But for Birmingham

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Glenn T. Eskew. But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. xi + 434 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4667-4; $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2363-7.

Summary

In the book “But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle,” Glenn T. Eskew uses the case study of Birmingham, Alabama during the May 1963 protests to show the ways in which the national and local elements of the Civil Rights Movements both worked together and butted heads in their quest for African American rights. In many ways this is a story of class conflict - with the white working class, the black working class, black elites, and the elite interests of “Big Mule” iron executives all vying for social and political power. This complicates the traditional black versus white dichotomy of the Civil Rights Movement, challenging the idea that either racial community was entirely monolithic. It also shows the conflicts between black elite and working class forces which often disagreed on the proper strategies and goals of the Movement. Similarly, within both the black and white communities, there were disagreements between local goals and national goals, and which should take precedence.

By detailing the relationship between national and local events we are able to understand attitudes of the SCLC and King, how things had reached such a fever pitch in “Bull’s Birmingham” (pp 85), the roots of Reverend Shuttlesworth’s and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights’ (ACMHR) more extreme views, the role of the media, and the policies of the Kennedy administration. This makes “But for Birmingham” a compelling work of history which moves beyond traditional case study works to truly show the local and national interacted in the moment and in the historical narrative.

Commentary

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

One of the greatest strengths of this book was in detailing the difference between the way that the events in Birmingham and its SCLC precursor in Albany, Georgia were remembered, versus the way that they were experienced on the ground in the moment. “On the eve of demonstrations the SCLC approached Birmingham with the understanding that it entered the city on the behalf of the ACMHR with a limited strategy designed to pressure the economic power structure into accepting specific local objectives... The SCLC neither sought a violent confrontation with Bull Connor in a bid to fill the jails nor expected the Kennedy administration to act on its behalf.” (pp 216) By distinguishing between these lessons and legacies of the events Eskew was able to show more fully the development of strategies, as well as the successes and failures of the movement.

Another great strength was in detailing the class and political conflicts within the black community as more radical leaders such as Reverend Shuttlesworth faced off against the “traditional Negro leadership class.” (pp 69) By detailing the ways in which the traditional, conservative, and middle class black powers dominated the movement Eskew is able to critique the successes and failures of the movement. Because of their “bourgeois logic” (pp 340) which sought to work within the existing white framework of power to get concessions as consumers, the Civil Rights Movement was not prepared to deal with the problems of the black community beyond access; making them unable to deal with the issues of “unemployment, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, gang warfare, AIDS, and grinding poverty” (pp 333) which would become the core issues of black urban life in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

The most striking weakness in the book has to do with what Eskew calls the “race wage.” (pp 12) In detailing the “colonial economy” of Big Mule steel interests which worked to keep the racial status quo intact “in a bid to upset the local labor market by playing the races against each other” (pp 12) Eskew falls short in detailing the ways that the Big Mules actually controlled the white working classes. In a book which details the roots and subtleties within every other faction of the city this is a glaring oversight. Eskews’ work would do well to pair with the kind of scholarship done by Robert R. Korstad in “Civil Rights Unionism” which fills in the historical gaps about social control by large corporations left by Eskew.

Despite this shortcoming “But for Birmingham” is an excellent piece of scholarship with a compelling narrative that shed light on the local and national events which created the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.

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