Voices in Our Blood: America's Best on the Civil Rights Movement

Voices in Our Blood: America's Best on the Civil Rights Movement

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Overview

A literary anthology of important and artful interpretations of the civil rights movement and the fight against white supremacy, past and present—including pieces by Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, and John Lewis 

Editor Jon Meacham has chosen pieces by journalists, novelists, historians, and artists, bringing together a wide range of perspectives and experiences. The result is an unprecedented and powerful portrait of the movement’s spirit and struggle, told through voices that resonate with passion and strength.

Maya Angelou takes us on a poignant journey back to her childhood in the Arkansas of the 1930s. On the front page of The New York Times, James Reston marks the movement’s apex as he describes what it was like to watch Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his heralded “I Have a Dream” speech in real time. Alice Walker takes up the movement’s progress a decade later in her article “Choosing to Stay at Home: Ten Years After the March on Washington.” And John Lewis chronicles the unimaginable courage of the ordinary African Americans who challenged the prevailing order, paid for it in blood and tears, and justly triumphed.

Voices in Our Blood is a compelling look at the movement as it actually happened, from the days leading up to World War II to the anxieties and ambiguities of this new century. The story of race in America is a never-ending one, and Voices in Our Blood tells us how we got this far—and how far we still have to go to reach the Promised Land.

Praise for Voices in Our Blood
 
“Jon Meacham . . . has done about the best job of anthologizing the movement that I’ve ever seen.”—Tom Wicker, Mother Jones
 
“Compelling . . . Acting as a maestro for an orchestra of gifted writers, Meacham succeeds at transporting the reader to the confused heart of American race relations, down to the core of the misunderstandings, the invitations to hate, and the violence.”—Juan Williams, The Washington Monthly
 
“A collection of first-rate writings by gifted authors on America’s struggle for racial justice.”—James Ralph, Chicago Tribune

“The writing in this collection sparkles.”—Robert Joiner, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375758812
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/07/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 443,275
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.21(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer. The author of the New York Times bestsellers Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Franklin and Winston, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, and The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, he is a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, a contributing writer for The New York Times Book Review, and a fellow of the Society of American Historians. Meacham lives in Nashville and in Sewanee with his wife and children.

Read an Excerpt

Inheritors of Slavery: Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, 1941
Richard Wright

The word "Negro," the term by which, orally or in print, we black folk in the United States are usually designated, is not really a name at all nor a description, but a psychological island whose objective form is the most unanimous fiat in all American history; a fiat buttressed by popular and national tradition, and written down in many state and city statutes; a fiat which artificially and arbitrarily defines, regulates, and limits in scope of meaning the vital contours of our lives, and the lives of our children and our children's children.

This island, within whose confines we live, is anchored in the feelings of millions of people, and is situated in the midst of the sea of white faces we meet each day; and, by and large, as three hundred years of time has borne our nation into the twentieth century, its rocky boundaries have remained unyielding to the waves of our hope that dash against it.
The steep cliffs of this island are manifest, on the whole, in the conduct of whites toward us hour by hour, a conduct which tells us that we possess no rights commanding respect, that we have no claim to pursue happiness in our own fashion, that our progress toward civilization constitutes an insult, that our behavior must be kept firmly within an orbit branded as inferior, that we must be compelled to labor at the behest of others, that as a group we are owned by the whites, and that manliness on our part warrants instant reprisal.

Three hundred years are a long time for millions of folk like us to be held in such subjection, so long a time that perhaps scores of years will have to pass before we shall be able to express what this slavery has done to us, for our personalities are still numb from its long shocks; and, as the numbness leaves our souls, we shall yet have to feel and give utterance to the full pain we shall inherit.

More than one-half of us black folk in the United States are tillers of the soil, and three-fourths of those of us who till the soil are sharecroppers and day laborers. The land we till is beautiful, with red and black and brown clay, with fresh and hungry smells, with pine trees and palm trees, with rolling hills and swampy delta—an unbelievably fertile land, bounded on the north by the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, on the west by the Mississippi River, and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean.

Our southern springs are filled with quiet noises and scenes of growth. Apple buds laugh into blossom. Honeysuckles creep up the sides of houses. Sunflowers nod in the hot fields. From mossy tree to mossy tree—oak, elm, willow, aspen, sycamore, dogwood, cedar, walnut, ash, and hickory–bright green leaves jut from a million branches to form an awning that tries to shield and shade the earth. Blue and pink kites of small boys sail in the windy air.

