The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation

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9780374532406: The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation
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Through the lives of Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, Bob Zellner, Julian Bond, Marion Barry, John Lewis, and their contemporaries, The Shadows of Youth provides a carefully woven group biography of the activists who―under the banner of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee―challenged the way Americans think about civil rights, politics, and moral obligation in an unjust democracy. A wealth of original sources and oral interviews allows the historian Andrew B. Lewis to recover the sweeping narrative of the civil rights movement, from its origins in the youth culture of the 1950s to the near present.

The teenagers who spontaneously launched sit-ins across the South in the summer of 1960 became the SNCC activists and veterans without whom the civil rights movement could not have succeeded. The Shadows of Youth replaces a story centered on the achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. with one that unearths the cultural currents that turned a disparate group of young adults into, in Nash's term, skilled freedom fighters. Their dedication to radical democratic possibility was transformative. In the trajectory of their lives, from teenager to adult, is visible the entire arc of the most decisive era of the American civil rights movement, and The Shadows of Youth for the first time establishes the centrality of their achievement in the movement's accomplishments.

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About the Author:

Andrew B. Lewis teaches history at Wesleyan University. His books include Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table: A Documentary History of the Civil Rights Movement, with Julian Bond.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1. SURE BUGS ME
THE CIVIL RIGHTS GENERATION AND THE FAILURES OF THE 1950s
When fourteen-year-old John Lewis opened the paper on May 16, 1954, the headline stunned him: the Supreme Court had de­clared segregated schools unconstitutional. He  could not believe it. Separate schools were one of the cornerstones of southern segrega­tion. He felt his world “turned upside down.” He was sure he would be attending an integrated school that coming September, a mere four months away. But Lewis’s hopes would be dashed by a school deseg­regation process that saw only about one in one hundred black stu­dents enter white schools by 1960. Lewis’s broken dream captured in a microcosm how the 1950s teased young African Americans with the unrealized promise of racial change.1
The Supreme Court decision that shocked Lewis was actually the culmination of a twenty-year legal odyssey begun by Charles Hamil­ton Houston, the chief architect of the NAACP’s legal strategy and the former dean of Howard University’s law school. At the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Houston built a fraternity of shrewd and coura­geous lawyers that included Thurgood Marshall, his best student at Howard. During the 1930s and 1940s, Legal Defense Fund lawyers had attacked the soft underbelly of segregation—the failure of white southerners to make separate truly equal—through a series of law­suits. Starting with the most glaring examples of discrimination in higher education, NAACP lawyers chipped away at Jim Crow. First they forced the establishment of separate graduate programs for Afri­can Americans and then the admission of blacks into white programs.
Next they tackled inequality in grade schools, forcing southern states to spend millions of dollars to provide the same pay to all teachers regardless of race and to raise the quality of black facilities. The equal­ization campaign was so successful, in fact, that by 1950 the NAACP took only cases that challenged segregation directly.2
Smart lawyers and creative legal thinking were only part of the story, however; good lawyers needed good clients. Concerned that a loss would do more to reinforce the legality of segregation than ten wins would do to undermine it, they avoided many cases, espe­cially those originating in rural areas where white resis tance was strongest.
So when Barbara Johns, a determined sixteen-year-old who led her classmates at the all-black high school in Prince Edward County on a strike for better schools, asked Oliver Hill, the chief NAACP law­yer in Virginia, to take their case, he was not optimistic. The rural county was known for its strong support of segregation. Still, he agreed to meet with them and, impressed by their passion and deter­mination, agreed to take the case on the condition that the students scrapped their demand for better schools and attacked segregation head-on. Less than one month later, on May 23, 1951, Hill fi led suit challenging segregated education in Prince Edward County, and it would soon be combined with the Brown case in Topeka and three others to make up the five different suits consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education for the Supreme Court hearing.3
Almost three years to the day later, the nine justices of the Su­preme Court announced their decision in Brown. The unusually brief opinion strongly denounced school segregation. It argued that educa­tion was the most important function of state and local governments, central to a dem o cratic society and the “foundation of good citizen­ship.” To exclude young African Americans from white schools was more than simply a violation of equal protection; segregated educa­tion generated “a feeling of inferiority” that permanently scarred their “hearts and minds.”4
