Tonight, City Lights in conjunction with Radio Silence Magazine is proud to present Benjamin Hedin, author of In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now, at City Lights Bookstore this Wednesday. Ben answered our 5 questions.
Event: Wednesday, September 23, 7:00pm at City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA. Radio Silence presents In Search of the Movement, published by City Lights.
About the Book: Published on the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama marches, Ben Hedin analyzes the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, and illuminates the work that continues to be done today.
In March of 1965, Martin Luther King led thousands in an epic march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery, in what is often seen as the culminating moment of the Civil Rights movement. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law that year, and with Jim Crow eradicated, and schools being desegregated, the movement had supposedly come to an end. America would go on to record its story as an historic success.
Recently, however, the New York Times featured an article that described the reversion of Little Rock’s schools to all-black or all-white. The next day, the paper printed a story about a small town in Alabama where African Americans were being denied access to the polls. Massive demonstrations in cities across the country protest the killing of black men by police, while we celebrate a series of 50th-anniversary commemorations of the signature events of the Civil Rights movement. In such a time it is important to ask: In the last fifty years, has America progressed on matters of race, or are we stalled—or even moving backward?
With these questions in mind, Benjamin Hedin set out to look for the Civil Rights movement. “I wanted to find the movement in its contemporary guise,” he writes, “which also meant answering the critical question of what happened to it after the 1960s.” He profiles legendary figures like John Lewis, Robert Moses, and Julian Bond, and also visits with contemporary leaders such as William Barber II and the staff of the Dream Defenders. But just as powerful—and instructional—are the stories of those whose work goes unrecorded, the organizers and teachers who make all the rest possible.
In these pages the movement is portrayed as never before, as a vibrant tradition of activism that remains in our midst. In Search of the Movement is a fascinating meditation on the patterns of history, as well as an indelible look at the meaning and limits of American freedom.
“In Search of the Movement is a true marvel. Benjamin Hedin’s insightful combination of reportage and history of the Civil Rights movement allows us to see the era with fresh eyes. By tracing the continued legacy of the black freedom struggle from the 1960s to the present, this gem of a book wonderfully illuminates how the movement is living and thriving in our own time.”—Peniel Joseph, author of Stokely: A Life
About the Author: Hedin’s fiction, essays, and interviews have been published by a number of publications, including The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Slate, The Nation, The Chicago Tribune, Poets and Writers, Salmagundi, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Radio Silence. He is the editor of Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader, widely regarded as one of the finest collections of music writing. He is also the producer and author of a forthcoming documentary titled Two Trains Runnin’. This movie tells the story of the search for two forgotten blues singers, carried out in Mississippi in June of 1964, during some of the most violent days of the Civil Rights movement.
Hedin was born in Paris, France, and raised in North Carolina and Minnesota. He studied music at the College of William and Mary and in the fall of 2002 entered the Graduate Writing Program at The New School in New York City. After earning his M.F.A. in fiction from The New School he started teaching, first at Long Island University and The New School, and later in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. Hedin resides in North Carolina.
City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?
Benjamin Hedin: Mainly the vastness of the stock. I had read about City Lights for so long—no other bookstore in America can claim an equivalent mythology—and I was surprised at how it looks from the outside. It was smaller than I imagined. But then you walk in and realize it contains whole worlds. I spent two hours in there before I noticed the time.
CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?
BH: In a way, my book does have a soundtrack: We’ll Never Turn Back by Mavis Staples. The album, a collection of church-based freedom songs like “Eyes on the Prize” and “Turn Me Around,” was produced by another City Lights author—Ry Cooder—and includes backup singing by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and members of the original Freedom Singers. Listening to this album can be compared to a conversion experience; it puts you in touch with the energy and moral uplift of the mass meeting, and when it’s over you’re ready to go out and march. When I interviewed John Lewis in the summer of 2010, he had this record playing in his office.
Writing In Search of the Movement meant a lot of time in the car, as I drove to meet with this or that person, and on many trips I listened to Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen, a series of protest songs he wrote in the manner of Molly Jackson and Woody Guthrie. And lately, with the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, the freedom song tradition has been augmented by hip-hop. “Don’t Shoot” by The Game would be on the book’s soundtrack for sure, probably as the last track.
CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?
BH: I’m sure I don’t remember—but the first book I recall being captivated by, and spending all day in school thinking about, is The Indian in the Cupboard. That was a long time ago, and I don’t even know what grade it was; still, the feeling is retrievable. Any time I discover a book I love, the response is some variant of that original one. That’s what our favorite books do, return us to this native state of enthusiasm or wonder.
CL: If you weren’t a writer, what might you do?
BH: I couldn’t do anything else. I am very miserable when not writing, though I seek all the usual distractions—teaching jobs, film work, journalism and so on—to escape the solitude and pressure of the writer’s life. Over the past few years I’ve backed into a very unlikely side career as a movie producer. With the help of many others, I am now finishing a documentary that explores the connection between the blues revival and the civil rights movement. It’s set in Mississippi at a time when two groups of blues fans drove there to find Son House and Skip James. A quixotic errand to begin with, it was made dangerous by occurring at the start of Freedom Summer. Originally titled The Blues House, the movie is now called Two Trains Runnin’, and it will be out next year.
CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi).
BH: No wifi means I couldn’t stream music I don’t own, and that’s one of the things I need to get through my day, along with a treadmill, coffeemaker, and Cholula. All that and much more I would miss if stranded somewhere, though finally if tendered such a fate I would only ask for one thing: a copy of Mrs. Dalloway. With that book, on a desert island, I could make it a hundred years.
Join Ben and City Lights as we celebrate one of our own publications this evening. Many thanks to Radio Silence for sponsoring the event. For more about Ben, go to his official site and follow him on Twitter. For a complete calendar of events to come this Fall at City Lights, go here. For the rest of Ben’s tour across the U.S., check out his author page.