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“This Day In Civil Rights History”

September 30, 2009

Last week, The Rap Sheet published my reflections on Ed Lacy’s Room to Swing as part of its regular Friday blog series, and editor J. Kingston Pierce was kind enough to schedule that essay on September 25, the anniversary of the day the Little Rock Nine finally entered Central High School in 1957, the same year the book itself was published.

While I wish I could say I had such dates on instant recall in my mind, the truth is that I don’t and I just happened to come across the anniversary when I was flipping through a new book I’d like to recommend here: This Day In Civil Rights History by Horace Randall Williams and Ben Beard. As the title promises, the book offers daily mini-essays on major historical events. Just for a quick sampling: April 16, 1963 was the day that Martin Luther King Jr. released his famous “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” and  June 21, 1964 was the day that civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner was murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Milestone dates, of course, and well known, but the book also offers less obvious choices, such as November 9, 1968, when James Brown first performed his song “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” There are 366 essays in all, when you take into account leap-year, and not incidentally, February 29 was the day in 1940 when Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her role in Gone With The Wind — as the book emphasizes, “the first African American not only win an Oscar but also to attend the ceremony as a guest instead of a servant.”

While most of the events commemorated here fall during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s — what we traditionally think of as the Civil Rights Era — the book importantly stretches outside of that narrowest of definitions. On September 20, for example, you’ll learn that Maryland passed the nation’s first miscegenation laws on that date in 1664 — and that Alabama was the last state to hang on to such laws, right up into the 21st century. And the span of that entry is important, because the book stresses that civil rights news and issues persist up to to very recent history, whether the Confederate flag controversy in 1998 (October 14) or the reopening of the Emmett Till murder case in 2004 (May 10).

As for today, September 30, it’s an important anniversary as well, with an entry looking back to 1962:

On this day in civil rights history, a deal was struck between segregationist Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett and U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to allow the enrollment at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) of its first African American student, James Meredith….

Needless to say, This Day In Civil Rights History is a rich and fascinating book — enough to keep you reading it (dare I say it?) all year round.

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One comment

  1. [...] sampling of historic events both well known and obscure, inspiring and appalling.” But in his Arts & Literature blog review for our new book, Art Taylor identifies one of the book’s key features:  “While [...]



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