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The best books on The Civil Rights Era

recommended by Lerone Martin

Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion by Lerone Martin

Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion
by Lerone Martin

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The struggle for Black freedom in America has been going on since the first enslaved Africans were brought to the continent, but it was the civil rights era of 1954 to 1968 that finally resulted in a raft of legislation that gave equal citizenship to Black people in the United States. Here, Professor Lerone Martin of Stanford University recommends the best books to understand the American civil rights movement, with a focus on some of the individuals who were key to its success.

Interview by Benedict King

Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion by Lerone Martin

Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion
by Lerone Martin

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Before we get to the books, could you set out what we mean by the civil rights era? Does it have a clear beginning and end?

There are debates about what constitutes the civil rights era. Some scholars like to talk about a long civil rights movement, that extends the civil rights movement back into the 1930s, thinking about labor disputes, civil rights unionism, and other efforts at reform. And then you could go for an even bigger story and talk about the Black American freedom struggle which, arguably, begins the moment that enslaved Africans are brought to this country and make efforts towards citizenship and freedom.

My perspective is that there is something particular—and this is influenced by a Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang article, “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies” published in the Journal of African American History—about the years between 1954 and 1968, because of the historic legislation that was brought to pass before Congress. In the United States that really does fundamentally change the standing of African Americans in this country, and makes them, legally at least, free citizens in this country. So I’m primarily thinking about ’54, because of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. And 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King’s death, because of the passage of the Fair Housing Act. The string of legislation between those years I like to refer to as the classical civil rights movement, because of the way that legislation drastically changed Black citizenship.

Let’s look at the books you’ve chosen. First up is Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement by Barbara Ransby. Tell us about this one.

My focus when thinking about these books was teaching in the undergraduate classroom and what I would want my undergraduate students to come out of the class with. My interest sits primarily at the intersection of religion and the civil rights movement, which heavily influenced my choice of books.

This book on Ella Baker is important because it allows students and readers to understand the Black freedom struggle and the civil rights movement, and it’s shot through the life of a phenomenal human being, who really was an important person. At every single significant struggle for Black freedom and civil rights in this country, Ella Baker was there. So it gives students an opportunity to read a book about a woman, and how she understood the struggle for equal rights, and how her gender shaped her experience. It’s important because what Ella Baker does, and what the book helps us to understand, is the organizing tradition within the civil rights movement. The focus is often on the mobilizing tradition, because of people like Martin Luther King and the massively important marches and mobilizing campaigns that he led. But Ella Baker was committed to the organizing tradition, organizing local communities and helping them to achieve leadership and work on their own problems, which they understood better than anybody else, and to developing sustainable solutions.

“My focus when thinking about these books was teaching in the undergraduate classroom”

So I really enjoy that book for teaching because it illustrates this organizing tradition. There’s a phenomenal chapter in the book that shows what happened when the organizing tradition and commitments of Ella Baker came up against the mobilizing tradition and ideas of Martin Luther King. That gives you a chance to show students what happens when these different ideas of leadership and different strategies of social change come head to head, in turn allowing students to think about their contemporary moment and contemporary efforts to engineer social change and to think about which strategies in terms of organizing or mobilizing would best fit their concerns today.

They were doing different things, but did Ella Baker work closely with Martin Luther King?

Yes, she was the Interim Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But she was an interim director. Despite her credentials and abilities and gifts, she was never given the title of full-time executive director, primarily because she was a woman, and most of the male clergy within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were uncomfortable with a woman having the title of executive director and having a woman in leadership. She tried to push Martin Luther King to think more about organizing local communities to make sure that people didn’t look for a savior, but recognized that they themselves had the ability to organize locally for change. When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee  (SNCC) was being formed, she was there and she encouraged them not to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They were going to become an auxiliary organization to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but she really pushed them not to do that, to be independent and more concerned with local organizing.

If you talk to individuals like John Lewis and others who were part of SNCC, in the early days they all confess their indebtedness to Ella Baker, and the way that she helped them to think about social change and local organizing. I think the moment that most of us think about in this regard is 1964, Freedom Summer, when SNCC went to the South and Mississippi and organized people locally to vote and to work on their conditions in Mississippi. That’s one of the most outstanding local organizing campaigns that we know about in the civil rights movement.

Let’s move on to God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights by Charles Marsh. Tell us a bit about this book.

I chose this book because it’s written so well. It’s a smooth read. Every chapter takes up a different personality who was involved in the Freedom Summer, which I just spoke of, which was a summer of local organizing in Mississippi: to organize people to vote, to be involved and back local efforts for freedom and equality. Every chapter of this book takes a different look at one person’s life during that summer. What’s great about it is that it starts off with Fannie Lou Hamer, how she was transformed in that summer of 1964, and also how faith for her was something that encouraged her to get involved in these efforts. But it also includes a chapter on Sam Bowers, who was one of the Klansmen down in Mississippi, who saw himself as a Christian and was very much against Freedom Summer. His belief in white Christian nationalism led him to oppose equality and to use violence to defend white supremacism.

