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Civil Rights and the Changing World

How history was made and how it's being written.

By Earl Lewis | HUMANITIES, January/February 2013 | Volume 34, Number 1.5

Longtime social and civil rights activist, educator, and propagator of nonviolence Bernard Lafayette has told me more than once that professional historians, while getting the main story correct, miss part of the essence of what occurred during the American civil rights movement.

In their concern for social movements (and their associated theories about those movements), showdown encounters with intransigent southern hardliners, charismatic leaders and iconic events, they fail to recognize the importance of strategy. To Dr. Lafayette, the story of the modern civil rights movement in the United States is about how the famous and the unknown systematically dismantled the edifice of segregation through dogged action and concerted strategy. He insists that while spontaneous actions may have prompted a few telling moments in the years after World War II, in most cases those who acted did so in a planned, orchestrated fashion. Even if every actor did not take part in the planning, the sit-ins, demonstrations, marches, and other engagements, the outcomes reflected long, quiet work before their more recognizable public displays.1

Lafayette, in his critique, called on historians and other scholars to rethink the ways they write about the great American story of democracy-making at home after World War II. And, indeed, especially in the past twenty years, scholars and journalists have found ways in books, articles, and multimedia presentations to tell an increasingly complicated story about the descendants of enslaved people and their allies. In the process, we have not only learned about the heroines and heroes who burst onto the international stage a decade after the end of the war, but we have also peered into organizations and institutions to discover the importance of coordinated sustained action, and have met average citizens who wanted nothing more than to be treated equally and fairly at home, after helping end Hitler ’s tyrannical reign abroad. In time, we came to learn that the battle for civil rights cannot be so easily limited to 1954 through 1968, the period usually heralded as the civil rights era.2 As historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall maintained, mindful of scholarship that grew in volume and importance in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a long civil rights history in the United States, with its culminating summation of activism moving to center stage in the 1950s and ‘60s. And while critics have debated the exact periodization, few disagree with the conclusion that the pursuit of civil rights parallels the entire history of racial subjugation and the struggle for opportunity in the United States.3

Yet for all of the powerful work that has been produced since the late 1960s, often lost in the narrative arc is the broader context that gave form to the events of postwar America. If we need to understand civil rights actors as strategists, we also need to be mindful of them as citizens of a changing world. From biography to case study, from grand synthetic histories to monographs, more and more studies have hinted at a people tied to others seeking relief from social and cultural domination based on color and national origin. On the global stage this emerged as a story in large measure about colonial and decolonizing efforts. What linked the global and the local was a prevailing sense by those who chose to act that they could be the archiects of their destinies. This profound sense of being able to change the world accelerated after World War II, even though earlier antecedents prefigured what was to follow.4

This essay centers on three interconnected themes. It accepts Lafayette’s challenge and describes civil rights actors as intellectual strategists. It distinguishes between the modern civil rights era and the history of civil rights in American history, which has a longer timeline. And it seeks to remind all that the modern era dovetailed with significant societal changes, including elsewhere in the world. Thus, we have the thesis of civil rights and the changing world.

Scholarship on the civil rights era began with a focus on leaders and institutions or organizations they headed. Among the first accounts was David Levering Lewis’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr.5 Lewis, who earned a Pulitzer for his towering biography of W.E.B. DuBois, crafted the first notable biography of King, which appeared in 1970. Imperfect and somewhat hagiographic by later standards, the biography nonetheless told the remarkable story of a young man who dared believe he could join with others to change the world by holding America and its citizens to the highest ideals. Born into the secure comfort of a middle-class black family in pre-World War II Atlanta, King wrestled with life choices before deciding to follow his grandfather and father into the ministry. Unlike them, he would marry a developing fondness for intellectual pursuits with his sense of call, ultimately earning a PhD from Boston University and pastoring a church in Montgomery, Alabama. There the confluence of homegrown social activism, dense institutional networks linked to black churches, mobilized working-class blacks willing to sacrifice, and middle-class blacks willing to render assistance, plus a dynamic and educated young preacher gave rise to a new moment in American history. In Lewis’s account, it was King’s brilliant command of language, cultivated belief in nonviolence, and untiring commitment to improve America and the world that kept him trudging on, even when tired.

