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Looking back on a decade of revolutionary change

By Jason Sokol | December 7, 2020
Participants in the five-day, 54-mile civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965 (Alpha Historica/Alamy)
Participants in the five-day, 54-mile civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965 (Alpha Historica/Alamy)

The Movement: The African American Struggle for Civil Rights by Thomas C. Holt; Oxford University Press, 152 pp., $18.95

In 2005, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, published an essay in the Journal of American History  titled, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past.” In it, she asserted that the movement had begun with the labor struggles of the 1930s rather than with the well-known landmarks of the mid-1950s, like the Brown v. Board decision and the Montgomery bus boycott. She also shifted the movement’s conceptual emphasis, highlighting the fight for economic justice more than the struggle for desegregation, and recast it as national in scope rather than primarily southern. Large numbers of historians embraced Hall’s call, some pushing the movement’s start date back further, to the 1920s or even the 1910s. The “long civil rights movement” has since become the dominant scholarly framework.

Thomas C. Holt’s The Movement is a succinct and powerful book that runs against this current and reasserts the importance of the “classic” civil rights movement. Holt, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Chicago, focuses on one decade in the South: from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to the Selma march of 1965. He distills what was unique and special about this part of the Black freedom struggle and explains why its timeline ought to be narrowed rather than broadened.

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