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Lift Every Voice

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Many people, especially peoples of color, saw the incident as one more example of the indignities blacks continue to endure every day in America. After the historic Obama victory, they felt that perhaps the country, in a self-congratulatory mood, had patted itself on the back too soon. Maybe the long, hard struggle for racial justice was not over.

In reading Patricia Sullivan’s superb new history, Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement, one is reminded just how long and hard that struggle has been. While many are aware of the celebrated events of the 1950s and ’60s – the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins, the March on Washington – the 20th-century race reform campaign began long before those iconic episodes.

One of the most striking aspects of Sullivan’s elegantly written book is the extent to which it compels one to realize that the history of the NAACP and the history of 20th-century America are inextricably linked. In exploring this connection, Sullivan, who teaches history at the University of South Carolina, has produced a compelling, exhaustively researched account that sweeps across much of the last century.

Sullivan presents countless tales that reveal the determination African-Americans demonstrated over many decades to effect change in a country that systematically denied them basic rights: 10,000 black citizens marching silently down New York’s Fifth Avenue during World War I to protest a vicious race riot in East St. Louis, Ill.; downtrodden yet optimistic black voters in the north streaming into FDR’s Democratic Party in the 1930s; energized black soldiers fighting oppression at home and abroad during World War II; adroit African-American leaders deploying the democratic rhetoric of the cold war to advance their cause in the 1940s.

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