Jul. 9th, 2014

I think I have found the Best Book I Read This Year, even though it is only July. I finally finished The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Roberts & Klibanoff, and it is rare that I am that moved by a work of non-fiction.

It's a tough book to read on a number of levels. First, it's written by journalists, and it has that point of view--it has a cast of thousands, with people popping in for a few paragraphs to do something important and then disappearing. There are a few names that continue throughout the entire book--Myrdal, Ashmore, McGill, Kilpatrick, to name a few both good guys and bad guys--but it took me a while to settle into the style of the writing. It is NOT a novelization. It's a detailed history of the growth of the civil rights movement, starting with WWII and continuing to pretty much the death of MLK Jr, from the point of view of how the press played a role in both suppressing and facilitating the changes that came through, over 2-3 decades.

As a result, it's fascinating. It starts with Myrdal's 1944 book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, which is eye-opening to begin with, and the impact of that book is woven through the rest of the history--everyone who is a player has read it, along with other key pieces that come later. But when you start with that book in 1944, followed by Brown vs the Board of Education in 1954, and then by 1964 things haven't really changed *that* much--I had a lot of sympathy for the groups starting to splinter off from MLK's approach and argue for violence in return. I mean, holy crap. 20 years is a freakin' long time to put up with only the hope for change, small steps, the South basically trying to ignore the Supreme Court rulings when they do come, growing awareness of the violence, etc.

It's dispassionate writing in most places, which I found even more impactful. As it builds to Brown vs the Board of Education (1954), then Emmett Till in 1955, with the detailed descriptions of how that all went, then the fight to get Autherine Lucy into the University of Alabama that took THREE years, and she's finally accepted and allowed to register, goes to campus in the fall of 1955--and lasts no more than 3 days until the racist mob riots force the university to suspend her, claiming they can't provide a safe environment.

I actually had to put the book down and cry for a while at that point. Since I didn't know the story about the University of Alabama, I really hoped that it would work out for Autherine, and was devastated when the bullies and bigots won. How could that happen? I object strenuously to people behaving that way, and the rage and guilt and despair over the failure of human nature was just too much at that point.

But the next 10 years was more examples of that--cultural-level extreme bullying, in essence, at Little Rock and Montgomery, the riots at the University of Mississippi over the first black student, people getting killed or permanently maimed as they tried to register to vote, register for classes, get lunch at a deli, march, you name it. People who thought they had and should keep the upper hand got outrageously, inhumanely violent in keeping the other guy down.

It's really unbelievable, as it is laid out here, dovetailed with the growth of TV news, the role of text, the understanding of the value of the camera both still and moving, the different roles of the black and white press over time, the different approaches from within the "border states" vs the Deep South, the places that integrated their universities without a whimper vs the places where the governor or police commissioner refused, the political theories about "interposition" and how those played out, the attempts from certain southern editors to argue "You're one too!" highlighting racism in the "integrated" north, the growth and fading of the NAACP, the SNCC, how those groups played together or didn't. Etc.

There is so much you can take from this book, not just about race relations and history but the development of the news media in this country, as well as a deeper understanding of how humans will behave toward each other when the balance of power is in question. It's definitely worth a long, slow read.



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