Southern Cultures 10.3 (2004) 102-104
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If all the South were Alabama and you read the most important book on the Civil Rights movement, it would be Mills Thornton's Dividing Lines. Historians of the movement everywhere will have to conjure with it.
Conjuring with Dividing Lines will not be cheap or easy. The publisher says it has been twenty years in the making, but Thornton interviewed many of its principle characters twenty-five years ago. Indeed, his book is a life's work, for its author grew up in Montgomery and experienced its turbulent history as a youngster. Thornton knows the city intimately and has mastered the sources on Birmingham and Selma as well. He must assume that his readers are serious adults with serious interest in the subject, for he gives no quarter. His book, offering massive detail in 583 pages of text and 111 pages of meaty endnotes, is not for the weak or faint of heart. In his more theoretical introduction and conclusion, Thornton challenges readers with paragraphs that run beyond a page of text and sentences running to ten lines of type. They demand and reward a reader's undistracted attention. [End Page 102]
All historians of the Civil Rights movement must conjure with Dividing Lines, however, because it offers an important new interpretation of the movement. It is neither a family memoir like Diane McWhorter's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Carry Me Home (2001), nor a sweeping epic like Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize- winning book, Parting the Waters (1989). Indeed, Thornton argues that grand narratives are likely to be misleading. Everywhere that the movement took direct action, he says, it was because African Americans saw rare local opportunities for change in the shifts and rifts of municipal politics. To understand the Montgomery bus boycott, Birmingham's dramatic street confrontations, and the struggle for the enfranchisement of Selma's African Americans, Thornton insists, we must immerse ourselves in the minute details of local politics before and after these events. Historians of direct action movements in dozens of southern communities seem likely to vindicate his argument. Conversely, he suggests, the lack of significant direct action movements in other cities is probably explained by the particular details of local politics.
Thornton's argument tends to dissolve the movement's history into a thousand local narratives. The grievances of African Americans everywhere were local and particular: seating arrangements on Montgomery's buses, a brutal white regime in Birmingham, and hostile voter registrars in Selma. It was the genius of Martin Luther King Jr., more than any other major civil rights leader, says Thornton, to articulate particular local grievances in terms of national civil and moral values, so that a white South Dakota Republican could understand why the seating arrangement on Montgomery's buses and the attitude of Selma's registrars were important.
Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma surely are important for the movement's history because they first won national attention to local direct action movements and seemed to precipitate national civil rights legislation. Dividing Lines's exclusive focus on Alabama, however, accidentally slights the role of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ( NAACP). Shortly after Montgomery's bus boycott began, Alabama authorities took legal action that prevented the NAACP from playing any role in the state for the next eight years. Thus, its local branches are found in Thornton's narratives of urban politics only before 1956 and after 1964. The gap seems to serve his purposes well, for he is interested in explaining the local conditions that gave rise to direct action. Thornton's immersion in Alabama sources gives him no reason to doubt the generalization that the NAACP had little to do with direct action.
The NAACP's national leaders, Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins, were skeptical of direct action's efficacy. The lawyer in...