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Civilities And Civil Rights

July 2024
1min read

by William H. Chafe Oxford University Press Photographs, 436 pages, $13.95

The history of the civil rights movement, William Chafe says, has been told mostly in terms of its highlights—Brown vs. the Board of Education, Little Rock, Selma, et cetera. In his new book he focuses instead on the attitudes and changes in one Southern city over a period of thirty years—1945 to 1975. His city is Greensboro, North Carolina, where four scared college students sat down at the lunch counter of the local Woolworth’s on February 1, 1960, asked to be served, and stayed sitting when they were refused.

Greensboro considered itself a civil, harmonious city. There had never been a lynching there. Whites took pride in the good manners they exhibited toward blacks. To the blacks it was a “nice-nasty town” where civility was offered in place of action. The Greensboro school board, true to the city’s “progressive mystique,” waited only one day after the Supreme Court desegregation ruling to vote to comply with the new law. But seventeen years passed before Greensboro actually desegregated its schools; it was one of the last cities in the South to do so.

Using dozens of oral histories, mostly interviews with blacks, to supplement the written record, which is mostly white, Chafe has constructed a sensitive account of how a Southern city tried to stifle black protest and evade the law.

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