For the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, America Tonight teamed up with Longreads.com to select the best long-form reporting and writing about civil rights.
We asked you to reflect on your favorite stories -- whether historical texts, stories from the archives, or newer reporting and essays -- and here are some of the submissions we received.
I'm Black, You're White, Who's Innocent? - Harper's Magazine, Shelby Steele
It will surprise those who know my liberal leanings that, among my favorite civil rights articles and essays, conservative Shelby Steele’s 1988 Harper’s essay on power and racial blame, which later led to his first book, 'The Content of Our Character,' stands out for its elegant audacity.
As our great race debate seemed to be going stale or haywire in the era of Ronald Reagan and Tawana Brawley, this unknown English professor provocatively identified an underappreciated cultural thread in our turbulent history: an eternal quest for racial innocence.
From slavery to civil rights to affirmative action, he reminded us, each side persistently views itself as innocent and the other side as morally suspect—and finds language to back up its position. The moral clarity of the civil rights revolution marginalized overt racism and consecrated black victimization. Nobody’s a racist anymore. Just ask 'em.
But too many of us African Americans and our allies, Steele argued, had begun to overvalue our victimization as a foundation for African American identity. And many of our white adversaries, I would add, have embraced the same view, if in reverse. America’s great race debate has devolved into a squabble between dueling claims of racial innocence and victimization.
Steele soon rose to prominence. Now a senior fellow at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, he turns out popular books and op-eds for a mostly conservative audience. None in my view have matched this seminal essay for its insights into why so much of our racial dialogue since the 1960s has devolved into a national shouting match.
The Missionary Movement to 'Save' Black Babies, Akiba Solomon
Akiba Solomon's intense and exhaustive report on the pro-life movement's exploitation of poor black women to advance their agenda, The Missionary Movement to 'Save' Black Babies, published at Colorlines, is required reading. Not only does Solomon carefully construct the history of co-opting black nationalist rhetoric in order to push an anti-abortion agenda, then deconstruct the absurdity of the argument, what this piece does is push us to think more broadly about what issues fall under the umbrella of civil rights, racial and social justice. Jobs and economic opportunity were a focal point of the March on Washington, and while racist discrimination is surely an impediment, there are other factors, some of which largely effect black women, that play into economic disparity. Solomon's piece asks us to think about the opportunity being denied black women, especially poor black women, because the pro-life movement has fought to make it increasingly difficult for them to access birth control and safe abortion procedures. Reproductive justice is racial justice, and Solomon's work reminds readers that the body has been a sight of injustice for black people for the duration of our history in this country.
'Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael' - Stokely Carmichael and Michael Thelwell
Carmichael, popularly remembered as the popularizer of the Black Power Movement who helped organize the Black Panthers before moving to Africa in 1969, started out as a civil rights organizer. As a Howard University student in the early 1960s, Stokely spent each summer in the Mississippi Delta organizing for voting rights. In 1961, he was arrested for the first time in Jackson, Mississippi as a Freedom Rider. Bayard Rustin, the March on Washington's great organizer, was a friend and mentor to Carmichael.
They first met in the 1950s when Carmichael was a student at the Bronx High School of Science. Rustin, a peripatetic socialist organizer, pacifist, and non-violent maestro became Stokely's first political model.
When Carmichael first observed him speak in New York City, he told his best friend that, when he grew up he wanted to be Bayard Rustin. Rustin's vision of a social-democratic America, one that featured interracial alliances that included the robust presence of labor activists and ordinary black folk informed Stokely's imagination as well. By the summer of 1963, as Rustin organized in Washington, Stokely Carmichael traveled to Greenwood, Mississippi for the third consecutive summer to work with sharecroppers. By the time of the march, Carmichael had spent another hot summer trying to bring democracy to the Deep South at a time many thought it would be impossible. Although he arrived in Washington a few days before the march, Carmichael did not actually attend, for reasons that remain mysterious. Yet his autobiographical account of the flurry of activism leading up to the march, including personally working with the Mississippi delegation of sharecroppers that attended, remains fascinating and truly inspiring.
