Thursday, March 31, 2005

Progressive History Books--March

I realized that I haven’t fulfilled my blog promise from February when I posted on progressive history books. Of course, I rarely actually complete promised post. I posted a travel log for my first 2 days of my Mexico trip and then gave that up. Don’t know why either since it actually seemed to be going pretty well and maybe was even interesting to people.

Anyway, I do want to fulfill this promise. So here’s a couple of interesting books for progressives to know. I’m going to focus on the Civil Rights movement for this month. Lots of great stuff to read here and knowledge of this movement is key for progressives to argue against the racist assertions of the right.

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire. These are the seminal books on the Civil Rights movement. Yes, they are very King-centric. On occasion, they lack for the kind of analysis that professional historians can give. However, the writing is great, the story is fascinating, the level of detail is outstanding, and the history is excellent. If you want to know why the Civil Rights movement started after World War II, what it’s intellectual origins were, how King emerged, and the incredible odds that this movement overcame, these are the best books to start. Branch counters the myth from Mississippi Burning that the FBI were the heroes, showing them to be the racist organization that they were. The FBI was the most segregated organization in the federal government in the 1950s. Anyway, while the books are probably more King-centered than I would like, they do show the struggles of those organizing in the Mississippi Delta, the wing of the movement that begun in the Nation of Islam, and southern whites who worked to further the movement. These books are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand American history.

But of course the Civil Rights movement didn’t come from nowhere in the 1950s. There was a long organizing tradition that limped along for decades before whites gave enough of a damn to make real change politically possible. In this spirit, I also want to recommend Eric Arnesen’s Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality. Arnesen documents the importance that black railroad workers, and especially their union, the Sleeping Car Porters under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, played in laying the foundation for the later movement. The struggles of civil rights workers in the 1920s and 1930s is inspirational. Like today, the 1920s were tough times for social change. And for blacks the 1930s were no better, even as whites organized across the nation. But hanging in there year after year, these workers created the atmosphere that led to the rise of what we call the Civil Rights movement in the mid 1950s.