Charismatic leadership undoubtedly played a significant role in how many saw and understood the era. But later biographies of King and others revealed men and women of their times who could not escape the vicissitudes of the human condition. They quarreled, sniped and cajoled, they told lies about and to one another, they succumbed to temptations, and they also challenged the nation to find its better self. All were children of Jim Crow America, whether they grew up in the South, North, Midwest, or West. They all found themselves shaped by color in an age when some immigrants were made white, and most newcomers learned that anything was preferable to being called black.6

A magisterial accounting of the systematic and methodical fight for inclusion in the age of race-making came in the form of the 1976 book by Richard Kluger, eloquently called Simple Justice.7 While other early works would capture the actors behind the creation of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Kluger outlines in careful detail the people who brought us the Brown decision.8 The actors are men and women, children and the old, black, white, and other, learned and uneducated. They exist across time, because the events that led up to Brown occurred across multiple generations. In his rendering, the struggle for equality for blacks in America began early on, when the first Africans were indentured in colonial Virginia. From indentureship to slavery to emancipation to segregation, new eras demanded new approaches, tactics, and strategies.

At the core of Kluger’s narrative is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, and the lawyers who crafted a strategy for attacking the efficacy of segregation in public education. And I would add that equally important are the average citizens who joined them in the fights. While scholars have previously contrasted the more gradual approach stemming from precedent-based litigation with the direct action flowing from sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and rallies, a close reading of the historical record reveals this to be too limited a view of the dynamics of change over time. Both legal agitation and social activism threatened the status quo; more important, segregation would never have ended without work on all fronts.

Consider for a moment the story of Harry and Liza Briggs. Harry grew up in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Excluding a few years in the navy, he spent his entire life in Clarendon. According to accounts, he knew everyone there and they all knew him. He also knew things were not equal, and he took a stand and endured the consequences. Briggs’s challenge of segregation in public schooling in South Carolina became a part of the bundle of cases we recall today as Brown. But before the Supreme Court ruled in Brown (known as Brown I and II because of decisions in 1954 and 1955), families such as the Briggses had to decide if and when to stand up. Years later Harry Briggs would recall:

We figured anything to better the children’s condition was worthwhile. There didn’t seem to be much danger to it. But after the petition was signed, I knew it was different. The white folks got kind of sour. They asked me to take my name off the petition. My boss, he said did I know what I was doin’ and I said, ’I’m doin’ it for the benefit of my children.’ He didn’t say nothin’ back. But then later—it was the day before Christmas—he gave me a carton of cigarettes and then he let me go. He said, Harry I want me a boy—and I can pay him less than you.9

Both Harry and his wife, Liza, suffered job loss and other reprisals, and although blacks greatly outnumbered whites in Clarendon county in 1950, they were not yet prepared to wage an economic boycott of white stores. Most were too timid. The Briggses, nonetheless, decided to hold the course and sacrifice jobs, stability, and security so that their child had a better chance of gaining a quality education and a more prosperous future in America. Their willingness to fight should be viewed as courageous action, enabled in part by the concerted efforts of a legion of lawyers with names such as Houston, Hastie, Marshall, Robinson, Greenberg, and Carter and by a changing world characterized by the fight for freedom from subjugation.

While the Briggses were part of a campaign to end segregation in public schooling, occasionally, the course of history was changed by individuals who simply wished to be left alone to pursue the life they sought for themselves. A few short years after Brown II called for public schools in Virginia and the nation to be desegregated “with all deliberate speed,” Mildred Jeter, who was black, and Richard Loving, who was white, married in Washington, D.C. It was 1958, and across Virginia cities and districts shuttered schoolhouses to avoid integration, with some barring public attendance for nearly a decade. When Mildred and Richard returned to Virginia to reside, they found themselves in local court for violating the state’s prohibition on interracial marriage. As the NEH-supported documentary on the Loving case indicates, the couple simply sought to practice a punishable form of family values: They sought to honor their love through marriage, a right the Supreme Court affirmed in 1967.10

Scholarship in the seventies gave way to more deeply researched and theorized accounts during the eighties, nineties, and early 2000s. Sociologist Aldon Morris jumpstarted this effort with his highly influential study, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (1986). Beginning with the bus boycotts in Baton Rouge in 1953 rather than those in Montgomery in 1954–55, Morris argues that protest had taken root in black communities over many years. It was not that black people had previously simply tolerated oppression. Rather, the modern civil rights struggle marked the first time everyday men, women, and children organized to disrupt the smooth operations of white southerners, their businesses, and institutions.11

