The Quest for Equality Is Ongoing: Holt Reveals a More Nuanced Civil Rights Movement

Bringing together often overlooked stories and points of connection, this volume reveals a more nuanced portrait of organizing efforts for civil rights.

By Amy Yeboah Quarkume

The Movement: The African American Struggle for Civil Rights, by Thomas C. Holt. Oxford, 2021. 151p bibl index, 9780197525791 $18.95, 9780197525821

Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice highlights select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews is broader than that applied to the standard 190-word reviews, many guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. The intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be of use to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.

Book cover of The Movement

The Freedom Singers’ powerfully resounding cry “that freedom is a constant struggle” rings especially true throughout The Movement, the latest book from Holt (emer., Univ. of Chicago). This moving work considers many often overlooked or rarely mentioned aspects—and individuals—of the Civil Rights Movement that are otherwise generally left out of the popular historical canon. The result is a text that will land well with audiences, especially as the United States continues to navigate the current #BlackLivesMatter era, both online and in the real world, as well as the coalition for the Movement for Black Lives and its persistent shaping of discourse and movement work in the twenty-first century. The killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery prior to this book’s publication in January 2021 serve as horrifying reminders of the ongoing calls to end police brutality and white vigilantism against Black individuals in this country. They echo the same demands made by millions of African Americans for centuries, which eventually resulted in a groundswell of activism during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the expansion of legal protections for Black people.

Holt is a distinguished historian and an expert on race and his ability to unearth deep knowledge about one of the most popular, most widely cited time periods of American history is on full display here. He links the many now-beloved heroes of the Civil Rights era—e.g., Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis—with the countless laypeople and martyrs who also changed their communities and, eventually, the greater society, for good, including Holt’s own grandmother, Carrie Lee Fitzgerald, who refused to “move to the back” of a bus more than ten years prior to the Montgomery bus boycott. In fact, Holt illuminates many mini revolutions against racism and Black subjugation undertaken by numerous Black Americans who could no longer bear the systematic persecution. The book succeeds in a number of areas, especially in the author’s ability to write a straightforward yet gripping narrative that is visceral in its depiction of the shame Black people faced on a daily basis, especially in the South under Jim Crow. As Holt shows, those humiliations ultimately led to both fleeting and lasting changes to the status quo through nonviolent direct action, protests, and more. He also shines a light on the legal system’s role in challenging segregation laws and intentionally points out the pervasiveness of institutional and widespread racism at all levels and in all spaces. For instance, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), he notes that “Linda Brown, the lead plaintiff in that case, was protesting segregated schooling in Topeka, Kansas, a historic stronghold of abolitionism, rather than in a southern state” (p. 94). Though numerous writings address the nuances of twentieth-century movement work around racial justice and the players involved, Holt goes a step further in shattering the customarily monolithic understandings of one of the greatest mass mobilization projects in the United States. 

Instead of considering the Civil Rights Movement a series of one-off events that, when woven together, show the resilience of Black people in this country, Holt beautifully illustrates how different interlocking events … run together and culminate in the resulting freedom movement.

The Movement provides ample context to situate a multifaceted social movement with varied agendas, leaders, and goals within the greater story of resistance, conflict, and perseverance in this country—an impressive feat for a book that barely surpasses one hundred pages. Nonetheless, Holt masterfully dichotomizes the tensions between how newer, youth-led organizations, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and more established civil rights organizations, like the NAACP, approached varying tactics to achieve justice versus a focus on voting rights (or both). He also contrasts cities across the South, which fell into two categories, New South cities and the New “Old South,” and the resulting dynamics of life within both frameworks. Understandably, the needs of Black communities in both factions of southern life also impacted what movement work and leadership expectations looked like. Black folks in the Mississippi Delta, for example, were less concerned with “consumer-oriented protests” (p. 74), including sit-ins and boycotts, because of the area’s high poverty rate, but were quite attuned to the push for Black voting rights in the predominantly Black region. Holt also connects major and common events of the Civil Rights Movement, contextualizing happenings in a way this reviewer has not seen in previous works discussing the period. For instance, Holt connects Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white male passenger to the lynching of Emmett Till because “indeed, just four days before her arrest, Rosa Parks had attended one of the mass meetings protesting Till’s murder” (p. 35). Instead of considering the Civil Rights Movement a series of one-off events that, when woven together, show the resilience of Black people in this country, Holt beautifully illustrates how different interlocking events, from the period following the Emancipation Proclamation to World War I and beyond, run together and culminate in the resulting freedom movement. 

This book arrives at a time when there is a much-needed and growing trend of recognizing Black women’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in an attempt to give them their proverbial flowers, given that most of the well-known players of the era are Black men. Holt takes special care to credit the women and their work in the movement by explicitly pointing to how “the Movement itself was not free of gender biases” (p. 116). He outlines how female leaders, including Fannie Lou Hamer with the SNCC, Ella Baker at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Alabama State College professor and activist Jo Ann Robinson worked to build the movement into a more inclusive project that also addressed the needs of Black women, who are among the most marginalized within the Black community. In fact, “certainly some of the [B]lack women activists coming of age during the Civil Rights Movement drew on those experiences to give shape to a [B]lack feminist agenda” (p. 116). This is merely a slice of how the organizing power of the Civil Rights Movement inspired and influenced other movements of other historically disadvantaged groups to come—e.g., the Chicano/a Movement, Native American struggles for justice, and the feminist movement—by providing a model for successfully assembling and advocating as a community. 

Reviews across notable publications all celebrate Holt’s ability to create a lane for himself and fill a knowledge gap about a segment of American history that nefarious actors seek to flatten and reduce, especially given the epoch of debates surrounding critical race theory and other necessary examinations of race and racism in the United States. Summaries for Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews express similar sentiments, articulating how “​​even readers well-versed in the subject will learn from Holt’s close attention to lesser-known figures, events, and organizations” and that the book is “essential for students of American history as well as activists in the ongoing struggle for civil rights for all.” Author and visual artist Clifford Thompson describes The Movement as “as a corrective for those who perceive the freedom struggle as an undifferentiated blur of events and symbols that magically sprang up out of nowhere in the mid-1950s” in his review for The Washington Post.

[This book] rightfully spotlights the laypeople who were just as crucial to the movement, despite frequent relegation to being mere bystanders needing a savior.

With this latest work, Holt envisions a more complete Civil Rights Movement, one that reveals exactly what was at stake for Black Americans at the micro and macro levels of the time in their quest for equality. The unsolved and unpunished murders of Black activists and their allies, daily humiliation under white supremacist systems, lengthy prison stints with abusive guards, and abject failures on behalf of leadership also tell the story of Black resistance and the lengths to which proponents of the existing white power structure went to quell any chance of securing the “unalienable Rights” written about in the Declaration of Independence. By going well beyond representations of “individual or collective acts of heroic and charismatic male leaders” (p. 5), The Movement rightfully spotlights the laypeople who were just as crucial to the movement, despite frequent relegation to being mere bystanders needing a savior. It is without question that this work belongs in classrooms and academic libraries alike as a reminder of Black people’s commitment to themselves and what they deserve in a society that was and continues to be expressly against them. This book holds up a mirror to a pivotal, progressive, and painful time in this nation’s past, which is precisely what Americans need more of right now.

Summing Up: Essential. All readers.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America

Amy Yeboah Quarkume is Associate Professor of Africana Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University.