In summer the magnolia trees fill the countryside with sweet scent for long miles. Days are slumberous, and the skies are high and thronged with clouds that ride fast. At midday the sun blazes and bleaches the soil. Butterflies flit through the heat; wasps sing their sharp, straight lines; birds fluff and flounce, piping in querulous joy. Nights are covered with canopies sometimes blue and sometimes black, canopies that sag low with ripe and nervous stars. The throaty boast of frogs momentarily drowns out the call and counter-call of crickets.

In autumn the land is afire with color. Red and brown leaves lift and flutter dryly, becoming entangled in the stiff grass and cornstalks. Cotton is picked and ginned; cane is crushed and its juice is simmered down into molasses; yams are grubbed out of the clay; hogs are slaughtered and cured in lingering smoke; corn is husked and ground into meal. At twilight the sky is full of wild geese winging ever southward, and bats jerk through the air. At night the winds blow free.

In winter the forests resound with the bite of steel axes eating into tall trees as men gather wood for the leaden days of cold. The guns of hunters snap and crack. Long days of rain come, and our swollen creeks rush to join a hundred rivers that wash across the land and make great harbors where they feed the gulf or the sea. Occasionally the rivers leap their banks and leave new thick layers of silt to enrich the earth, and then the look of the land is garish, bleak, suffused with a first-day stillness, strangeness, and awe.

But whether in spring or summer or autumn or winter, time slips past us remorselessly, and it is hard to tell of the iron that lies beneath the surface of our quiet, dull days. To paint the picture of how we live on the tobacco, cane, rice, and cotton plantations is to compete with mighty artists: the movies, the radio, the newspapers, the magazines, and even the Church. They have painted one picture: charming, idyllic, romantic; but we live another: full of the fear of the Lords of the Land, bowing and grinning when we meet white faces, toiling from sun to sun, living in unpainted wooden shacks that sit casually and insecurely upon the red clay.

In the main we are different from other folk in that, when an impulse moves us, when we are caught in the throes of inspiration, when we are moved to better our lot, we do not ask ourselves: "Can we do it?" but: "Will they let us do it?" Before we black folk can move, we must first look into the white man's mind to see what is there, to see what he is thinking, and the white man’s mind is a mind that is always changing.

In general there are three classes of men above us: the Lords of the Land—operators of the plantations; the Bosses of the Buildings—the owners of industry; and the vast numbers of poor white workers—our immediate competitors in the daily struggle for bread. The Lords of the Land hold sway over the plantations and over us; the Bosses of the Buildings lend money and issue orders to the Lords of the Land. The Bosses of the Buildings feed upon the Lords of the Land, and the Lords of the Land feed upon the 5,000,000 landless poor whites and upon us, throwing to the poor whites the scant solace of filching from us 4,000,000 landless blacks what the poor whites themselves are cheated of in this elaborate game.

Back of this tangled process is a long history. When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, there were some 4,000,000 of us black folk stranded and bewildered upon the land which we had tilled under compulsion for two and a half centuries. Sundered suddenly from the only relationship with Western civilization we had been allowed to form since our captivity, our personalities blighted by two hundred and fifty years of servitude, and eager to hold our wives and husbands and children together in family units, some of us turned back to the same Lords of the Land who had held us as slaves and begged for work, resorted to their advice; and there began for us a new kind of bondage: sharecropping.

Glad to be free, some of us drifted and gave way to every vagary of impulse that swept through us, being held in the line of life only by the necessity to work and eat. Confined for centuries to the life of the cotton field, many of us possessed no feelings of family, home, community, race, church, or progress. We could scarcely believe that we were free, and our restlessness and incessant mobility were our naïve way of testing that freedom. Just as a kitten stretches and yawns after a long sleep, so thousands of us tramped from place to place for the sheer sake of moving, looking, wondering, landless upon the land. Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, and West Virginia became the home states of us freed blacks.