A decade later the historical sociologist Charles Payne moved the argument again. In I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, Payne reminds readers of the depths of this organizing impulse in black communities. Giving credit for the insight to Bob Moses, whose organizational skills helped give form to the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964, Payne distinguishes between a mobilizing tradition and an organizing tradition. The former entails highly visible sit-ins, marches, and boycotts of relatively short duration, designed to galvanize public sentiment against segregation in all of its forms. By contrast, the organizing tradition sought to promote the “long-term development of leadership in ordinary men and women,” a tradition best exemplified by the work of Ella Baker and Septima Clark, Payne writes.12

Nearly two decades of scholarship have shown how textured was the organizing tradition that ran in black communities throughout the South. Working-class blacks in Birmingham, Norfolk, and beyond refused to surrender seats to whites on a regular basis during World War II. In rural locales, co-ops had been formed and blacks had organized to promote economic and social empowerment, long before college students descended on Mississippi en masse in the summer of 1964.13

Others have echoed Payne’s framing to varying degrees in their more recent works. In her award-winning biography of Ella Baker, Barbara Ransby tells us at the outset, “Ella Baker was concerned with the plight of African Americans, but she was also passionately committed to a broader humanitarian struggle for a better world.” Over the course of a lifetime she belonged to more than thirty organizations fighting for that better world, embracing the white left and the black community at the same time. She fought for Puerto Rican independence, against apartheid, for women’s rights, and for democratic justice on many levels. As she sought to instill in others the power to shape their world, she emerged over and over again as an intellectual, one cognizant of the international currents and crosscurrents, and one who believed people, irrespective of education and learning, could help produce a more just world.14

If the participants can be seen as strategists, they can also be seen as intellectuals, despite their differing levels of education. Ransby portrays Baker as an “organic” intellectual who read Freire and understood Gramsci but learned mostly from professors of practice on the streets and byways of America.15 Her age-wise contemporary, Fannie Lou Hamer, at the outset traveled in less sophisticated circles than Baker but represented another example of such an intellectual. A repeated participant in the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, Hamer not only registered to vote when doing so invited injury, she managed to survive the physical extremes of southern racism to house students who came to Mississippi to promote change and to challenge leaders in the Democratic party. The credentials committee of the Democratic party had to decide which delegation to seat in 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party delegates or those representing the traditional party. Hamer addressed the group, nearly in tears, and said, ”All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic party is not seated now, I question America, is this America, . . . where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”16 By framing her question as a question about the integrity of America, and its promise of justice for all, Hamer demonstrated the intellectual work that went into organizing for change.

A number of local community studies augment biographical accounts, illustrating an important historiographical fact: For all of the thousands of African Americans who migrated out of the South during two important twentieth-century waves, more stayed put.17 Through the violence that could rob a teenage visitor named Emmett Till of his life, a violence that was a daily constant, they understood that Frederick Douglass was indeed correct, and power would never concede anything without a fight, it never had and never would. Notwithstanding that daily reality of racial tyranny, they believed that home was worth fighting for and they resolved to fight for change there. John Dittmer ’s prize-winning account of local people in Mississippi who long struggled for civil rights is one such study. It recounts the stories of returning GIs, who joined forces through a range of organizations with others to fight for the right to vote, among other rights. Some, such as Medgar Evers, become well known in martyrdom; scores, however, went about the job of fighting for change, working with allies when feasible, demonstrating a willingness to confront violence with armed resistance, when required, and embracing non- violence, when practical. These local studies paint a more textured reality, one that complicates the prevailing master narrative of the battle for civil rights as simply a nonviolent affair until the radicalization of SNCC and the emergence of Black Power.18

