Friday, July 03, 2015

Book Notes: My Soul Looks Back In Wonder (Voices of the Civil Rights Experience) by Juan Williams

Williams first came to my attention as the compiler of the Eyes on The Prize reader, a remarkable compilation of speeches and documents from the Civil Rights Movement. This volume has much in common with that previous compendium, in that it is a collection of evidence from that pivotal phase in American History. My Soul Looks Back in Wonder, contains thirty-three vignettes written in the first person by people whose lives were swept up in the Civil Rights struggle. Many are well-known names and faces, or relate to well-known stories from the period. These include James Lawson, B.B. King, and Carolyn Goodman, the mother of Andrew Goodman one of the three Civil Rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964.

These testimonies are all about how people woke up to the need to struggle for justice, understood injustice for the first time, or overcame their fear and joined the movement. They highlight important experiences of different aspect of what being in the movement was like, and come from Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Jews, Asians, Rich, Poor, Northerners and Southerners alike, it covers activists, fundraisers, politicians, parents, marchers, freedom riders, . No two of the stories contained in the book are alike, but all cast a fascinating light into the broader picture of this much-discussed area.

The book is deliberately written at a non-academic level so that it is accessible to all. It would make an excellent school resource, as while the issues raised are important, the language is not complex. Indeed there are discussion questions at the back of the book as if this was the intent. Most of the testimonies recorded contain very little analysis of the movement (there is some), but dwell extensively on individual experiences with the wider history. These stories are moving, powerful and provide a wealth of great illustrations of how individuals away from the spotlight were affected by the Civil Rights protests.

The weaker part of the book is the introduction which over-simplifies matters to the extent that several quite complex matters are mishandled in the quest for obvious clarity. The most obvious example of this is when Williams handles the legacy of the movement - something which also governs his selection of some of the later testimonies too. In Williams' eyes there is a clear and uninterrupted line of continuity between the demand for equal rights, justice, equality and dignity for African-Americans and countless other cultural battles which have subsequently raged; to the point that he views them almost as the same struggle. Among these include the complexities of class conflict, environmental concerns, freedom from Soviet-bloc communism, gay rights and access to abortion. That many people who began their social involvement in SNCC voter registration drives (for example), and spent subsequent decades campaigning on these other issues is not in doubt. What I found unconvincing was the subsumation of all these issues into one whole when the clear-cut morality of ending American apartheid gave way to far more complex and nuanced issues over which not all Civil Rights activists would have agreed. Abortion is the obvious example. For Williams, this unbroken continuity runs from rights for Black Americans, to rights for American Women, to access to abortion. What he doesn't address is that for other people switched onto civil rights, their concern for 'full personhood' so long denied to African-Americans was transferred to American foetuses whose full personhood they wished to affirm and defend. Many of them took their inspiration from the Civil Rights movement, both in terms of philosophy and method, using non-violent protests, sit-ins and the like. So, the continuities he proposes as axiomatic, are in fact controversial at the very least.

However, this minor criticism affects only a small part of the book. The vast majority of its 220 pages is taken up with the straightforward telling of the battle against segregation. in schools, public spaces, on voter-lists, in the justice system, politics and in public transport. As such, this book is a very helpful, and personal, introduction to Civil Rights reading.

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