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  • The State in Recent Civil Rights Scholarship
  • Glenn T. Eskew (bio)

Historians of the u.s. south have often referred to the scholarship on the Civil War Era as generating its own cottage industry in the profession, and today the same might be said of the literature written about the Civil Rights Movement. While Alabama dodged much of the fighting in the nineteenth-century engagement, it provided the battlefields of the twentieth century's postwar racial conflict. Consequently, scholars of the modern African American freedom struggle have found the state's recent past provides a rich harvest.

Ever since the publication of Birmingham native Howell Raines's magisterial My Soul Is Rested in 1976 captured the voices of the key participants—many of whom were Alabamians—the state has featured prominently in Civil Rights literature. Biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., offered the first scholarly treatments on the subject. Montgomery Improvement Association member and Alabama State College history professor Lawrence Dunbar Reddick published Crusader Without Violence (1959), which Montgomery's NewSouth Books just released as a 60th Anniversary edition. Of course King had told his own story of the boycott in Stride Toward Freedom (1958), the first of his books about the movement. The black journalist Louis E. Lomax provided an early explanation of the social upheaval in his [End Page 79] The Negro Revolt (1963). Howard Zinn's SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964) offered analysis of the 1960 sit-ins and 1961 Freedom Rides while Charles Morgan described Birmingham in A Time To Speak (1964). After King's assassination, Coretta Scott King published her memoir, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (1969); that was followed by the first comprehensive history of King's life and work, David Levering Lewis's King: A Critical Biography (1970), and Bayard Rustin's self-reflection, Down the Line (1971).1

Countering these early treatments by insiders of the movement, academics initially analyzed the white resistance to what became known as the "Second Reconstruction" (as the fight recalled the earlier effort to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution). Numan V. Bartley's The Rise of Massive Resistance (1969) offered the first historical assessment of the impact of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Miss Autherine Lucy's attempt to desegregate the University of Alabama, and the Little Rock school desegregation crisis. In time, other historians expanded this analysis, especially with treatments of Alabama's governors. Such works included Dan T. Carter's The Politics of Rage (1995), his biography of George C. Wallace; Jeff Frederick's Stand Up For Alabama (2007), his study of Wallace; and Warren Trest's Nobody but the People (2008), his biography of John Patterson. Others focused on the Ku Klux Klan, such as the late Glenn Feldman's Politics, Society, and the [End Page 80] Klan in Alabama (1999) and Wayne Greenhaw's Fighting the Devil in Dixie (2011).2

Yet, regarding the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the first significant studies began as obscure academic theses and dissertations by sociologists, historians and political scientists such as Lynda Dempsey Cochran's master's thesis on Birmingham lawyer Arthur Davis Shores and Dorothy A. Autrey's dissertation on the activities of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Alabama, but all these works are too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say that many of the early studies of the movement appear in the eighteen volumes edited by David J. Garrow and produced by the Carlson Publishing Series under the general title, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement (1989).3

Indeed not until Garrow—a political scientist—began releasing his work, beginning with Protest at Selma (1978), The FBI and Martin Luther King (1981), and finally, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Bearing the Cross (1986), did published academic scholarship on the movement come into its own. By this time, the first wave of Civil Rights scholarship had begun to form, including an important study, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (1984), published by the sociologist Aldon D. Morris. Some scholars wrote institutional histories, such as August Meier and Elliott Rudwick...


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