REAPING THE WHIRLWIND: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee by Robert J. Norrell

REAPING THE WHIRLWIND: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A history of the civil rights movement in Tuskegee, Ala., which was unique among Southern towns because in it lived the faculty of Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute: a well-educated, economically secure black middle class. This is one of the current historical assessments of the civil rights movement that extends its beginnings beyond the sit-in of 1960 and Brown vs. Board of Education of 1954--back to the 1940s and even the '30s. The title refers to the Old Testament prophet Hosea, who blamed the Israelites' breaking of the covenant for their crop failures: ""They sowed to the wind and now reap the whirlwind."" Norell applies the metaphor to the civil rights movement, in which whites reaped a whirlwind of conflict that four generations of exploitation and discrimination had sown. Tuskegee is the county seat of Macon County, which had the highest percentage of blacks of any county in the nation (84%). Conditions there for blacks may perhaps be judged from the fact that the county sheriffs were paid according to the number of arrests they made. Norell takes the reader from the founding of Tuskegee Institute as a school for black teachers in the 1880s to the disappointments delivered by its civil rights movement in the 1980s. Blacks have gained political power, but poor blacks have learned that political power does not necessarily lead to economic betterment. To many blacks, ""voting seemed an empty exercise if it did not lead to economic progress."" White fear of black domination led to an exodus from Tuskegee: in 1980 there were only 600 whites, less than half the white population a decade earlier. A superb, often exciting rendition of the complex interactions and misunderstandings between blacks and whites in a key Southern town. Historian Norell has captured both the public and private personas of the leading black and white players, which makes his story come alive. The Tuskegee saga would make a good movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 9th, 1985
Publisher: Knopf