The title of this substantial volume comes from a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.; yet Powledge, unlike many other historians of the Civil Rights movement, does not focus on the movement’s most charismatic leader. One learns not only about the well-educated young black men and women who were the movement’s shock troops but also about lesser-known figures such as L.C. Dorsey, a small-town high school dropout who found her life transformed by the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration campaign. One learns as well about two white activists from the North: Henry Schwarzschild, a German-Jewish refugee and a 1961 Freedom Rider; and Sharon Durger, a young Indiana telephone operator and a 1964 Freedom Summer volunteer. The author cites at length the testimony of both the movement’s activists and its Southern white opponents; he also draws on his own memories as a reporter in the South in the early 1960’s in addition to various written sources.
FREE AT LAST? is especially informative on the role of the Federal government (Powledge criticizes what he sees as President John F. Kennedy’s foot-dragging on civil rights), on the struggle to integrate Southern state universities, and on the way newspapers and television drew national attention to the movement. Powledge, who focuses on the movement in the South, distinguishes between socioeconomic discrimination against blacks in the North in the 1960’s, on the one hand, and brutal state-supported racial oppression in the pre-1965 South, on the other.
Hence Powledge examines not only the movement itself but also the bitter Southern white resistance to it. By the late 1980’s, men who had led this resistance seemed embarrassed by their past; Powledge is contemptuous of what he sees as flimsy excuses for earlier political misdeeds. He emphasizes how pitifully few were those brave white Southerners who supported the cause of racial justice before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Although photographs and a chronology ar included, the book’s sheer length may deter the general reader. Nonetheless, Powledge should be commended for reminding today’s reader of the individual heroism necessary to win basic rights, including the vote and access to public accommodations for black Americans.