Civil rights are a beginning in the struggle toward justice.
- The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. [Martin Luther King, Jr., rephrasing a sentence in a sermon by Theodore Parker (1853): “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”]
An overriding social theme during my lifetime (I was born in 1954) has been epic struggle against hypocrisy, and how that played out in the human and civil rights struggles of this age. For the first time, the United States began to take its stated commitment to “liberty and justice for all” seriously. Predictably, that fidelity to commitment and basic moral principle cost the political party that championed the nation’s ideals control of an entire region of the country and probably the presidency over the course of several election cycles. Even so, the gains that the United States appears to have made in civil rights appear to have endured.
However, these gains are not universal throughout the world, and are under attack in the United States. The evils that give rise to all injustice prevent them from developing, and the persistence of tribalism and nationalistic fervor undermine them where they have begun to develop. The development of a widely shared and universal ethics is essential for the establishment and maintenance of liberty and justice for all.
Taylor Branch's epic treatment of the American Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s stands at the top of a long list of excellent histories on this subject.
- Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (Simon & Schuster, 1988).
- Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 (Simon & Schuster, 1999).
- Taylor Branch, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Simon & Schuster, 2006).
Other true narratives on the the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s:
- John Lewis, Walking with the Wind (Turtleack, 1999).
- David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (William Morrow and Company, 1986).
- Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-65 (Viking Penguin, 1987).
- Hanry Hampton, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s (Bantam, 1990).
- Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (Knopf, 2006).
- Wesley C. Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC's Dream for a New America (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
- Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Beacon Press, 1964).
- Wil Haygood, Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015): “For much of that life, Marshall had been the founder and principal litigator of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, fighting, against great odds and at enormous personal risk, to dismantle Jim Crow in Southern schools, courtrooms, lunch counters and voting booths — that is, when he wasn’t struggling frantically to spare individual indigent blacks from the electric chair or the rope.”
- William Sturkey, Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White (Belknap Press, 2019): “Sturkey’s book is a study in unintended consequences — a portrait of a Mississippi town from its founding in 1882 through the depredations of racial apartheid, ending with a brief coda on the civil rights movement. The close-up view affords us the chance to learn how segregation operated on the most intimate level, in the everyday experiences of Hattiesburg’s residents.”
- Marcia Chatelain, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America (Liveright, 2020): “. . . she documents how McDonald’s came to play a growing role in black communities, offering not only food and jobs but also sponsorships ranging from funds for the local Little League team to grants for the N.A.A.C.P. Today, the online portal 365Black.com showcases the company’s cultural efforts, including a Gospel tour and an event featuring the rapper 2 Chainz.”
- Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases (Avid Reader Press, 2020): “. . . 40 literary superstars each respond to one of the landmark cases that the A.C.L.U. either litigated or supported.”
Narratives about civil rights movements for African-Americans before the 1940s:
- Kate Masur, Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction (Norton, 2021): “During this 'first civil rights movement' — the fight for Black people’s freedom and equality from the Revolutionary War to Reconstruction — states’ rights were mostly what antislavery activists had to work with.”
Narratives of women’s civil rights struggles:
- Elaine Weiss, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote (Viking, 2018): “. . . certain historical figures warrant novels of their own.”
- Linda Hirshman, Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World (Harper, 2015): “‘Sisters in Law,’ with its ambitious subtitle, raises more questions than it answers. Did Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg really change the world? Or did they make it all the way to the Supreme Court, as the first and second women ever to serve there, because the world had changed?”
Narratives of LGBTQ civil rights struggles:
- Sasha Issenberg, The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage (Pantheon, 2021): “How the Religious Right Made Same-Sex Marriage a Gay Rights Crusade”.
Documentary and Educational Films
America’s Civil Rights Movement series:
- Part 1: Awakenings (1954-1956)
- Part 2: Fighting Back (1957-1962)
- Part 3: Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961)
- Part 4: No Easy Walk (1961-1963)
- Part 5: Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964)
- Part 6: Selma: Bridge to Freedom (1965)
- Part 7: The Time Has Come (1964-1966)
- Part 8: Two Societies (1965-1968)
- Part 9: Black Power Movement (1967-1968)
- Part 10: MLK’s Promised Land (1962-1964)
- Part 11: Ain’t Gonna Shuffle No More (1964-1972)
- Part 12:
- Part 13:
- Part 14:
Other civil rights documentaries:
- The Rosa Parks Story
- Eyes on the Prize: Awakenings (1954-1956)
- Eyes on the Prize: Fighting Back (1957-1962)
- Eyes on the Prize: Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (19600-1962)
- Eyes on the Prize: Bridge to Freedom (1965)
- Citizen King
- The Freedom to Marry
Artist unknown, Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham (1960s)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Wadada Leo Smith, “Ten Freedom Summers” (2012), is “a four disc box of composed and improvised music, evoking the history of the civil rights movement in the United States, by juxtaposing a classical chamber string ensemble with (Smith’s) own Golden Quartet . . .”. Link here to some of the tracks.
Gil Scott-Heron, a jazz musician and activist, “was raised by his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee, after his parents divorced. He briefly attended school in his hometown, but as one of a handful of black students in the heart of segregationist America, he was unable to tolerate the abuse ladled out by his white schoolmates. Scott-Heron, now with his mother, moved to New York City. There he discovered his writing talents and a wealth of inspiration provided by black American writers of the 'Harlem Renaissance,' . . .” He was featured in a 2003 BBC documentary film entitled “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. He has an extensive playlist. His albums, which focus on the struggles for justice of African Americans in the United States, include:
- “Pieces of a Man” (1970) (61’)
- “Free Will” (1972) (69’)
- “Reflections” (1980) (41’)
- “Moving Target” (1982) (37’)
- “The Revolution Begins – The Flying Dutchman Masters” (1992) (169’)
- “Spirits” (1994) (57’)
- “I’m New Here” (2000) (28’)
- “We’re New Here” (2011) (36’)
Here is a playlist, and another, of songs of and inspired by the United States civil rights movement.
- various performers and participants, “Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama” (1964) (44’) (field recordings)
- Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, “Four Questions” (2020) (62’): “. . . 'Four Questions,' is based on four questions about the struggle for human rights and personal dignity first posed by African-American author W.E.B. DuBois in his book The Souls of Black Folk and then used as the basis for a speech by scholar and activist Dr. Cornel West.”