Egerton's examination of the South in the period immediately preceding the civil rights movement is less history through group biography than history through cameo appearance. Calling himself ""a middle-aged, middle-class, white Southern male with moderately liberal biases,"" Egerton (Southern Food, 1987, etc.) gracefully combines the narrative techniques of fiction with the richness of historical fact to examine the South in the period immediately preceding the civil rights movement. Covering the years from 1932 (the beginning of the New Deal) to 1954 (when the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education), the story unfolds chronologically, as most good history does, so the causes and effects are clear. Chronicling the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union and other groups, Egerton reminds us that conscience and opposition to racism existed in the South before Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus. But all these considerable strengths are dissipated by the way Egerton uses the huge cast he has selected. Those -- black and white, rich and poor -- who set the stage for Martin Luther King Jr. appear, disappear, and reappear in dizzying fashion. Far less known than King, some of the most interesting are Will Alexander, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.J. Cash, Frank Porter Graham, James Weldon Johnson, Lucy Randolph Mason, and Ralph McGill. If Egerton had explained their lives more fully, he would leave readers more satisfied. Still, the author does ultimately wrestle successfully with his wonderment at who and what transformed the politics and culture of the South in the space of a single generation. Those devoted to the study of Southern history will read this book avidly. Newcomers will learn a great deal from the author's inspired conceptualization but will need frequent respites from the flood of humanity he presents.