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FW: H-South Review: Tuck on Thornton, _Dividing Lines_

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  • Amos J Wright
    fyi..ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@H-NET.MSU.EDU]On Behalf Of Ian Binnington, H-South Sent: Wednesday, September
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@...]On
      Behalf Of Ian Binnington, H-South
      Sent: Wednesday, September 29, 2004 8:03 AM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: H-South Review: Tuck on Thornton, _Dividing Lines_



      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-South@... (September 2004)

      J. Mills Thornton III. _Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the
      Struggle
      for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma_. Tuscaloosa and
      London: University of Alabama, 2002. xi + 733 pp. Maps, notes, index.
      $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8173-1170-X).

      Reviewed for H-South by Stephen Tuck, stephen.tuck@...,
      History Department, Oxford University, England.

      _Why did civil rights demonstrations happen here and not there?_

      For many years, historians have stressed the importance of grassroots
      protest in the civil rights movement. Thornton's _Dividing Lines_,
      though,
      takes the genre further. In the first place, Thornton focuses on the
      three
      cities where Martin Luther King made his name. By unraveling each local
      story in great detail, across much of the twentieth century, he makes a
      compelling case for the importance of studying the civil rights movement
      at
      the local level. Moreover, Thornton looks at the contest for power from
      many angles. This is not simply a study of grassroots activists in the
      context of each locality, but a detailed and thorough investigation of
      the
      contexts themselves. Consequently this is a long book, but it is
      consistently thoughtful and thoroughly engaging.

      What sets the book apart, though, is that it calls for a
      reinterpretation
      of the movement as a whole. Thornton's starting point (rather than his
      conclusion, as in much of the literature) is that the movement was
      local,
      which leads him to the question, why did mass confrontational movements
      occur where and when they did? Or to put it another way (again to
      paraphrase Thornton), when did enough African-Americans in any given
      city
      believe that change was possible? From his study of these three cities,
      the
      answer lies in municipal politics, and more specifically, moments of
      municipal transition.

      In each case, Thornton suggests that changing municipal politics, after
      years of seeming stability, meant that a change in the status of African
      Americans also suddenly seemed possible. Such moments of political
      change
      jolted the black leadership in each city into action, though not in the
      sense that black leaders simply started a long prepared protest. For
      example, Fred Shuttlesworth, the hero of the Birmingham movement,
      actually
      launched his protests in part because he feared being sidelined in
      favour
      of more conciliatory black leaders once a moderate white business
      leadership came to power.

      Clearly there is much to be said for focusing on the actions of white
      leaders rather than simply looking for answers within the black
      community.
      Otherwise we are left in the bizarre position of ranking black
      communities
      across the South according to their place on a bravery or competence
      scale,
      whereas the position in each city was rather more complicated. Municipal
      politics played an important factor again and again in the timing and
      nature of protest. In Baton Rouge, black leaders launched a bus boycott
      in
      1953 -- but a swift compromise from the municipal government
      successfully
      defused the boycott, reopening divides in the city's black leadership in
      the process (which have not healed to this day). The intransigence of
      the
      Montgomery city council, by contrast, caused the boycott to escalate
      from a
      modest call for a pattern of segregated seating found elsewhere in
      Alabama
      to an all out demand for integration. Similarly, the seemingly
      confrontational approaches adopted by city leaders in Birmingham and
      Selma
      stood in contrast to the careful policy of limited concessions pursued
      by
      the municipal government in Atlanta which undermined local protest
      there.

      No doubt some will criticise Thornton for privileging white politics
      over
      black agency. In fact, though, Thornton is attentive to the actions of
      black leaders. Far from relegating them, he actually notes the presence
      of
      far-sighted leaders in most communities, and the groundswell of
      discontent
      across the region. It was the very prevalence of such leadership and
      attitudes, he argues, which means that we need to look to other factors
      to
      understand why protest took different forms in different cities. Still,
      just as municipal politics varied from town to town, so too did the type
      of
      leadership and the strength of the African-American community (though
      this
      in turn was of course influenced by the municipal context).

      Thornton notes that his argument depends on each city being a separate
      unit. He puts forward compelling evidence that for all the connections
      between civil rights leaders across the South, most African Americans
      thought about their neighborhood or the local sheriff and mayor when
      they
      thought about Jim Crow. This is surely right. He concedes, though, that
      there were limits to this isolation. After all, this was a period of
      mass
      communication and regular movement of people. The sit-ins which often
      triggered further protest in dozens of towns and cities were a direct
      case
      of copycat protests. In addition, time and again black leaders reflected
      upon and also acted in response to the experience of other local
      protests,
      not to say changes across America and the rest of the world. Black
      leaders
      in Brunswick, Georgia, for example, forced municipal leaders to make
      concessions by playing on their fears of an outbreak of protest similar
      to
      that in Albany. No doubt the extent and nature of isolation, then,
      varied
      between cities. But Thornton makes a powerful case for the primacy of
      the
      locality in the course of protest in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma.

      Thornton's argument concerning municipal political change seems entirely
      persuasive in the case of these three cities. Given the interpretative
      claims that he makes, though, of course it begs the question of its
      wider
      applicability. Obviously it was beyond the scope of _Dividing Lines_ to
      look in depth at other cities across the South -- the impressive quality
      of
      the research into these three cities is testament to a project that
      began
      some 20 years ago. But it would be illuminating to have a comparison of
      other Southern cities. Is it really the case that most direct action
      protests (apart from those launched by SNCC) started because of
      municipal
      transitions? And when cities did not experience confrontational protest,
      did that result from continuity in the local political machine? One
      might
      imagine that with the rapidly changing economy and demographics of the
      post-World War II South, very many cities experienced changes in local
      politics during this period.

      The search for the precise trigger for the moment of direct action in
      some
      towns need not be as narrow a question as it may appear. The rise of
      direct
      action had a long term effect on the course of local race relations in
      each
      city, and the protests in Birmingham and Selma are famous for forcing
      national legislation. John F. Kennedy claimed to be responding directly
      to
      Birmingham, and Lyndon Johnson was influenced by Selma. But a shift in
      focus from municipal politics to Congressional politics would, no doubt,
      reveal other factors that may explain the precise timing of such
      legislation. There had, after all, been increasing sympathy for black
      southerners for a number of years, reinforced by the spectacle of
      boycotts,
      sit-ins, freedom rides and other protests. Rather, specific changes in
      allegiances and committee structures proved crucial to the timing of
      such
      legislation. Using Thornton's own call to attend to the minutiae of
      political development, then, the direct impact of Birmingham and Selma
      may
      ultimately have been local, just as its causes were.

      More generally, though, Thornton's argument about the primary importance
      of
      municipal politics has many implications for how we understand racial
      conflict and the place of the civil rights movement in local and
      national
      politics. _Dividing Lines_, then, is a thought provoking and
      wide-ranging
      study. The book is structured helpfully and sensibly. The introduction
      explains why Thornton chose to ask his questions, and summarizes the
      reasoning behind his argument. The next three chapters fill in the
      detail
      for each city in turn. Having established his thesis, Thornton then
      explains why it should be no surprise that each city witnessed a
      continuing
      local struggle for power, though now through the ballot box. In his
      conclusion, he also reflects on King's role, the nature of protest and
      the
      future of the struggle for racial equality. Any reader who wants to
      understand the argument and its implications, therefore, can do so
      without
      reading the three main chapters. But the chapters on each of the cities
      are
      of such high quality that they are well worth taking the time to
      consider
      in depth.

      Copyright (c) 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be
      copied
      for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author
      and
      the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@....
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