The Court’s rhetoric may have been strong, but its actions were tempered. Instead of ordering the immediate integration of the South’s segregated schools or even the immediate integration of the schools involved in Brown, the Court postponed any action for a year to allow the South time to adjust. Acceptance was crucial for Chief Justice Earl Warren; he believed the mechanics of integration would come relatively easily once southerners accepted the idea that segre­gation was unconstitutional.5
One year later, on May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court enshrined caution as law. Brown II, as the implementation decree is usually called, was again brief and to the point. Federal judges would con­sider desegregation requests on a community-by-community basis. The Court offered no specific guidance on how long the process of ending segregation should take; nor did it set an end date. Instead, the Court instructed white officials “to make a prompt and reason­able start toward” ending school segregation and advised judges to make sure it happened “with all deliberate speed.” Any delays should clearly benefit the public and be in the spirit of “good faith” compli­ance with the Brown decision.6
“All deliberate speed” robbed black activists at the local level of the issue of school desegregation in important ways. Courts were slow. Courts were abstract. Hearings were long and boring. The Su­preme Court had made the implementation of the basic constitutional rights of African Americans a negotiated process overseen by lower federal courts; black rights would be balanced against white anxiety in designing desegregation plans. By keeping the issue in the courts, school desegregation  could not become the focal point of mass pro­test. Except for a few dramatic incidents that punctuated the years after Brown, school desegregation played a surprisingly peripheral role during the heyday of the movement in the 1960s.
Julian Bond was both less surprised by and less excited about the Brown decision than John Lewis. He saw the Supreme Court decision as ratifying the positive parts of his experience at George, the inte­grated private school he attended in Pennsylvania, and as confi rming his optimistic hope that racial differences were becoming less impor­tant. His parents were doubtful about the speed of change when they discussed the decision at the dinner table. But as 1954 gave way to 1955 and then 1956, Bond became unsure about the ability of the American dem o cratic system to reform itself. He saw how the Court’s decision had deferred action and emboldened white southerners. As the only black student at an all-white prep school, he understood how wide the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of American democ­racy could be.
The slow pace of change also frustrated Lewis as he searched in vain for news of Alabama’s desegregation plans. In some ways more naïve than Bond, Lewis really believed that desegregation was around the corner. But state officials never announced a plan for integration. In fact, no school desegregation of any kind would occur in Alabama until the 1963–64 school year, when 21 of a possible 293,476 black stu­dents attended their first classes with whites. In the late summer of 1955, fifteen-year-old John Lewis came across a story in the newspaper that had a much more immediate and depressing impact on his life.7
As the summer of 1955 wound down, two fourteen-year-old cousins, Emmett Till and Wheeler Parker, begged their parents to let them go to Mississippi for a vacation. Their hometown of Chicago had been mercilessly hot, and the boys were itching to get some fresh air, to fi sh along the Tallahatchie, to just get outside. After much pleading, their parents agreed they  could spend the last two weeks of the summer in Mississippi at their great-uncle Moses Wright’s farm.8
Till and Wheeler’s trip was not unusual. Many northern blacks sent their children back down South to visit relatives during the sum­mer. Both of Emmett Till’s parents had been reared in the South. Louis Till, Emmett’s father, had died in Europe during World War II. Hav­ing emigrated to Chicago, Mamie Till Bradley made a good living as a civilian employee of the air force, and she and Emmett lived a com­fortable middle-class life on the South Side.9
Emmett Till was a study in teenage contradictions. His mother de­scribed him as well mannered, polite, and good-natured; his friends saw him as spirited, boastful, and rambunctious. While his mother talked about his church attendance, his friends mentioned his drive to be the center of attention. Childhood polio had left him with a slight stutter. Still, Emmett was confident and something of a dandy; on one pinky he sported a gold signet ring with the initials LT in honor of his father. In short, he was a typical fourteen-year-old, basi­cally a good kid but still trying to sort out who he was, to walk that fine line between pleasing his mother and fi tting in.10
On August 24, only a few days after arriving in Mississippi on the train, Till, his cousin, and a few other local kids were doing what American teens have done since the invention of the automobile— cruising aimlessly, trying to gin up a little fun on a quiet summer night. The group pulled up in front of the Money General Store, a little store that served a mostly black clientele and was a popular place to hang out. Money, Mississippi, was not much of a town,  really just a post office, a gas station, and a cotton-ginning station. When their car pulled up, a dozen kids, mostly boys, were already milling about in front.11
As they sat outside in the hot summer air, the joking and the brag­ging went around fast and furious. Till bragged about his white girl­friend back in Chicago, but the teens were skeptical. Someone in the group dared him to prove his story by talking to the white woman working behind the counter. Caught in the web of his own boasts, Emmett did what any brash teenager would do: he went inside.
No one knows exactly what happened next. The most repeated version of events comes from Carolyn...

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