A stirring chronology of advances—and some backward steps—in the long struggle for African-American civil rights.
The subtitle is a touch imprecise, for Martin Luther King is still alive at the beginning of Gates (African-American Studies/Harvard Univ.; Finding Your Roots, 2014, etc.) and Burke’s compendium, a companion to the forthcoming PBS series. It is Malcolm X, instead, who falls just two pages in, a victim of an internal struggle within the Black Muslim movement. As the authors observe, his memoir soon became “a canonical text for the Black Power movement,” selling 6 million copies within 10 years. Ten days after Malcolm’s funeral, hundreds of civil rights marchers were beaten in Selma, Alabama, launching King’s march to Montgomery and affirming the commitment of the Lyndon Johnson administration to civil rights at the federal level. Two dozen pages in, and King has fallen as well, killed at the age of 39, “the same age Malcolm X was when he was assassinated three years prior.” The year 1968 would mark much upheaval, symbolized by medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raising of the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics. Gates and Burke chart political and social events alongside the incalculable influence of black culture on mainstream American culture, from Broadway (James Earl Jones, “long before he is known as the voice of Darth Vader,” won a Tony in 1969) to music (“Although most of the audience is white, African American performers star at the three-day Woodstock music festival in upstate New York”) to sports and science, the latter represented most visibly by the immensely popular interpreter of cosmology Neil deGrasse Tyson. Presented in accessible entries seldom exceeding 100 words, the chronology is richly illustrated with images both iconic and seldom seen, making this especially useful as a visual reference for readers too young to have scenes from the early years burned into their memories.
A must for the look-it-up shelf and a poignant reminder of how far we have come—and have yet to go.