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In Search of the Movement

Posted on Feb 19, 2016

By Elaine Elinson

City Lights Publishers

To see long excerpts from “In Search of the Movement” at Google Books, click here.

“In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now”
A book by Benjamin Hedin

The 1963 March on Washington. The 1964 Civil Rights Act. The 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The past three years have witnessed numerous 50th anniversary commemorations of key moments in the civil rights movement, marked by commemorative marches in Washington and Selma, vibrant cultural performances, and even an oration by President Barack Obama from the very spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

And yet these same three years have witnessed severe setbacks for racial justice.

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The 2013 United States Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder eviscerated the heart of the Voting Rights Act: 21 states subsequently erected obstacles blocking the path to the voting booth for people of color, from North Carolina to Texas to Ohio.

A national survey by the UCLA Civil Rights Project reveals that today’s public schools are more racially segregated than in the 1960s, with students of color more likely to attend majority-minority schools than those in the generation before them were.

The harshest news is from the criminal justice system: The NAACP documents that African-American men are six times more likely than whites to be behind bars. That statistic, combined with this year’s heartbreaking headlines about so many black men and women killed by police, can make even the most optimistic wonder if we have made any progress at all toward racial equality.

These are the tragic contradictions that compelled author Benjamin Hedin to ask what happened to the civil rights movement. In his new book, “In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now,” the author literally goes on a quest to seek the answer.

Hedin interviewed more than 100 people, from the well-known to the unknown. They include: the late Julian Bond, a student activist who became a member of the Georgia Legislature and chair of the NAACP; Rep. John Lewis, who in 1965 was bloodied by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the Freedom March from Selma; and unsung heroines like Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson, who brought literacy to the remote Johns Island, where most blacks worked as “virtual slaves” on rice and cotton plantations. Hedin also interviewed those who are active today, like the Rev. William Barber, who founded Moral Mondays in response to the massive rollback of rights by the North Carolina Legislature, and the youths who organized Dream Defenders in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. And there are others, like Robert Moses and David Dennis, who are no longer in the spotlight but never ceased their activism and passion for justice. Moses and Dennis faced the violence of white vigilantes in the Freedom Rides and voter registration drives of the ’60s and now run the Algebra Project, a national nonprofit using mathematics to promote quality education for all children.

There have been many excellent books written about the civil rights movement, like Taylor Branch’s comprehensive trilogy, “America in the King Years,” and recent ones addressing racial oppression today, such as Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” So what motivated Benjamin Hedin, a young white man who was born after the key events in this book? And what does “In Search of the Movement” add to this substantial body of literature?

Hedin takes us along on his journey, acknowledging his innocence and his (sometimes quite erroneous) assumptions. With equal parts curiosity and humility, he intertwines history and current events with his own thoughtful reflections. After scores of interviews and many thousands of miles clocked on the odometer, he slowly comes to feel that he “had gotten a glimpse into the heart of things, as if a panel had been lifted and I could see the gears and knobs, all the workings that made the machine go.”

Hedin, who has written for The New Yorker, The Nation and the Chicago Tribune, and who edited the highly praised “Studio A: A Bob Dylan Reader,” is an eloquent and candid writer.

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