If anything, Black Power reflected the emergence of a latent sentiment in the battle for civil rights that animated a range of social groups over the course of the twentieth century. The Garvey Movement of the 1910s and early 1920s, for example, professed a steadfast commitment to black empowerment through economic independence. The Nation of Islam appealed to a similar impulse. With their own creation narrative, economic enterprises, religious centers, and iconic figures, the Nation found converts all over America, including one Malcolm Little, known more broadly as Malcolm X. But, as much as anything, the Nation offered a recipe for social reintegration for many discarded by the dominant society, and the prospect of doing so without reliance on white society. The Prophet Elijah Muhammad, the titular head of the Nation of Islam, appealed to many because he offered an answer to a vexing question: Was there a place for me in America? He answered yes, of course, but one you must define. The Black Panther party, on the other hand, asserted itself as a viable political force in numerous cities across the nation—and adopted a style, with oversized afros, bandoliers, and heated rhetoric that made them targets of the authorities and symbols of a brash independence in many black communities. Beyond style was substance and a community action plan that sought to improve basic conditions in many urban black neighborhoods. For all of the bravado, one should not forget the Panthers sought to change America and not separate from it. Some black nationalist groups that came of age during the period recommended separation.19

If civil rights figures in general frightened the state and law enforcement leaders, proponents of Black Power terrified them. Police departments, often in tandem with the FBI, orchestrated massive disinformation campaigns, disruptions, and other tactics aimed at sowing discord. At times the tactics became personal, such as when J. Edgar Hoover and Robert Kennedy authorized spying on Martin Luther King Jr. On other occasions, investigations turned lethal, as we now know from details about shootouts with the Panthers in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Chicago.20

To fully comprehend both Black Power and the civil rights movement, we now know we have to move outside the South. When Lyndon Johnson endorsed affirmative action and Richard Nixon expanded it during their respective presidencies, white backlash, always a part of postwar American life, intensified. Calls for busing, black political ascendancy, and deindustrialization conspired to accelerate white flight from a number of core urban areas, aiding the Republican party’s southern strategy and reminding us that de facto segregation could be as deleterious as de jure segregation. In fact, a number of scholars argue that the political realignment and the collapse of the New Deal coalition emanated from the battle for civil rights in the North.21

The history books are written about those who claim center stage, even if only for a moment, to change the world in some fashion. Less is known and written about ordinary men and women who simply went about the art of living. They got up each day, went to work, attended school or completed assignments, aware of the changes around them, but a step or two from the main action. It is a common joke, after all, that more people remember participating in civil rights events than photos, interviews, and other sources can reliably document. In the end, it was a movement many wished they hadn’t missed.

New scholarship does, however, offer a glimpse into the social milieu activists and nonactivists came to inhabit. Music trends shifted from blues and jazz to rhythm-and-blues. Detroit became Motown, and an industry brought into the spotlight a new generation of artists whose rhythms, words, styles, and performances made a broad cross section of Americans move to a new beat. And just as the songs of the civil rights movement spoke to aspirations and longings for change, R&B partnered with rock and folk music to give a pulse to an era, fusing social change with generally urban realities. Some songs spoke of love and loss, others addressed the day’s contradiction, such as life as a “ball of confusion,” while others simply proclaimed, “I’m black and I’m proud.” Among the changes stemming from civil rights activities was the emergence of a new generation of entertainment giants, and, for the first time, a small group of black music moguls.22

If through the 1950s, radio had been used in support of the dominant social lesson plan predicated on black social inferiority, television came to realize it could not hide the real and varied black America from viewers.23 Images of fire hoses, rabid crowds, and peaceful marchers; confrontations and intransigent politicians; assertive youths and rainbow coalitions all told a far more powerful story about the change gripping America. Of course, the entertainment space through much of the fifties, sixties, and early seventies on television still reflected prevailing attitudes, but without question the modern civil rights movement and television grew up together.24

Finally, scholarship since the early 1990s reminds us that civil rights participants embraced the larger world. Of course, the story of Gandhi and King is well rehearsed in the literature, as too are the trips of Malcolm X to Mecca. We are now coming to understand that student activists studied the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and conferred with African leaders who assumed positions of prominence following independence from European power. (After all, several of those leaders had attended historically black colleges and universities in the United States.) When some activists ran afoul of the United States government, they found safe haven in Cuba, China, and elsewhere. Just as their intellectual forebears, who at one time had gone to the USSR to gain a perspective on America, men and women of the civil rights era understood that the changes were not limited to laws and mores in America, or the changing pace of technology; they comprehended a shift in the geopolitical map, and sought to ground their local understanding in a global context. Over time, they came to see themselves as part of an African diaspora.25

This expansion in the literature offers great promise. More work is still to be done on those who never demonstrated or protested but still supported civil rights and social change. As well, we need a deeper understanding of why the period of broad-based affirmative action (1970–1978) was half as long as the period of “all deliberate speed” (1955–1970). Indeed, communities, processes, the interplay between average citizens and elites, and new claims on the civil rights legacies all demand added attention.

