As part of Black History Month, this week’s Random Book of the Week is a photographic history of the Civil Rights Movement in America, a period of history that held such fascination for me as a student that I wrote an impossibly-pretentiously-titled university dissertation on it (‘The Civil Rights Movement and The Cult of the Celebrity, 1955-68’ – now please, don’t judge, we were all young and earnest once…).
This period fascinated me because, as a student fretting about making essay deadlines and 9am lectures after too many 90p-glasses of wine in the college bar, I couldn’t help but compare myself to the young people I was reading about as part of my studies, who had things such as ‘is one of Bull O’Connor’s police dogs gonna chew my face off at the march tomorrow, or will it be the water cannon this time?’ on their worry list. As these photographs show, the movement was not just about the well-known faces of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, et al – it was these foot soldiers of the movement, often not much older than teenagers, who sustained the battle ‘in the field’ as King and co fought the parallel battle in the corridors of political power. I was honoured to interview some of these ‘Movement veterans’ as part of my dissertation, and thinking of those conversations brings tears to my eyes even now. As one told me, the reason many welcomed celebrity involvement in the cause was because it offered a level of protection against police brutality: ‘we felt vulnerable all the time.’ I wondered then, and I still wonder now, if I too could have been as brave.
This book is full of brilliant, emotionally-charged pictures of those foot-soldiers at work, alongside a comprehensive history of the Movement. In these pictures we see the entire spectrum of human interaction – from joy to sorrow, from solidarity to brutality. They serve as a timely reminder of the horror of race relations in America then, when daily news from ‘over the pond’ suggests that there is still much to be done now. Respect to you, Movement veterans, and all of you still fighting that fight.