Lesser-known faces in US civil rights fight

IN 1932, the American South was for the most part a rural, isolated, and feudal land. The majority of its citizens were poor, and power was locked in the hands of a ruling group of politicians, wealthy planters, and merchants who saw to it that blacks remained at the bottom of the economic and social ladder. Jim Crow laws were all but carved in stone, and lynchings were almost as common as church suppers. To millions of the region's blacks, and a small number of concerned whites, it seemed the South was destined to remain a backward, violent society.

Behind the scenes, however, a growing number of individuals began raising their voices in protest over racial injustices. These courageous few included writers, ministers, educators, and social activists. Their stories - many untold - are the focus of John Egerton's ``Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement In the South.'' Egerton, who has published eight other books about the South, spent more than five years poring through material in libraries, interviewing individuals, and piecing together events. The result is this well-written, fascinating, though information-dense, account.

``Speak Now Against the Day'' begins with Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1932 election. At the time, America was in the depths of the Depression; the South - economically much poorer - was worse off. Many people looked to Roosevelt as their last hope, and individuals calling for social change grew more vocal.

These activists, both men and women, came from all backgrounds. There was James Weldon Johnson, a writer and teacher who helped establish 250 southern offices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Jesse Daniel Ames, the founder of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching; and dozens of other people who pioneered the way for racial equality.

But their struggle was made difficult by the white politicians and other defenders of legalized segregation who did everything in their power to maintain the Southern way of life. This ruling elite included zealots such as Mississippi governor Theodore Bilbo and Sen. Ellison D. ``Cotton Ed'' Smith of South Carolina.

Racism spread to all facets of Southern life and was the main reason the South suffered economically and lagged behind the North in every way, Egerton contends. He describes, for example, how the preoccupation with race and class led to the neglect of schools. White men who dominated Southern life viewed public education as a privilege for their sons; they had little interest in educating women, poor whites, or blacks. As a result, Southern states were slow to impose taxes to support schools or pass compulsory attendance laws. When they did accept responsibility for education, Egerton writes, ``they did so within the rigid confines of segregation and `separate but equal' duality, imposing a costly double burden that was bound to leave them ever further behind the North.''

Egerton's book is a thorough, eloquent look at a region and its heroic individuals who spoke out for progress and equality.

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