Still, in the past three decades a remarkably human portrait of social change has taken form. The change has not always been linear or progressive. What has emerged is a series of connected stories about a changing world and the people who attempted to shape it on behalf of social justice.


1. Bernard Lafayette and I were colleagues for the past five plus years. He came to Emory as a distinguished scholar-in-residence at my urging when I served as Provost and we frequently discussed the ways scholars covered the history of civil rights. As both a participant and a student of the movement, Lafayette had a biting critique. - Back to Text

2. See, among others, the following sample: Steve Lawson and Charles Payne, Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-68 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield, Inc, 2010, third edition); Stephen Tuck, We Ain’t What We Oughta Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010); Adam Fairclough, Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 18902000 (New York: Penguin Books, 2001); Charles W. Eagles, “Toward New Histories of the Civil Rights Era,“  Journal of Southern History, vol. 66, No. 4 (Nov., 2000); and Steven F. Lawson, “Freedom Then, Freedom Now: The Historiography of the Civil Rights Movement" The American Historical Review, vol. 96, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 456–71. - Back to Text

3. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History, vol. 91, no. 4 (March 2005), pp. 1233–63; Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Long, “The “Long Movement” as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies,” Journal of African American History, vol. 92, no. 2, (Spring 2007), pp. 265–88.  - Back to Text

4. Judith Rollins, “The interdependence of the Civil Rights Movement and other Social Movements,” Phylon, vol. 47, no. 1, (Ist qtr., 2007), pp. 61–70. - Back to Text

5. David Levering Lewis, King: A Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970, paperback edition 1978). Of course, numerous, award-winning studies have followed.  See, for example, David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York:  Harper Collins, 1999); the trilogy by Taylor Branch, Parting the Water: America in the King Years, 195463; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 196365; At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 196568 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988, 1997, 2006, respectively); and the revealing Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers—Clayborne Carson, et al., eds., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vols. IVI (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992–2007). - Back to Text

6. Consult the memoirs and personal accounts penned by many of era’s principles, among them: James Farmer, Lay Bear the Heart (New York: Plume Books, 1986); Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women who Made It Happen: A Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, edited by David Garrow (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987); Ralph David Abernathy, An the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Row, 1989); Endesha Ida Mae Holland, From the Mississippi Delta: A Memoir (New York: Simon Schuster, 1997); John Lewis with Michael Orso, Walking with the Wind (New York: Simon Schuster, 1998). - Back to Text

7. Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown V. Board and Black American Struggle for Equality (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975). - Back to Text

8. For other examinations of Brown and the NAACP see James T.  Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and its Troubled Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). As well see, August Meier and Elliott Rudwick,  CORE, a study in the civil rights movement, 194268 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975);  and on SNCC see Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981, 1985). - Back to Text

9. Kluger, Simple Justice, p. 23. - Back to Text

10. For a perspective on this case and its importance, see, Peter Wallenstein, Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage and Law—an American Story (New York: Palgrave, 2002); and view, The Loving Story, Icarus Films, 2011. - Back to Text

11. Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: The Free Press, 1984), especially the introduction. - Back to Text

12. Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), see introduction as well as the preface to the 2007 edition which argues that his book, John Dittmer’s Local People and Adam Fairclough”s Race and Democracy marked an historiographical transition from the master narrative about charismatic leaders and signal events to a story of average citizens fighting to change their worlds. - Back to Text

13. Earl Lewis, In Their Own Interests (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), chapter 7; Robin D. G. Kelley, “We Are Not What We Seem:  Rethinking Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,” Journal of American History, vol. 80, no. 1 (June 1993), pp. 75–112.  Also see, Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990). - Back to Text

14. Joanne Grant wrote an earlier biography of Ella Baker—Joanne Grant, Ella Baker: Freedom Bound (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998); that was followed by Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), quote, p. 5. - Back to Text