'Gideon's Trumpet,' Anthony Lewis
Civil rights heroes are sometimes found in the unlikeliest of places. Reporter Anthony Lewis found his hero, Clarence Earl Gideon, at the Florida State Prison in 1962, where Gideon was serving a five-year sentence for breaking and entering a pool hall with the intent to commit petty larceny. At his trial, Gideon claimed that he had a constitutional right to a court-appointed attorney. Any law school graduate at the time would have known that Gideon was mistaken: the Supreme Court had rejected the very same claim twenty years earlier in Betts v. Brady. But Gideon, a five-time felon with an eighth-grade education, knew the Sixth Amendment said that “the accused shall . . . have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” And he knew what the Justices would take another year to recognize: Betts v. Brady was wrong, and Clarence Earl Gideon was right.
In a series of New Yorker articles, Lewis tells how the perseverant Gideon pursued his claim up to the Supreme Court, where he ultimately won his case on a nine-to-nothing vote. Arguing pro bono on his behalf was Abe Fortas, the D.C. power broker whose other clients included then-President Lyndon Johnson. In the end, Gideon’s case is a story of triumph and tragedy: Gideon died less than a decade after his release from prison and was buried in an unmarked grave; Fortas briefly served on the Supreme Court himself but resigned in disgrace after an ethics scandal; and states would chip away at the constitutional right to counsel over the next half-century by chronically underfunding their public defenders. Meanwhile, Lewis’ articles would be turned into an award-winning book, Gideon’s Trumpet, and later a movie, with Henry Fonda starring as Clarence Earl Gideon. And Lewis himself would go on to marry Margaret H. Marshall, the Massachusetts judge and constitutional law visionary whose Goodridge decision ranks alongside Gideon v. Wainright as one of the greatest victories for civil rights in the history of American law.
Debating the Civil Rights Movement: The View from the Trenches - Charles Payne
Charles Payne's article, Debating the Civil Rights Movement presented as part of the achievement seminars at Wheelock college -- a similar version appears in the book, 'Debating the Civil Rights Movement' -- is an excellent introduction to the Civil Rights Movement. Payne is one of growing body of social and cultural historians who are insisting that we cast aside the mainstream "master narrative" about the Civil Rights (or Freedom) Movement for a richer and more nuanced story.
In American popular culture, the Movement is generally depicted as the product of Martin Luther King Jr.'s charismatic leadership and a series of important marches that led to federal legislation.
Payne replaces the fictional image of spontaneous inspiration, behind a single leader, with stories of a wide and multigenerational range activists who were involved in social justice organizing for decades prior to the recognized beginning of the movement in the mid 1950s.
His cast of important characters includes members of the communist party and other radical leftists, Black lawyers and teachers, members of Black civic and professional organizations, and local leaders in the ministry as well as those who were simply well respected and trusted in their towns, who all found themselves grappling with how to confront Jim Crow injustice. These people developed a national network of activists who were rooted in local communities but connected broadly and who worked collaboratively.
Importantly, Payne sets forth what he terms "the organizing tradition" as key to the civil rights gains. The organizing tradition describes those who engaged in the day to day organizing and planning within local communities. Local organizing was essential for sustained political action from boycotts to voter registration drives and litigation. Payne argues that the heart of the movement was in the organizing tradition, not the large scale moments of mass mobilization and catharsis, like the March on Washington. However, Payne also helps us understand that those large scale mobilizations, and the legislative victories we celebrate as following from them, were only possible because of the groundwork of local networked activism that came first.
'The Autobiography of Malcolm X' - Alex Haley
I read 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X' in college. As a white, middle-class young man I never would have predicted that the book would have such a profound impact on me. Malcolm X’s life is the story of transformation. It is a transformation I went through with him as I read. Sometimes I cringed at some of his preposterous beliefs. Sometimes I took offense to his generalizations of whites. But those feelings were fleeting as I went from merely intrigued to absolutely enraptured by the text. I took it everywhere with me until I finished it.
For Malcolm X, all of his life experiences, including the darkest moments of his past, were an important part of him. I learned to embrace every aspect of my life and I understood that even those moments I’d like to forget are an important part of who I am. I also learned to have a purpose in life and to act on it immediately and to always choose my battles carefully.
By the end of the book, Malcolm X has been to Mecca. He views all people as children of Allah and he has had an awakening. He also knows his time on earth is limited. He knows the orders have been given and that he could be killed at any time. He tells us this with the same ferocious honesty that permeates the rest of the book. When Malcolm’s voice is ultimately silenced and Alex Haley takes over in his own voice to finish the story, it is a bone-chilling moment that no other book has come close to recreating.
