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Thursday, August 22, 2013

The March on Washington and Taylor Branch’s Trilogy on the Black Civil Rights Movement in America

By Jessica R. Alexander, J.D., M.L.S., Reference Librarian

The fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington is August 28th.  The library’s collection includes the excellent trilogy written by Taylor Branch, www.taylorbranch.com, on the civil rights movement:  Parting the Waters, America in the King years, 1954-63 (E 185.61 B72 v.1 1989), Pillar of Fire, America in the King Years 1963-65 (E 185.61 B72 v.2 1998), and At Canaan’s Edge, America in the King Years 1965-1968 (E 185.61 B72 v.3 2006). These books are long on the national and individual dramas of the movement.

Chapter 22 of Parting the Waters is devoted to the intrigue around the March. A student, who idolizes Dr. King said he does not want to know unflattering details about King’s personal life. I assured him that such details would lead to appreciation for the fact that an ordinary human could serve as the pivot around which those years of the movement coalesced. The books give the reader insight into the fact that no one person could accomplish such goals alone and that largely unsung black women served as backbones of the movement.

Parting the Waters was published in 1989. Now with the digitization of Congressional materials and press accounts, the reader can access full texts of government documents cited by Branch.The library's ProQuest Congressional database contains the full-text of congressional hearings and reports on proposals for civil rights bills which reached fruition in Public Law 88-352, Civil Rights Act of 1964. For example, in July 1963 a bill entitled, Public Accommodations, Senate 88-1372 was debated and considered. Proponents of the bill and segregationists governors, Ross Barnett of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama participated in the hearings. In the same chapter, Branch references Lyndon’s Johnson’s revival from a moribund vice-president to the historic arm twister he was. Johnson chastised the President of Houston Power and Light Company for allowing the City of Houston to "shut off dockside electricity to protest the Navy’s new policies on off-base segregation.” In a carrot and stick approach he threatened withdrawal of proposed new federal contracts for the NASA tracking station.

De jure segregation policies are brought to life by our library’s Digital Collection which contains the Houston City Code of Ordinances 1958-62 in the Houston Legal History section. The code contained provisions on bus segregation (Buses, Chapter 6, Article 5 – Segregation of Races) and criminal penalties for sexual relations between Negro persons and whites. (Crimes, Chapter 11 Section 11-102.) Everyone who was not classified as Negro was considered white.

Bayard Rustin’s, an important and controversial figure in the civil rights movement, Organizing Manual No. 2 Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is available from a post by an organization called Civil Rights Movement Veterans (accessed on August 20, 2013.)