Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Today's history lesson...

 how easily history is forgotten. I've been browsing through an advance copy of On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail by Charles Cobb, Jr. It's exactly what the title implies, a rundown of the major events of the civil rights movement in each state, taken city by city. Cobb is a journalist, not an academic, so the book is pretty lively and heavy on anecdotes--good qualities if you're looking for a painless way to learn the history of the movement.

I thought I had a pretty good grasp of Civil Rights 101, but I'm learning quite a bit from Cobb's book. For instance, I didn't know much at all about organizing in Maryland, and Cobb has a great little chapter on it. He gives special attention to Gloria Richardson, who led a very confrontational movement against discrimination in Cambridge, Md. in the early 60s. Unlike the majority of activists, who were students, Richardson was a woman in her thirties who got involved via her teenage daughter. Martin Luther King and the rest of the national leadership didn't like her because of what they considered her abrasive style and inadequate commitment to nonviolence. If you click on her name above, you'll see a photo of her facing down the National Guard. Awesome woman.

The city of Cambridge was essentially under martial law for a year as a consequence of Richardson's work, and organizing continued there until the late 60s; yet, according to Cobb, "There is not a reference anywhere in Cambridge to these tumultuous events. Gloria Richardson simply does not exist in the city's official history."

The Maryland chapter of Cobb's book offers another instance of historical amnesia--or maybe I should say historical fantasy: One of the catalysts for civil rights organizing in Maryland was a series of incidents involving African diplomats. Ambassadors from Sierra Leone, Niger and Chad were denied service--and in one case, assaulted--when they tried to enter restaurants along Route 40, on their drives between New York and Washington. Cobb quotes former senator Harris Wofford, who was special assistant to President Kennedy on civil rights, talking about the issue in an interview from the oral history archive at the Kennedy Library. His account is pretty seriously at odds with the reputation JFK still enjoys as a great champion of integration.

"Angie [Duke Biddle, State Dept. head of protocol] gets a call from the President. The President said, 'I just read that hell of a story about that ambassador not being able to drink on Route 40.' Angie says, 'Yes, Mr. President. We're working very actively. I've made six speeches up on Route 40. We know we haven't succeeded yet, but we think we're really making headway.' Duke was talking about all the progress he had made, and Kennedy said, 'Well that's not what I'm calling you about. I'm calling to tell you to tell these African ambassadors to fly.' He said, 'You tell them I wouldn't think of driving from New York to Washington. It's a hell of a road, Route 40. I used to drive that years ago. Why the hell would anyone want to drive down on Route 40 when you can fly there today? Tell them to wake up to the world and fly.' And he hung up."

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