xv + 350 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $21.95.

    Americans have rediscovered the civil rights movement. The acclaimed PBS series, "Eyes on the Prize," the Pulitzer prize-winning volumes by David Gar- row and Taylor Branch, the fatally flawed film Mississippi Burning-all have found audiences fascinated with this period and its people. Courses on the civil rights era are proliferating on college campuses, and no respectable U.S. history survey fails to include a section on the movement. In light of this renewed interest, historian Robert Weisbrot's effort to incorporate the grow- ing body of civil rights scholarship into a single volume is significant. Freedom Bound traces the development of the modern civil rights movement from the 1954 Brown decision through the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and then turns to the movement's transformation and decline dur- ing the Nixon and Reagan years.

    To cover so much territory in 317 pages is in itself an achievement. Weis- brot's "central aim is to relate the civil rights movement to broader currents in American political reform, in the belief that the black quest for justice and the national crusade for a 'Great Society' are best understood in relation to each other"; he focuses on "the increasingly turbulent relations between black activists and white liberals" (p. xiv). Readers unfamiliar with the black free- dom movement will come away from this book with an awareness of the complex racial dynamics of the period, as well as an understanding of the major issues, campaigns, victories, and defeats. A synthetic work should also reflect the most recent scholarship and acknowledge historiographical trends, and here Freedom Bound falls somewhat short.

    Fully half the volume deals with the two decades following passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With its primary emphasis on events occurring outside the South, and analysis of major political and intellectual develop- ments, this section is the strongest in the book. Here Weisbrot assesses the limitations of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, examines the "white back-

    Reviews in American History 18 (1990) 562-567 ? 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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  • DITTMER / The Movement as History 563

    lash" that propelled George Wallace onto the national political scene, and analyzes the impact of the Vietnam war on the politics of race. He discusses the relationship between school desegregation and the courts, and cuts to the heart of the controversy surrounding community control of the schools in the Ocean Hill section of Brooklyn. And in rehearsing the measures taken by the Nixon and Reagan administrations to reverse many of the gains blacks had made in the 1960s, Weisbrot provides a forceful reminder of the distance still to be travelled before the goals of the movement are to be realized.

    The author devotes considerable time to the development of black nation- alism, beginning with the Nation of Islam and the impact of Malcolm X, and including a discussion of "Black Power," cultural nationalism, and the emer- gence and decline of the Black Panthers. He is comfortable exploring the con- nections between the New Left and black radicalism, and his discussion of the 1967 Chicago Conference for a New Politics presents a devastating portrait of white sycophancy. ("We are just a little tail on the end of a very powerful black panther," stated one white delegate. "And I want to be on that tail-if they'll let me," p. 255.) Weisbrot concludes that the black-white polarization that marked the late 1960s and 1970s intensified as African-Americans moved beyond their earlier political agenda to demand economic justice, a conces- sion white America was unwilling to make.

    While adequate, the first half of Freedom Bound, focusing on the southern freedom movement from 1954 to 1965, is somewhat disappointing. In a sense, this part of the book is already dated, for the author apparently drafted these chapters before the publication of the works by Garrow, Branch, and Adam Fairclough (To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Con- ference and Martin Luther King, Jr., 1985). With the exception of two brief foot- note "updates," Weisbrot has not incorporated their work into his revisions. (For Martin Luther King's activities, he relies most heavily on Stephen B. Oates's less reliable biography, Let the Trumpet Sound, 1982.) Failure to include this new material not only deprives the reader of lively anecdotes; such omis- sions also call into question several of Weisbrot's interpretations. For exam- ple, in his ongoing account of the uneasy relationship between the Kennedy administration and the movement, Weisbrot does acknowledge the criticisms leveled by activists against the Kennedys. But anyone familiar with Taylor Branch's extensive research on this topic would question Weisbrot's conclu- sion that the violent events accompanying James Meredith's entry into the University of Mississippi "did much to reshape President Kennedy's thinking about race, politics, and his role in civil rights reform" (p. 67), or his obser- vation that Robert Kennedy's appointment as Attorney General "was a boon to the civil rights movement, for he turned the Justice Department into a ver- satile force in the battle against racism" (p. 51).

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  • 564 REVIEWS IN AMERICAN HISTORY / DECEMBER 1990

    The drive to obtain the franchise is central to civil rights history. Weisbrot examines the voter registration campaigns in Mississippi, and includes a chapter on Selma and the successful effort to enact a strong voting rights act in 1965. Given the importance of this topic, Weisbrot's failure to use (or even cite in his bibliography) Steven F. Lawson's Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969 (1976), the definitive work in the field, is regrettable to say the least.

    Errors of fact also creep into the early chapters. Brownsville, Tennessee is not fifty miles from Jackson, Mississippi; Ross Barnett, not J. P. Coleman, was governor of Mississippi during the Freedom Rides; James Farmer spent his early childhood in Holly Springs, Mississippi, not Texas; Martin Luther King, Jr., was absent from Selma on "Bloody Sunday" because he was preaching at his home church in Atlanta, not Montgomery; and in 1965 Robert Moses did not change his name to "Paris." While certainly not egregious, taken together these and other mistakes leave an impression that the author is not entirely comfortable on southern terrain. And unlike the later chapters, where Weis- brot can stretch out to examine larger questions in greater depth, the first half of Freedom Bound has about it a breathless, lock-step quality-"If it's 1957 it must be Little Rock." Reducing over a decade of civil rights militancy to 153 pages is both a frustrating and thankless task. Racing through history in chronological fashion is perhaps the most effective way to introduce the movement to new students. But depth of analysis is almost impossible here.

    Placing the southern movement in the context of presidential politics pro- vides this section of the book with its chronological structure. Thus the events in chapter 3-the Freedom Rides, the Albany Movement, Meredith and Ole Miss, Birmingham, and the March on Washington-fall under the heading "Mass Protest in the Kennedy Years." Linking black protest and White House responses directs attention to the efforts of the major civil rights organizations and their leaders to press a reluctant federal government to take action. Given the confines of time and space, as well as the author's thesis, such emphasis is understandable. What is lost here is the power of the movement at its most basic and dynamic level-the grass roots. The chapter on Mississippi, titled "The Great Society," highlights the 1964 summer project and the challenge of the new Freedom Democratic party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. The relationship bet