African Americans have been struggling for independence, equality and respect from the moment they were brought to the New World in chains. As that struggle continues today, it’s instructive to look back on our turbulent history to learn from the past and hopefully improve on the future. The five books featured here can help us to do just that, examining historical themes that serve as milestones on the journey of progress.

DESPERATION & DECEPTION

It’s ironic that Captain Amasa Delano was on the high seas in pursuit of seals when he came upon what appeared to be a slave ship. Hunting for seals and slaves were equally predatory professions. And while seal hunting was a lucrative industry, the slave trade would prove to be even more profitable. Not that Delano would grasp the irony; he was an idealistic, anti-slavery New Englander. And when he boarded the battered vessel, his idealism would leave him vulnerable to a deception that had deadly consequences.

This page-turning history lesson is found in The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin, author of the acclaimed Fordlandia. Delano’s ship happened upon a distressed Spanish vessel one day in 1805. It appeared to be merely a lost slave ship. In reality, the 70 West Africans on board, seeking their freedom from slavery, had commandeered the ship. The clever slaves forced the Spanish captain to go along with the ruse. Delano believed the charade for nine hours, but when he discovered he’d been tricked, he ordered his men to attack the West Africans.

While Grandin’s narrative is a gripping read on its own, the underlying theme is profound: The deception in this incident is symbolic of America’s willingness to ignore the hypocisy of slavery in a supposedly free society. Unfortunately, it would take the United States another 60 years before it would acknowledge the falsehood.

FAILED EXPERIMENT

When the Civil War ended slavery in 1865, the U.S. embarked on an effort to provide reparations to Southern landowners and expanded rights to newly freed slaves, including suffrage and education. That policy, called Reconstruction, was a noble idea that failed.

In The Wars of Reconstruction, Le Moyne College history professor Douglas R. Egerton details the myriad factors that led to the collapse of Reconstruction: the replacement of Abraham Lincoln with an inept Andrew Johnson; Southern resistance to the granting of equal rights to blacks; and the premature withdrawal of federal troops. But Egerton contends that an ongoing pattern of violence in the South doomed Reconstruction from the beginning. “Reconstruction . . . was violently overthrown by men who had fought slavery during the Civil War and continued that battle as guerrilla partisans,” Egerton writes.

The Wars of Reconstruction offers a fresh perspective on why the grand experiment of Reconstruction failed and how it took nearly a century afterward for African Americans to gain any semblance of equal rights in the South.

SIREN SONG

In the early 1900s, many African Americans—shackled by an inability to earn a living or cast a vote—began a Great Migration from the rural South to the industrialized cities of the North. Jobs in the car factories of Detroit and steel mills of Chicago beckoned, while also fostering a black middle class. For the first time, African Americans earned enough money to own homes, buy cars and spend money on entertainment. One of the people they went to see was trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

In Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism, Duke University music professor Thomas Brothers chronicles Armstrong’s own Great Migration. After gaining notoriety as a musician in New Orleans, Armstrong heard a siren song in 1922 calling him north to Chicago, where there was a thriving black nightclub scene on the city’s South Side. There, Armstrong honed his crafts playing alongside jazz greats such as King Oliver, Earl “Fatha” Hines and Cab Calloway.

While this biography highlights the maturation of a great entertainer during the Jazz Age, it parallels the evolution of many African Americans in the early 20th century as they earned respectable livelihoods and carved out their own cultural enclaves in the North.

BARRIER TO PROGRESS

Unfortunately, the prosperity of the Jazz Age gave way to the Great Depression, and over the next several decades, many African Americans suffered from poverty and segregation in Northern cities. Some returned to the South, only to encounter further discrimination. The hatred experienced by a race was crystallized in the life of James Meredith, a trailblazer best known as the first African-American student to attend the University of Mississippi. Meredith is the central figure in Down to the Crossroads, an intriguing new book about the civil rights movement by historian Aram Goudsouzian.

Down to the Crossroads focuses on the so-called Meredith March, which the civil rights leader began on June 5, 1966, to register black voters in Mississippi. He started the march in Memphis with the goal of reaching Jackson, Mississippi, but he was soon wounded by a mysterious gunman. While Meredith recovered from his wounds, other black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, traveled to Mississippi to continue the Meredith March.

Goudsouzian uses the march to capture the divergent leadership styles of the era’s civil rights leaders. There was the defiant Carmichael, who led marchers in “black power” chants, while King preached nonviolence. This single march, captured in detail in Down to the Crossroads, gives readers a clearer understanding of the tensions that often dominated the civil rights movement. 

CONTINUING THE DREAM

When King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, some thought it was the end of the dream of equality for African Americans. In his new book, Waking from the Dream, David L. Chappell turns the spotlight onto those who stepped in to continue the cause in King’s wake, albeit in a less unified fashion.

Waking from the Dream describes the attempts by black leaders such as Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson to further the movement, only to see the struggle slowed by politics and in-fighting. Despite the splintered movement, Chappell details how this new generation of leaders helped gain the passage of the Fair Housing Act and launched the presidential campaign of Jackson.

While it would take another 40 years before Americans would vote in their first black president, Waking from the Dream makes a strong case that Barack Obama would never have been elected were it not for the efforts of the leaders who followed in King’s wake.

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