15. Ransby, Ella Baker, see introduction and conclusion, especially. - Back to Text

16. On Hamer see, Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).  Quote found at website for Fannie Lou Hamer statue in Rueville, Mississippi, - Back to Text

17. Start with Alferteen Harrison, ed.,  Black Exodus: The Great Migration from the South (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1992) and Joe W. Trotter, Jr., ed., The Great Migration in Historical Perspective (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991). On community studies, in addition to those referenced earlier, see as examples, Constance Curry, Silver Rights (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1995), offers a story of one family’s resolve to change things. Emilye Crosby, A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Clairborne County, Mississippi (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).  - Back to Text

18. Dittmer, Local People,  see introduction and chapters 1–3.  Also, Robert F. Williams, Negroes with Guns (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998, reprint).  - Back to Text

19. The Garvey literature is voluminous, for a deep understanding see the multi-volume Garvey papers edited by Bobby Hill—Robert A. Hill, ed., Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, vol. IX (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983–2006; vol. XI, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); for overview see, Robert A. Hill, ed., and Barbara Bair, associate ed., Garvey: Life and Lessons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).  On the Nation of Islam see Claude Clegg, An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997); and on Malcolm X,  Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking, 2011). Charles E. Jones, ed., The Black Panther Party Reconsidered (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998).And on black power and black nationalism see, for example, Peniel E. Joseph, ed., The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Black Power-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2006) and Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of the Black Power in America (New York: Henry Holt, 2006), as well as, John H. Bracey, August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, eds., Black Nationalism (New York: Bobb-Merrill, 1970); Wilson Jeremiah Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 18501925 (new York: Oxford University Press, 1978); William L. Van deBurg, New Day in Babylon: Black Power and American Culture, 19651975 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992). - Back to Text

20. David Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Penguin, 1983); Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The Cointelpro Papers: Documents From The FBI’s Secret War Against Dissent (Boston: South End Press, 2002). - Back to Text

21. As an example see the following: Mathew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006);  Kevin H. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005; Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) and Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008). - Back to Text

22. Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999). - Back to Text

23. Barbara Savage, Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 19381948 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). - Back to Text

24. Sasha Torres, Black, White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), see introduction and chapters 1–2; Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of America (New York: Vintage, 2007). - Back to Text

25. As an example, see Timothy B. Tyson, Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999). - Back to Text

About the Author

Earl Lewis is the president-designate of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, one of the country’s premier philanthropies supporting the humanities, liberal arts, and higher education. He assumes the presidency in March 2013. He has been provost, executive vice president for academic affairs, and Asa Griggs Candler Professor of History and African American Studies at Emory University. He is the author or editor of seven books, an eleven-volume history of African Americans for young adults, and scores of essays and articles about African-American history and life.

Funding Information

The National Endowment for the Humanities has made grants to support many important projects and scholars in the history of civil rights, a few of whom are mentioned in this essay. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, whose essay has done so much to extend the historical boundaries of African-American civil rights history, received a research grant from NEH in 1978 to study labor history in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. W.E.B. DuBois biographer David Levering Lewis received a Humanities Medal in 2009. Charles Payne received a research grant in 1979 to study voter registration among Mississip- pi blacks from 1962 to 1965. John Dittmer received a research grant in 1999 to study the Medical Committee for Human Rights and the politics of health care in Mississippi. A number of major papers projects covering the lives and works of Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King Jr. have been supported by NEH while also being studied, exhibited, talked about, broadcast, and so on through NEH-supported projects. Ella Baker was the subject of a documentary project supported by NEH with three grants to the Film Fund in New York City from 1979 to 1981. Fannie Lou Hamer was the subject of a research project involving students in the Mississippi Delta supported by an NEH grant in 1979. Emmett Till’s murder has been featured in many projects of civil rights history, and the murder of Medgar Evers has been a major subject in two NEH summer seminars for more than 150 schoolteachers to study the year of 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers’s life and death have also been the subject of an NEH-supported television documentary project in 1982 and an educational website in 1997. Motown has been the subject of two major projects funded by NEH: a four-week summer institute for schoolteachers led by the music historian Gerald Early and in 1995 a collaborative project between Detroit’s Motown History Museum and The Henry Ford to support an exhibition on the history of Motown Records. For a more expansive list of civil rights projects in the humanities funded by NEH and the state humanities councils, see the sampler "From Freedom to Equality.".