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FW: Catsam on Davis, _The Civil Rights Movement_

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi...an Alabama author [or editor!]...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-Net Reviews [mailto:books@H-NET.MSU.EDU] Sent: Wednesday, June 19, 2002 9:16
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-Net Reviews [mailto:books@...]
      Sent: Wednesday, June 19, 2002 9:16 AM
      To: H-REVIEW@...
      Subject: Catsam on Davis, _The Civil Rights Movement_

      Published by H-Pol@... (May, 2002)

      Jack E. Davis, ed. _The Civil Rights Movement_. Blackwell Readers in
      American Social and Cultural History. Malden: Blackwell, 2001. xxiv
      + 314 pp. Chronology, index. $62.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-631-22043-7;
      $27.95 (paper), ISBN 0-631-22044-5.

      Reviewed for H-Pol by Derek Catsam <derekcatsam@...>,
      Contemporary History Institute, Ohio University

      Bringing Civil Rights Into the Classroom

      Jack Davis, who teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham,
      has compiled a useful reader on the history of the civil rights
      movement. It is part of the Blackwell Readers in American Social and
      Cultural History Series edited by Jacquelyn Jones. The book consists
      of essay contributions from prominent scholars whose work covers a
      range of themes in the ever-burgeoning civil rights historiography.
      The essays are drawn from the contributing scholars' own works, such
      as journal articles and chapters from books. This is an important
      aspect of the book, because it enables readers to engage in the
      current scholarship rather than in, say, dumbed-down or reductionist
      pieces specifically for the book. Davis edits with a judicious
      touch. In addition to the essays, the sections, which are organized
      thematically, include primary documents in order to allow students
      to engage in the sorts of documents historians use on a daily basis.
      Each chapter includes a useful bibliography. The book is intended
      for a primarily undergraduate audience for classroom use, although
      it could also be useful in some graduate seminars as well.

      _The Civil Rights Movement_ begins, after the traditional
      introductions and acknowledgments with a tremendously detailed and
      useful chronology tracing the Civil Rights Movement, writ large,
      from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 1998 conviction of Former
      KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers for the 1966 murder of Mississippi
      activist Vernon Dahmer. Davis' own introduction takes its cue from
      a graduate student paper produced at the University of South Florida
      in which Ellen Babb explored the activism of Bette Wimbish and other
      women in St. Petersburg, Florida. The inclusion of this student's
      work is typical of one of the central themes of Davis' book--the
      idea of bringing the study of some of the hidden aspects of the
      civil rights movement to light. The use of a student paper to do so
      is especially apropos.

      Davis breaks the book into six thematic parts that are loosely
      chronological: "Sowing Seeds," "Defiance," "Participants,"
      "Local-National Relationships," "Empowerment," and "The Continuing
      Saga." Each of these sections then gets two essays that cover
      sub-topics within these themes. Some of the essays fit their
      particular theme better than do others, and some teachers might find
      it necessary to draw links for students who may not know as much
      about the civil rights struggle as others. Nonetheless the essays
      are almost universally excellent. Many professors who choose to use
      this reader (and many should) will be familiar with most of the
      selections contained here, though the context might open some eyes.

      Despite the quality of the essays and Davis' skilful editing, the
      book has some flaws. The worst of these, in this reviewer's eyes, is
      the lack of footnotes in the essays. Given that these pieces
      initially appeared as scholarly works they are based on original
      historical research and when they appeared they had footnotes or
      endnotes or other forms of citation. The purpose of a reader is to
      introduce students to a range of different perspectives on
      historical issues and events. But such sources should also introduce
      students to the historian's craft. Given the rather specific nature
      of this book, it will not be used in general freshman surveys, and
      instead is most likely to be a part of upper level courses on civil
      rights or Southern history or else in graduate courses. In any of
      these cases it is important that students begin to understand how
      scholars use footnotes and how historians analyze sources. By
      bowdlerizing these essays Davis takes away a prime opportunity to
      teach students about putting together research papers. Furthermore,
      he is not even consistent. While he takes away all but a few
      footnotes in most of the pieces, he does not remove the distracting
      parenthetical citations in LaVerne Gyant's essay on women in the
      civil rights movement. Such foolish inconsistency is a hobgoblin of
      this reader's mind.

      This brings me to a second point. As with many readers, this one
      includes primary sources intended to bring the students closer to
      the events the essays depict. The problem here as with most books of
      the type is that the documents here have little to do with the
      essays at hand. Thus Patricia Sullivan's fascinating essay on
      Southern reformers during the New Deal era is accompanied by two
      supporting primary documents: a 1901 Street Car Petition from
      Jacksonville, Florida and a 1955 NAACP School Segregation Petition.
      Far from facilitating an understanding of primary sources and the
      historical craft examples such as these mainly serve to distract
      readers. A better approach (and one that would validate the use of
      footnotes) might have been to have had the contributors choose a
      handful of documents that they used to make their argument or
      construct their story. In so doing they would show students how to
      use documents and how historians go about utilizing primary sources
      to write history. This seems a far better approach than simply to
      throw together primary documents in a slapdash fashion that have
      only passing relevance to the essays they are purported to support.

      These criticisms aside, however, this book makes an important
      contribution. There are very few readers on the civil rights
      movement, and fewer still with this depth and scope. This is among
      the very best. The fact that many of the historians included here
      represent a new wave of scholars who will continue to redefine civil
      rights historiography for years to come makes this a lively and
      important contribution to our efforts to bring scholarship into the

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