It’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and his life and death are central to a new book for young people by Diane McWhorter called A Dream of Freedom, The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. This generous-sized, photo-filled history of the most important movement in recent American cultural life -- a movement that is still going on, as people of color will tell their white co-workers, friends, and neighbors. She begins with a necessary overview of what life and civil rights were like for African Americans in this country prior to 1954, when the Supreme Court announced its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and started the process of integrating America’s schools -- a process that is also still going on. The young reader learns, through Ms. McWhorter’s crisp, clear prose, about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Emancipation, and Reconstruction; about the poll taxes that took away the voting rights that had been won by African Americans through the Civil War, about Jim Crow laws, the Klan, and lynchings and the Scottsboro case. The young reader also learns about the heart breaking results that an African American, husband and wife team of social psychologists, Mamie and Kenneth Clark, found when they asked groups of black children in 1951 to select between two dolls that were the same in every respect, except that one was white and one was black. They were told to choose “the nice doll,” the one they’d like to play with. Most of the African American children chose the white doll.
It’s against this background setting of racism in American life that McWhorter introduces the leaders who took a stand and, like Rosa Parks, refused to give up their seats on the bus of democracy, who practiced Gandhian non-violence and boycotted the busses in Montgomery, who (like Elizabeth Eckford) proudly integrated Central High School in Little Rock, and who walked past the jeers and insults of segregationists every day for weeks and weeks, like six-year-old Ruby Bridges did in New Orleans in 1960.
As one follows McWhorter’s detailed, unflinching, decade by decade presentation of this shameful history, the reader can’t help but be shocked all over again, or, in the case of the yong reader, deeply shocked for the first time by this discovery about our past. It is still something that much of America does not like to bring up, let alone discuss. Yet talk about it McWhorter does, including how white children like herself -- she was in middle and high school during the 1960s -- were made accomplices in perpetuating these racial divides. But amidst the horrifying facts of the racism that once possessed this country so completely, McWhorter presents those people of true courage, like Dr. King, whose loving, transcendent spirit began the profound and vital process of transforming this nation’s soul.
Copyright 2005© John Cech
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