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It also has a chapter on Reverend Dr. W. Douglas Hudgins, Pastor of First Baptist Church, Jackson, Mississippi. It was the leading church in the state, boasting among its members and Sunday school teachers the likes of local and state officials including the Mississippi governor. Reverend Hudgins preached what he saw as a purely theological message, that the church was not to get involved in politics. Everything related to the structure of racism and inequality and terrorism, he didn’t talk about in his sermons. He avoided such politics, constructing a scaffolding for white supremacist terrorism to continue its reign. The book also examines Reverend Ed King, a white minister who promoted the cause of civil rights and the experience of Cleveland Sellers, a young African American student who was a member of SNCC.

This book is a wonderful opportunity for students to read and figure out and understand that wonderful summer through the eyes of several different personalities. They gravitate towards it because of how it’s organized. It reads really well and allows undergraduate students to really put themselves in the moment.

Does it show the arguments around the correct Christian approach to Freedom Summer producing a battle of ideas? Did the Klansman in any way get influenced by the arguments of his opponents who were giving a different message about where a Christian’s duty lay?

Sam Bowers was not at all converted, he was a part of some bombings and murders in Mississippi, including the murder of the three students volunteers: Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. With Fannie Lou Hamer, it shows how her faith transforms from being one where she was just going to church and trying to be an honest human being as a sharecropper, into motivating her to want to get involved in the civil rights movement. But there’s no story of conversion in the book.

Having said that, the story that ends the book does show how things can shift. Cleveland Sellers is shot during a student protest at South Carolina State University, several others are killed.  The police are acquitted, while Sellers is convicted of inciting a riot. As a result Sellers’ ideas about the Christian faith and its implications for social change shift. So you do see these shifts in certain characters in the book, but there’s nothing like a white supremacist being converted to the cause of racial equality.

Next up is Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David J Garrow. Tell us about this one.

This book is a Pulitzer Prize winner. It became a standard narrative of King’s life and the life of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It’s an amazing book. David Garrow spent years researching and writing it. It is a long book, but you can still cut it up into chunks so the students can read about the career of Martin Luther King from the Montgomery bus boycott, to Albany, to what happens in St. Augustine in Florida and Birmingham. The entire career of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is in the book, and it gives students a solid grasp of the role of faith; Martin Luther King’s faith, how faith influenced him, how it shaped his activism, and how that activism mobilized communities for campaigns for justice and freedom. It’s an excellent text.

Next up is a primary source, Eyes on the Prize: Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches and First Hand Accounts From the Black Freedom Struggle.

When I’m teaching, I enjoy having students read primary sources. I think it’s important for students not just to read about historical moments, but actually read text from the historical moment. This book is excellent because it’s a collection of speeches and other primary source materials that students can read and study and understand.

“My interest sits primarily at the intersection of religion and the civil rights movement”

I really enjoy watching students’ eyes come alive when they’re reading an actual speech, or a press conference, or an address of some sort. I think it’s really good for students, and then it goes well with images of the civil rights movement. It’s one thing to read about the famous campaign in Birmingham in 1963, it’s another thing to read the speeches and actually see the images on video: the police dogs, the fire hoses and what people went through, just to be treated on an equal basis. So this book goes well with the actual raw historical footage.

These primary sources are dealing with the civil rights movement, as defined by you, from 1954 to ’68, is that right?

This text goes from 1954-1990. It is edited by a number of excellent scholars, including Darlene Clark Hine, Gerald Gill, David J. Garrow, and Martin Luther King’s collaborator, Vincent Harding, as well as my predecessor at Stanford’s Martin Luther King Institute, Clayborn Carson.

Your final recommendation is the autobiography of Malcolm X.

This is a text that you’ve got to read for yourself. It allows you to see how faith shapes Malcolm’s worldview and his understanding of racism and the solution to racism. It also allows you to see a historical figure who changes over time. Malcolm’s beliefs change—especially as they relate to white brothers and sisters and the origins of racism and inequality—while, at the same time, maintaining a commitment to Black nationalism.

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The text is important because it shows an individual who is so important and so influential in Black nationalist thought specifically, and Black freedom struggles more broadly. I love how the text shows how his faith is so central to him. I think oftentimes, we study the civil rights movement, and we think about Black nationalism as a purely secular movement or ideology. This text does a great job of not just showing Malcolm’s ideas through his life, but also how his faith undergirds his understanding of Black nationalism as well as his understanding of how to fight against America’s virus of racism.

Interview by Benedict King

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Lerone Martin

Lerone Martin

Lerone Martin is the Martin Luther King, Jr., Centennial Professor in Religious Studies and Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. He is the author of the award-winning Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Making of Modern African American Religion (New York University Press, 2014).  His commentary and writing have been featured on CNN, CSPAN, Newsy, NBCLX, and PBS as well as The New York TimesBoston Globe, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Lerone Martin

Lerone Martin

Lerone Martin is the Martin Luther King, Jr., Centennial Professor in Religious Studies and Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. He is the author of the award-winning Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Making of Modern African American Religion (New York University Press, 2014).  His commentary and writing have been featured on CNN, CSPAN, Newsy, NBCLX, and PBS as well as The New York TimesBoston Globe, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.