Table of Contents

Introduction3
I.Before the Storm9
Inheritors of Slavery
Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, 194113
North Toward Home
196732
Notes of a Native Son
195541
A Pageant of Birds
The New Republic, October 25, 194357
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Harper's Magazine, February 197061
Opera in Greenville
The New Yorker, June 14, 194775
II.Into the Streets105
America Comes of Middle Age
He Went All the Way, September 22, 1955111
Upon Such a Day, September 10, 1957113
Next Day, September 12, 1957115
The Soul's Cry, September 13, 1957117
American Segregation and the World Crisis
The Segregation Decisions, November 10, 1955120
The Moral Aspects of Segregation
The Segregation Decisions, November 10, 1955123
The Cradle (of the Confederacy) Rocks
Go South to Sorrow, 1957129
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years
1988150
Prime Time
Colored People, 1994154
Letter from the South
The New Yorker, April 7, 1956161
Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South
1956167
Travels with Charley
1962203
Liar by Legislation
Look, June 28, 1955209
Harlem Is Nowhere
Harper's Magazine, August 1964214
An Interview with Malcolm X
A Candid Conversation with the Militant Major-domo of the Black Muslims, Playboy, May 1963218
Wallace
1968235
Mystery and Manners
1963267
The Negro Revolt Against "The Negro Leaders"
Harper's Magazine, June 1960268
III.The Mountaintop281
"I Have a Dream ..."
The New York Times, August 29, 1963285
Capital Is Occupied by a Gentle Army
The New York Times, August 29, 1963288
Bloody Sunday
Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, 1998292
Mississippi: The Fallen Paradise
Harper's Magazine, April 1965318
This Quiet Dust
Harper's Magazine, April 1965328
When Watts Burned
Rolling Stone's The Sixties, 1977346
After Watts
Violence in the City--An End or a Beginning? The New York Review of Books, March 31, 1966348
The Brilliancy of Black
Esquire, January 1967352
Representative
The New Yorker, April 1, 1967367
The Second Coming of Martin Luther King
Harper's Magazine, August 1967370
Martin Luther King Is Still on the Case
Esquire, August 1968389
IV.Twilight409
"Keep On A-Walking, Children"
New American Review, January 1969413
"We in a War--Or Haven't Anybody Told You That?"
Report from Black America, 1969450
Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's
New York, June 8, 1970463
Choosing to Stay at Home: Ten Years After the March on Washington
The New York Times Magazine, August 26, 1973478
A Hostile and Welcoming Workplace
The Rage of a Privileged Class, 1993486
State Secrets
The New Yorker, May 29, 1995499
Grady's Gift
The New York Times Magazine, December 1, 1991517
Acknowledgments529
Permissions Acknowledgments531
Index533

Reading Group Guide

1. What is the vision of black America painted by Richard Wright in "Inheritors of Slavery" and what is the vision of white America painted by Willie Morris in "North Toward Home"?  And how did the themes and passions Wright and Morris identified shape the beginnings of the movement?

2. It's often thought that the North was ahead of the South on race relations.  Based on the piece by James Baldwin, do you think that's true?  And if not, why not?

3. Rebecca West wrote a powerful piece for The New Yorker about a lynching trial in Greenville, South Carolina, just after she had written about Nuremberg. "Lately Europe had not been really what any of us could call a peaceable community," she said.  Are there parallels between Hitler's Germany and the Jim Crow South?  If so, what are they? 

4. When Robert Penn Warren returned to the South to talk to people about the desegregation decisions, a Southern woman he knew who lived in the North said to him, "'I feel it's all happening inside of me, every bit of it.  It's all there.' I know what she meant.'"  What did she mean?  And how do the voices collected in Warren's long essay illustrate the conflicting forces that shaped the movement?

5. After reading Taylor Branch's portrait of King from "Parting the Waters" and "An Interview with Malcolm X," what do you think were the key issues both uniting and separating the two leaders?  Were they more alike, or unlike? And do you think Louis Lomax had it right in "The Negro Revolt Against 'The Negro Leaders,'" which tries to shed light on the fissures within the movement?

6. In "Bloody Sunday," John Lewis recalls the day he was beaten on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and links the images of that day to President Johnson's call for voting rights legislation.  Do you agree or disagree with the proposition that the moral witness in the streets led directly to action in Washington? 

7. In both Lewis's memoir and Bernard Weinraub's profile of Stokley Carmichael, the principals discuss tensions within the movement.  What were those tensions?  Do you think there were avoidable or at least manageable?  And given the accumulated weight of the narratives about the key figures—King, Lewis, Malcolm X, Carmichael—do you think the movement was made by certain personalities or would have largely unfolded the same way no matter who stood at the pinnacle of the organizing forces?  In other words, was the movement the product of personalities or more impersonal, inexorable forces?

8. Why the overarching sense of bleakness in Pat Watter's "Keep On A-walking, Children"?  What in his view had produced such chaos so relatively quickly, and do you think there is an implicit prescription for ongoing social action in his essay? 

9. Using David Halberstam and Tom Wolfe's reporting, weigh the interplay of social movements in those days, from race relations to Vietnam, in the North and the South.  What happened to the seeming clarity of the early sixties?   

10. What is the nature of the relationship between whites and blacks in Howell Raines' "Grady's Gift"?  Do you think the characteristics of that relationship were more or less prevalent in those decades, and, if so, what influence do you think those forces had on the course and climax of the movement?

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