A vade mecum for students of recent history, seeking to comprehend the last century’s ongoing struggle for civil rights for all citizens.
There are maps to the homes of the stars, rock-’n’-roll itineraries, compendia of haunted houses, but, until now, few historically minded guidebooks to the principal sites of the Civil Rights movement. Cobb, a veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a longtime journalist, provides a compelling atlas. He begins in Washington, D.C., noting that the sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. is “the only one of a black person in the [Capitol] rotunda,” while a handful of other African-Americans are represented elsewhere in the building. Not far away, he points out, is the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), purchased in 2002 courtesy of Oprah Winfrey, Don King and other big-ticket donors. The organization’s president, Dorothy I. Height, proudly observed of the building’s Pennsylvania Avenue address, “No American president will be inaugurated without getting past our house!” Outside the capital city, Cobb traces the origins of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation and the 1961 Freedom Rides. Elsewhere in southern Virginia, in Danville, the “Last Capital of the Confederacy,” he documents a 1963 protest broken by anti-insurrectionist slavery-era laws. He calls on Arthur Ashe’s statue in Richmond, alongside monuments to the chief rebel leaders. Traveling deeper into the South, he pays his respects to the veterans of lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, Raleigh and Durham, N.C.; honors the victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963, four young women who would now be in their 60s; and wonders why it is that Tennessee, so central in the movement’s history, “hardly comes to mind when the words civil rights struggle are uttered.”
“You cannot understand the United States without grappling with race and the civil rights struggle,” writes Cobb. He’s right, and his book makes a valuable contribution.