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Debating Our History

Debating Our History

Debating the Civil Rights Movement authors Steph-en F. Lawson and Charles Payne have undertaken a formidable task — evaluating the relative impact and importance of national vs. local change agents on the lives and futures of 20th and 21st century African Americans as a result of the Civil Rights Movement from 1945 to 1968. However, why these dates were chosen, and why the national vs. local paradigm was chosen are questions never adequately explained.
Both author-historians assume their tasks and positions with great energy and resolve. Especially impressive? The extraordinary research and detail reflected in Payne’s articulation and explanation of such oft-overlooked issues as the prior “activist” history and the true rationale for Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on that fateful day that inaugurated the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
More familiar, but less important, were the internal squabbles and petty jealousies among civil rights leaders that hindered, but never hamstrung, the movement for justice. 
Whether the reader chooses to focus on the charisma and leadership challenges faced by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his national leadership peers — e.g., James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equity, John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Whitney M. Young Jr. of the Urban League — or prefers to emphasize the preeminent roles played by attorney extraordinaire Charles Hamilton Houston, field organizer supreme Ella Baker, activist and advocate Fred Shuttlesworth or union leader par excellence A. Phillip Randolph, this historic capsule of the mid-century civil rights struggle is well worth the reading.
Most readers may find the book lacking in content and context for a full and complete understanding of the roles of the men and women who created the path that is now our superhighway to success. The debate is not so much about national or local in terms of the arena of battle, or big or small in terms of presence or influence of the individuals, but about the nature of the sacrifice for justice. Readers looking for a more in-depth analysis might consider reading Taylor Branch’s Parting The Waters and Juan Williams’ Eyes On The Prize.
Black Americans have reached a time in their own history when there are more who have not lived through the struggle than those who have. It is essential for the survival of our culture that we familiarize ourselves, our children and their children with who we are, and whose we are.

— William A. Blakey is a partner with Dean Blakey & Moskowitz, a law firm in Washington, D.C.

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