'Black Power,' Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael & Charles V. Hamilton
As a White American growing up in a rural and not-so-diverse part of the country, I felt awakened to some of the deep anger and angst of my African American brothers and sisters. I was made more aware of the relationship of the colonial power that was White power, Male Power, Christian Power, Heterosexual power. It made me understand the dynamics of racism and how oppression does not have to be overtly taught, but subtly ingrained. The book also made me understand the empowerment of community, and why Black Nationalism/Black Power could translated across the spectrum to gay pride, to the American Indian Movement, to youth empowerment, and to struggles for class equality
'The Underground Railroad,' William Still
I am ashamed to say that until a couple years ago, I knew nothing of 'The Underground Railroad' by William Still, but the stories are alive with the theme that binds us, which is the commonality of humanity, and the people of that time who understood that and worked toward it have really inspired me.
In many ways, the civil rights movement as we know it in this country started as soon as people fought against slavery. William Still’s amazing book spoke about the courage of people, both black and white, who stood up to oppression; people who understood the commonality of humanity. Reading Still’s accounts of white abolitionists such as Concklin and Peel who risked everything for what they believed were very inspiring. While these stories may not be widely known, they truly set the tone for what many know as the modern day civil rights movement in the 60’s. The words of Still are those of a battle for respect and humanity far before it was cry of the general public. The people of that era who were fighting for equality and justice without any regard for race were truly pioneers. When I first discovered Still’s stories a couple years ago I was stunned and saddened that they weren’t universally celebrated. But, I was humbled for the knowledge I gained about these wonderful human beings.
'Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson,' George Jackson
I suppose the piece of writing about civil rights that’s influenced me the most would be Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. It was published back in 1970 and I must have picked up the paperback in my local bookstore, back in Hertfordshire, England, when I was about 14. There must have been something about Jackson’s story that struck a chord with me. I remember he wrote about being chased by cops, “across roofs with seven- to ten-foot jumps in between (the pig is working mainly for money, bear in mind, I am running for my life). There wasn’t a pig in the city who could ‘follow the leader’ of even the most timid ghetto gang.” He was arrested for robbing a gas station for $70 and, although his initial sentence was “one year to life,” he was still incarcerated in Soledad Prison ten years later, when he published his book. On August 21, 1971, he was shot dead in a very suspicious attempt at a jail break.
I clipped all the reports about it from the British press and glued them into the back pages of the book. On November 4, 1971, Bob Dylan recorded a song about Jackson and I remember my best friend and I went to the record store after school where I paid half a crown to listen to the single on the store’s headphones. It made me weep. But I was very impressed that Dylan had the awareness of Jackson’s importance at that time and the sheer clout necessary to record and release such a single so rapidly. I believe it reached #33 in the US pop charts in January 1972, when I had just turned 15. Maybe it was partly the influence of Jackson’s book that inspired me to get involved with the notorious City of London Anti-Apartheid Group which organized a non-stop picket for the release of Nelsonn Mandela from prison in South Africa. ...
'The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,' Frederick Douglass
[This book] stands out for me as a powerful statement of human rights that is still relevant in many ways. It works quire well as a work of literature (well-written and intelligently structured), but it also gives a very cogent argument not only against slavery, but for why all people deserve the same fundamental human rights. How can we treat another person as less if we accept that we are all human? He describes in great detail the obvious methods by which we can rob others of their humanity, through beatings, starvation, separation from loved ones, and provision of alcohol, but also through more subtle means of control. He describes how denial of education is an important tool in keeping the enslaved in irons, and how access to education can be critical for freedom. While overt slavery still exists occasionally in the U.S. (e.g., cases in the tomato fields of Immokalee), it might be the more subtle tools of subjugation that we should be aware of, and of the strong sense of humanity that we all share.
More recommended civil rights reading from the Longreads community:
An Oral History of the March on Washington | Smithsonian Magazine
Funeral | Atlanta Magazine
'I Have a Dream' | text of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech
'I've Been to the Mountaintop' | Kingian.net
Letter from a Birmingham Jail | text of Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter
The Path to Florida | Vanity Fair
Civil Rights Promises Unfulfilled | The Washington Post
What's your favorite civil rights longread? Let us know and tell us why in the comments.