Although they examine three separate, significant times in the span of African-American history, these books share common themes: the struggle for freedom, the quest for equality and the achievement of these goals with the help of a great leader. Spanning more than a century, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, these new volumes provide important perspective as we celebrate Black History Month.
THE GREAT EMANCIPATOR
Much has been written about Abraham Lincoln’s evolution from a president who simply sought to preserve the union to one who ultimately realized he must free the slaves. But James Oakes makes the case in Freedom National that even before the Civil War, Lincoln held a firm anti-slavery view and pursued that goal until his death. While January 1, 2013, marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Oakes writes that long before that historic order was issued, Lincoln and the Republican Party were orchestrating political and military maneuvers to free the slaves.
Oakes, a noted professor of history, provocatively sets the starting date of the emancipation at less than four months after the first cannon shot of the Civil War. It was on August 6, 1861, that Lincoln signed the First Confiscation Act, instructing the Union Army to seize any property and free any slaves owned by Southerners disloyal to the union. “[F]irmly convinced that slavery was the source of the rebellion, Republicans began attacking it almost as soon as the war began,” Oakes writes.
While experiencing some success with military action, Lincoln realized he needed a broader decree—the Emancipation Proclamation—to achieve full freedom for slaves. Thus, Oakes writes, the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t the beginning or end of Lincoln’s mission, but a more aggressive phase of his anti-slavery campaign. The final steps were victory over the South in the war, and then passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery, which Lincoln shepherded through Congress. He was assassinated before the amendment was ratified by the states.
Freedom National is a refreshing new look at Lincoln because it refutes a growing body of work arguing that it was only after exhausting every other political and military tactic that he adopted an anti-slavery stance. Oakes’ conclusion: “[Lincoln] was neither the Great Emancipator who bestrode his times and brought his people out of the darkness, nor was he in any way a reluctant emancipator held back by some visceral commitment to white supremacy.”
GIVE 'EM HELL
It is altogether fitting that this Black History Month trilogy moves from one great military conflict—the Civil War—to another: World War II. In fact, the theme of Rawn James Jr.’s The Double V is how the nation’s military conflicts, and their use of African-American soldiers, reflect our attitudes toward racism and equality. “From exclusion and segregation, to integration and diversity, the armed forces, for better or worse, have always reflected our country at large,” James writes.
The Double V refers to the attempt by black soldiers to achieve two victories in World War II: on the battlefield and at home, where they sought to be treated as equals. James, an accomplished historian, writes that the Double V campaign was best described by prominent civil rights activist Roy Wilkins, who said that blacks should “fight on for the full freedom of 100 percent democracy at home while we are fighting a war for democracy abroad.” Providing critical historical context, James details how African Americans were mustered into the U.S. military beginning in the late stages of the Civil War. Yet it wasn’t true integration, he writes, since black soldiers often performed menial tasks in segregated units.
Two factors led to the complete integration of the military, according to James: the loyalty and heroics displayed by black soldiers in World War II, and the presidency of Harry S. Truman. As a U.S. senator, Truman headed a committee to investigate misappropriation of military defense contracts. Inspecting dozens of military bases and field operations, Truman grew to understand not only the nation’s vast military apparatus, but also its soldiers, including the bravery of its black soldiers. Once the war was over and the foreign enemies dispatched, Truman turned to combating the internal enemy of segregation.
On July 26, 1948, African Americans finally enjoyed the “Double V” when Truman issued Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces. Of course, the order did not end racism in the military, James points out. But this bold decision by a conservative, white Missourian did establish a doctrine to bring equality to the military. While the struggle for equality continues, James concludes that evidence of progress can be seen six decades later with the election of Barack Obama, who, as president, is commander in chief of the armed forces.
TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY
Not all wars involve the military. This is a lesson from Taylor Branch’s The King Years, which chronicles Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for equality during the Civil Rights era. Here, the clash is between white supremacists—who refuse to allow blacks to eat at the same lunch counters, drink from the same water fountains or use the same bathrooms—and African Americans asking for the rights granted to all citizens by the U.S. Constitution. The offensive is conducted in a peaceful fashion by King, but frequently met with bloody violence.
The King Years is a distillation of Branch’s acclaimed trilogy, America in the King Years. The series totaled more than 2,000 pages, offering a comprehensive and exhaustively researched exploration of the Civil Rights movement. Branch was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for History for the first installment, Parting the Waters, and received praise for two subsequent volumes, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge. Here, Branch selects 18 passages from the trilogy in an attempt to capture the essential moments of the Civil Rights era. Branch’s hope in publishing a condensed edition is to make history accessible to a new generation of readers. “Our goal in this edition,” Branch writes, “is to convey both the spirit and sweep of an extraordinary movement.”
Moving chronologically, The King Years begins with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, moves through the Selma March in 1965, and finishes with King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968. These condensed passages allow readers to grasp the significance of these and other key moments in King’s life and offer an invitation to Branch’s more complete writings.
In an interview with his publisher, Branch revealed the inspiration for publishing The King Years: “For all readers, I believe, lessons from the Civil Rights Era apply not to bygone forms of racial segregation but most urgently to a troubled future. . . . They show how ordinary people can work miracles against intractable burdens to advance both freedom and the common good.”
The war against racism is not over. But The King Years shows how King and others advanced the cause of equality in the same noble fashion as the great leaders who preceded them. It is Branch’s hope that a new generation who learn about King’s crusade for civil rights may be inspired to continue the fight.