Book Review: The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement

In March, after finishing off The Shining, I turned to a smaller, non-fiction book. But this little book I finished in virtually one sitting was hardly “light reading.”

Here’s my Goodreads review:

This is an abbreviated traverse through the Civil Rights Movement, as marked by Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership from 1954 to 1968. Maybe one day I can dive into the much bigger ask of the three volumes that flesh much more of this out, but for now, this was a nice teaser look at the big flashpoints, and the subtler, more human moments of a movement trying to figure itself out. I personally find that philosophical undercurrent, and King trying to hold his grounding of it together, to be the most interesting elements here. Are we going to be a nonviolent movement? Or are we going to push back? And to what extent do we push back?

It is quite the ask to ask people to withstand angry, racist white mobs, firebombings, clubs, hoses, dogs, police, and so on. And then do it again. And then do it again. It’s really quite remarkable. We all learn about this nonviolent protest and resistance in history class and many of us can probably recite some of the bigger moments, but when you stop and just take it in, it’s freakin’ remarkable. It really is.

So consider King’s lift here. He’s fighting historic, long-entrenched and violent racism to gain rights due African Americans. That in and of itself is a big ask. To get moderate whites to go with it. To go up against those violent racists. To get the political class to pony up. To get the cops to actually do their darn job of protection. And yet, on top of that, King also has the courage and temerity to rightly connect the dots between that struggle and the war in Vietnam and speak out against that war. Again, it’s remarkable and admirable. I’m not saying anything new here, but it’s worth remarking upon.

Another item worth highlighting is the Birmingham church bombing, which killed four little girls. Branch said this, “Among civilian whites in general, reactions wound more softly in the same coil: a stab of sympathy and generalized remorse, followed quickly by resentment of exaggerated accusations and then a growing sense of innocence. ‘All of us are victims,’ insisted Mayor Albert Boutwell.'” If that sentence couldn’t be applied at any other time in American history including in modern and present times. Somehow, some way, the whites will rationalize themselves into being the true victims.

Finally, another area worth noting, is how vile and abhorrent the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was, and the way they targeted, harassed, smeared, surveilled and threatened King, up to and including trying to get King to kill himself. It’s one of the most shameful periods in law enforcement history.

Anyhow, even if you think you’re familiar with the Civil Rights Movement and King, familiarize yourself some more. Because there is more here. Well-worth reading on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

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