A People’s History of the Civil Rights Movement

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The story of the Civil Rights movement is often told in a manner that glorifies certain Movement organizers and so-called leaders while ignoring the multitudes in the churches, the cotton fields, the hamlets of the South and the streets of the nation.  This portrayal exists in spite of the ongoing reminders from those who have been made into heroes that it was the masses of people that forced the end of legal apartheid in the United States, not any certain individual or individuals.  In part, this telling of the history is congruous with the nature of history telling in the United States in general.  We are told about Abraham Lincoln, but not about the farmers and homesteaders who moved to Kansas Territory to ensure its admission as a free state.  We are told numerous stories of generals who led soldiers into wars good and bad, but very little is mentioned of the millions who actually fought them.  We know about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joseph Lewis—among others—but the tales of the women, men and children who marched in the streets, formed community organizations to protect their  fighters and were arrested and beaten are left to those whose families remember their sacrifice.  Like Jacob Lawrence paintings, Holt’s text paints a bold and vivid story of the every day human made heroic through their existence.

This fact is not intended to diminish either the lives and sacrifices of those who became or were deemed leaders or the histories of the Civil Rights movement heroes which tell their stories.  It is merely stating a truth.  After all, there are too many individuals and thus, too many stories to tell.  Yet, into this void comes a recent text by historian Thomas C. Holt titled The Movement: The African American Struggle for Civil Rights  It is a brief exploration of the people in the Movement who did not make it into the history books, but whose actions often precipitated better known events.  Holt, whose academic focus is on the relationships between the various elements of the African diaspora in the United States and the Caribbean, relates vignettes of individuals and community organizations whose actions affected dynamics in their communities forever.  He couches his tales in analysis steeped in context and an anti-racist understanding of US history.

Holt’s history begins with a Black woman refusing to give up her seat on public transit.  The year was 1854 and her name was Elizabeth Jennings.  This was one hundred years before Rosa Parks took a similar stance and ultimately sparked one of US history’s most effective boycotts.  Mainstream civil rights history tells us that it was Martin Luther King, Jr. who led this movement.  Dr. King himself would have disagreed with that telling.  Like any good organizer, he knew it was up to the people to build and maintain an effective movement.  As Holt points out in his slender text, the warriors were working people and their families tired of bigotry and legal discrimination.  Tired of racist institutions and the people who not only ran them but benefited from them, organizations founded to change this situation became like the people who joined them.  The culture they created simultaneously came from the existing Black culture and embellished that culture.  The result was a conscious culture of resistance and radical social change.

Holt’s The Movement combines more than a century of resistance to US racial apartheid with an analysis that comes from hindsight and an anti-racist understanding of history.  The author highlights some lesser-known individuals in the US civil rights movement and brings the grassroots to the front of history.  He also lays a groundwork for what came next in the struggle for Black liberation—Black Power, the Black Panthers, etc.  As concise in its telling as it is riveting, The Movement is an excellent work for those seeking an examination of the US civil rights movement that looks through a viewfinder somewhat rare in more mainstream histories.  For those seeking a deeper involvement, it is a good introduction.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com