November 3rd, 2013
Civil Rights, An American Tradition, by Lewis Perry
If I were teaching American History/American Studies in college right now, I’d be assigning Lewis Perry’s wonderful new book as a basic text; an absolutely necessary underpinning for everything that will follow.
Professor Perry identifies and examines the origins of American civil disobedience and traces the essential moral, philosophical and religious themes from pre-revolutionary times straight through to the Occupy movement.
Tax refusal, Indian “removal”, abolition, women’s suffrage, union organizing and strikes, civil rights, free speech, anti-war protests, anti-nuclear actions, Globalization actions, anti-abortion protests— All of these (and more) are presented with a clear-eyed recording of their birth, maturing and, inevitable splits and divisions—not to mention their failures and triumphs.
Dramatic moments in our history are all the more moving and inspirational because of Perry’s deliberate avoidance of drama. Most of these great risings—and the personalities that led them—are noble and courageous by themselves, and Perry let’s them speak for themselves.
Perry also discusses the inevitable tensions that informed these movements; civility versus aggression, passive resistance versus deliberate, sometimes violent breaking of laws. The leaders and participants in these great American social and political turning points often justified their refusal to follow rules and their breaking of laws by claiming a profound moral justification. Slavery may the law of the land, or refusal to allow women to vote, or the obscene (legalized) inequality of income in the country, but there was/is, a “higher law” that begs for action to be taken.
There is also a running c0mmentary on the major philosophical, strategic and tactical influences on all these movements; the writings and beliefs of Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others are presented in great detail.
The writing is hardly ever mired in academic pondering or over-examination. There’s a bit more discussion of the manifold religious sects (and the arguments between) them than I’d like, but on the whole, the book is very accessible to the general reader. And Perry, being a historian, not a cheerleader or preacher, makes sure you understand that each of these movements (for instance, the bus and lunch-counter sit-ins down South) all have long and hard-fought foundations. Rosa Parks didn’t just get fed up one day and refuse to give up her seat on the bus. She was a long-time toiler in the field of civil rights.
You also discover a few things you were never aware of or that are far from common knowledge—Martin Luther King kept a pistol in his house and both he and Ralph Abernathy applied for pistol permits at one point (possibly to make a point to certain governors).
America didn’t invent civil disobedience, but it flourished here and was—and still is—an essential part of our evolving democracy. If you’re interested in American History. If you’re interested in politics and social change. And if you are a committed activist and want to re-enforce the meaning and value of what you’re doing, this is the book you need to read. It’s a beautiful, moving work of scholarship and insight.