- La Strada per Selma: La Mobilitazione Afroamericana e il Voting Rights Act del 1965 by Nadia Venturini
Nadia Venturini dedicates La Strada per Selma: La Mobilitazione Afro-americana e il Voting Rights Act del 1965 to "Ai ragazzi che muoino nelle stive dei barconi, nelle acque del canale di Sicilia, sulle strade d'Europa [to the kids who die in the holds of ships, in the waters surrounding Sicily, and on the roads across Europe]" (p. 5). Echoing Langston Hughes's 1938 poem, "Kids Who Die," the dedication signals one of the book's major concerns: young people who devoted their lives to civil rights not just in the 1960s but also for decades before the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Divided into four chapters, the book explores the long-term impact of the Voting Rights Act and looks at how union leaders, beauticians, and citizenship schools shaped its long history.
Echoing Jacquelyn Dowd Hall's 2005 call to investigate the history of the long civil rights movement, the book builds on recent efforts to extend the movement's temporal limits and redefine its main actors and goals. Venturini contributes to this historiography in two ways. First, she connects the mobilization for the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s to the grassroots mobilization for African Americans' rights before World War II to highlight the role of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the U.S. Communist Party and to demonstrate the intersection between the fight for the right to vote and the push for labor rights. Shifting focus allows her to tell this story through the eyes of lesser-known historical actors in the civil rights movement, especially union members, farmers, and activists living in rural areas.
Second, building on Belinda Robnett's notion of bridge leadership, Venturini emphasizes the role of women in the fight for the Voting Rights Act and the complex gender dynamics within the movement. In the mobilization for voting rights, as in many campaigns during the civil rights movement, male chauvinism and sexism were often prevalent. Yet, as the author shows, men advocated for civil rights at the national level, and women represented the engine and force behind local initiatives. Through an engaging, fast-paced narrative, beauty parlors emerge as powerful political spaces, shielded from male and white interference, where activist women could meet, share propaganda leaflets, and organize. In this vein, beauticians assume a role similar to other, already recognized activist female professionals in the African American community, namely, nurses, teachers, and midwives.
La Strada per Selma also places a strong emphasis on another pillar of the civil rights movement: instruction. While most of the literature focuses on the catalyzing role of black churches in the political emancipation of the African American community, Venturini emphasizes the phenomenon of citizenship schools. First created in South Carolina, citizenship schools later expanded throughout the entire South with the creation of nine hundred schools between 1957 and 1970. The schools educated and registered hundreds of thousands of African American citizens. Under strong and entrepreneurial female leadership, the schools creatively recruited teachers and students and created innovative curricular programs that went beyond literacy to empower students and encourage civic engagement.
Venturini makes a cogent case for the urgency of looking at the intersection of civil rights and economic rights and further investigating regular women and [End Page 219] their roles in the civil rights movement in order to understand this critical chapter of African American history. Nevertheless, a broader range of primary archival sources would have enriched her analysis even more, leaving an important opportunity for future researchers as these areas require further exploration. Moreover, while opening with a chapter on the legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the challenges it faces today serves as a powerful reminder for scholars and teachers interested in the history of the present and the unfinished work of the long civil rights movement, the chapter might have been more powerful if it...