” Movement. The African-American struggle for civil rights ”(The Movement. The African American Struggle for Civil Rights), by Thomas C. Holt, translated from English (United States) by Jean-Claude Zancarini, preface by Michelle Zancarini -Fournel, La Découverte, 192 p., € 18, digital € 12.
One evening in 1944, Thomas C. Holt’s grandmother refused to change seats on the bus. In Danville (Virginia), as in the whole of the South of the United States, the first rows were then forbidden to « colored ». It would take another decade for such a refusal not only to lead to a brief altercation with the driver, but to a huge social movement, with that of Rosa Parks (1913-2005) in Montgomery (Alabama) in 1955.
It is to understand the articulation between such acts of ordinary individuals and a large-scale historical change that the professor emeritus of the University of Chicago, former president of the American Historical Association, chose to open his new book by this story. Now 78 years old, it is also, without doubt, a way for him to interweave his family memories as well as his personal experiences, as an activist in the early 1960s, with an analytical perspective on the struggles. political and social policies that ended up shaking racial segregation in the period 1955-1965.
The result is a short, powerful book, convincing in its restitution of these dynamics. Not so much on the narrative level: readers unfamiliar with the XIXe American century may find it difficult to locate itself in the rather fragmentary picture which is first drawn up of racial discrimination and its construction in the medium term, before and after the Civil War (1861-1865). The civil rights movement itself is more the subject of a geographic approach, from Nashville to Chicago to the Mississippi Delta, than of a sustained narrative. But the value of the book lies above all in the way it looks at its social background.
A generation of activists
For a Rosa Parks to be able to trigger a year of local bus boycott by her gesture, there had to be a black, urban middle class, far enough from the summarily unequal world of the rural plantation to hold out, over time, this challenge to the established order. For a Martin Luther King (1929-1968) to emerge as a young spokesperson for the protest, a network of universities accessible to blacks had to be structured, and shown to be able to train a generation of activists. like him, became pastors, but also lawyers and journalists. And for the sit-ins and demonstrations of the black community to turn into legal advances, it was also necessary to forge alliances capable of influencing national opinion and leaders.
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