- Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky
As an American historian born on the front edge of the post-World War II baby boom, I increasingly confront works by a new generation of scholars who treat as history many events of my earlier lifetime that I still tend to view as "current events." In such cases, I have a two-fold test of credibility: First, does the narrative resonate with my own experience and memory? Second, does the work provide new information and perspective that enhances my understanding of the events? As one who remembers and has written about many of the events they have recorded, I can testify that Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky by Catherine Fosl and Tracy E. K'Meyer passes both tests in ringing tones.
Freedom on the Border is an oral narrative of the modern civil rights movement in Kentucky, constructed from more than one hundred interviews with participants in and observers of the movement. Most of the interviews were collected by the Kentucky Oral History Commission's Kentucky Civil Rights Oral History Project (KCROHP) between 1998 and 2001. The project was designed to focus mainly on the mass movement period between the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decisions and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1954-55), and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King (1968). But as the authors astutely observe, "Our interviewees fortunately thwarted this approach by raising their own important flashpoints that both predate and outlast that period of mass activism, inadvertently connecting their stories to a much larger debate among historians about how to periodize the civil rights movement" (7). As a result, the narrative reaches back to incorporate important events of the Great Depression and World War II and extends forward through the school desegregation and antiracist campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. [End Page 116]
The strength of this book lies in its structure. It is organized into seven thematic chapters—Life under Segregation; Desegregation in Education; Opening Public Accommodations; Open Housing; Economic Opportunity; Black Consciousness, Black Power; and Black Political Power—along with an Introduction and a Conclusion. Each chapter opens with its own introduction that provides context, and brief transitional paragraphs are often used to link sections of the narrative. But the chapters consist primarily of judiciously edited excerpts from the interviews that capture the essential details of the events through the memories of those who experienced them.
Not surprising, given the distribution of Kentucky's African American population, the text draws heavily from the memories of prominent figures from the Commonwealth's largest urban communities such as Lyman T Johnson, J. Blaine Hudson, Joseph McMillan, and Woodford Porter, Jr., of Louisville and Audrey Grevious, Jesse Crenshaw, and Robert Jefferson of Lexington. The authors also take care, however, to include the voices of ordinary residents of smaller cities, towns, and rural areas where small black populations placed a premium on the courage of individual citizens and of committed whites such as Anne Braden, Suzy Post, and Bill Allison of Louisville; Robert Estill and Joe Graves of Lexington; and Governor Edward T. Breathitt, who signed the South's first state civil rights act into law in 1966.
One of the book's most useful features is its profiles of four individuals who represent the movement's social, geographic, and experiential diversity. Jesse Crenshaw grew up on a tobacco farm, attended segregated schools in Glasgow, earned a law degree at the University of Kentucky where he campaigned to hire a black faculty member, became the first black Assistant U.S. Attorney for Kentucky's Eastern Judicial District, and was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1993. Helen Fisher Frye, the first African American graduate of Centre College, became a teacher, church leader, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) president in Danville, where her activities typified...