Civil rights movement: leaders and activists

On 4 April it will be 50 years since the world was shocked by the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis, Tennessee. Our display of books from the Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library this month is about the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in which he was one of the key figures.

When the movement began there already existed certain civil rights for black people in the US at a federal level; an issue was ensuring their enforcement by the federal government against the wishes of state governments in the South controlled by (rich) white people. These civil rights included various amendments that had been made to the US federal constitution following the American Civil War. These had ended slavery and given African-Americans citizenship and the vote (the last for males only, in line with the law for whites at the time).

However, these legal equalities between blacks and whites could only be effectively imposed in the South by the use of force by the federal government in the face of fierce resistance, and once troops were withdrawn in the late 1870s , black people were gradually intimidated out of political participation, leading to a simmering compromise whereby slavery had been ended but Southern states passed local laws denying equal civil rights and imposing segregation, which were not effectively opposed at federal level.

In the 1950s, this still unresolved conflict led to the civil rights movement. Segregation and systematic abuse continued to degrade and brutalise black people in the South; lynchings went uninvestigated, corrupt authorities advanced a racist agenda, and black people who had fought in the armed services during World War II against the most racist of fascist ideologies found on their return that they were treated as second class citizens in their own country. The civil rights movement achieved limited legalistic effects – limited, certainly with hindsight, because massive inequality in access to material resources partly along racial lines persists in the US as in all of human society at present.

Like all campaign movements, the civil rights movement encompassed various strands, organisations, and personalities: Martin Luther King, with his Christian and pacifist tinged political strategy; the more militant Malcolm X, joining King’s organisation from the Nation of Islam; bodies of the organised working class and university students (these two in particular encompassing many whites); and many more.

We have aimed in the books we have chosen to go beyond the better known figures, exploring the stories of many people associated with the civil rights movement in many ways.  So, as well as biographies of King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, we have books on performers like Nina Simone and Paul Robeson,  whose commitment to the struggle was interwoven with their art, and sports stars like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, who refused to separate their identities as world famous sportsmen from the injustices inherent in their experiences as black citizens.

In the realm of very personal stories, we have James McBride telling the story of the marriage of his white mother to his black father against the backdrop of racial intolerance, Jan Carew recalls travelling with Malcolm X and their intimate discussions about his world view, and Charles Denby’s Black Worker’s Journal gives a detailed and evocative picture of life in a Detroit car factory negotiating the assaults of race and class prejudice.  We hope this display will deepen and broaden our perspective on a movement which continues to reverberate.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library