Excerpts from In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now

in search of the movementParisian-born author and documentary film maker Benjamin Hedin‘s In Search of the Movement: The Struggle For Civil Rights Then And Now declares to “look for the [Civil Rights] movement” specifically within it’s American origins in the Deep South. Though it is not a naive endeavor through any fault of Hedin, he points out in the introduction that,

The American civil rights movement, I was always taught, was a moment in time, something that happened in the middle of the last century, went on for about a decade and a half, and then stopped. That’s how many courses in high school and college treat it, and it’s also how the movement is normally portrayed on television.

Hedin finds several legendary members of the movement working progressively in their communities, nonstop since the 1960’s. Half history, half conversation, In Search of the Movement, at its core, outlines the importance of organization and the dilemma of actual equalized access to education. It contemplates different methodologies, musings on past organizing efforts, and the much needed work to be done despite the too often unsung accomplishments of movement members.

A recent review on Kirkus Reviews notes,

While Hedin acknowledges the enormous changes that took place within that frame—nonviolent boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations ultimately forced the government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and begin the process of desegregation in schools and other institutions—so much still begs to be done. The evidence is abundant: intractable inequality in education, the killing of unarmed young black men by police forces, and the strictures on voter registration in conservative states such as North Carolina.

In Search of the Movement is also a call to action. It aims to bridge the gap between organizers and those writing about it. Hedin rightly focuses on the ongoing struggle, stepping away and allowing those voices to be heard. Bob Moses, a SNCC leader and developer of the Algebra Project, recalls to Hedin,

The sit-ins hit me powerfully. In the soul as well as the brain. I was mesmerized by the pictures I saw almost every day on the front pages of the New York Times – young committed Black faces seated at lunch counters or picketing, directly and with great dignity, challenging white supremacy in the south. They looked like I felt.

hedinHedin weaves together our difficult, shared history without the option of disregarding the powerful work happening in our present, and the much needed nation-wide participation that makes these necessary systematic changes possible.

Here follows an excerpt from the first part of the book, as Hedin travels in search of Civil Rights history in Montgomery, Alabama, describing the challenges of both his investigations and the role of the movement’s relationship with American history.

When you write about the movement (as with anything else), there are little problems that assert themselves, and big problems. Everyone knows too much or not enough: that’s one of the little problems. Civil rights is an academic cottage industry, and sometimes you interview a member of the freedom struggle who just got off the phone with a filmmaker or a German doctoral student. Their script is ready, the furrow is ploughed, and to eke out some novel observation from your talk seems a superhuman task. Meanwhile, your audience knows next to nothing, since the movement for most looms as a series of protests aimed at doing away with Jim Crow and nothing more. The writer, then, finds himself in no-man’s land, trying to appeal equally to the spheres of expertise and ignorance.

That’s one of the small problems, but the biggest concern by far is how little can be stated with perfect confidence. Everything you say must sooner or later be qualified, and [there can be] diplopia, the problem of doubleness, where two visions overlie one another, creating a blurry canvas. America looks the same out of each eye, although through one lens everything has changed and through the other nothing has. For an example we need only look at the moment most often identified as a turning point: the Brown v. Board of Education decision. It was supposed to do away with separate and unequal schools, but how many schools, in 2015, are actually integrated, boasting a healthy mix of races, and how many predominantly black school districts have as much money as the nearest predominantly white one? And yet the moment you start feeling fatalistic and have decided that race is an intractable dilemma, you can turn on the television, look at Barack Obama, and say no, something fundamental had to change in order for a black man to be elected president. But then—and there is always, in these internal dialogues, a but then—you think of what the election of Obama has engendered, the partisan politics, motivated, it often seems, by a deep current of racism, one that has managed to withstand the march of fifty years.

There seems but one way out of the infinite circle, and that is to take a view from up high of the span that must be traveled. For only in a colossally long race—an ultra marathon—can you have covered a long distance and still be nowhere near the finishing line. But that’s not right, because the distance covered must be covered again—and again. Think of voting rights and education, the battles that are continually being revisited or restaged. Our history is not a linear or point-to-point progression; it does not consist entirely of forward movement but switches back every so often, and by the time I reached Montgomery, where the route to my hotel took me past the Alabama state capitol, its alabaster dome lit starkly and glowing with a lunar brilliance, I began to feel there was no way to resolve the contradictions.

Ask your local bookseller for In Search of the Movement, also available here on our website at a 30% discount. For more Ben Hedin, follow his Twitter account and check out his account of the recent Selma 50th Anniversary celebrations for The Atlantic. Ben will be reading from the book this September at City Lights.

In Search of the Movement’s book trailer is below.

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