Thoughts The Free Men by John Ehle, Press 53 2007 (orig 1965), 351 pages
Blurb from goodreads.com:
This moving narrative by John Ehle describes the experiences of a handful of dedicated young students, both black and white, during the 1963-64 civil rights protests in Chapel Hill, NC. The movement began through the efforts of three young men: two white UNC-Chapel Hill students, John Dunne, a gifted Morehead Scholar, and Pat Cusick, the grandson of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, and one student from the all-black North Carolina College in Durham, Quinton Baker. First published in 1965 by Harper & Row, ‘The Free Men’ was controversial but won the Mayflower Award for Nonfiction. It is now back in print by Press 53 with a new Afterword by the former UNC-Chapel Hill student, ‘Daily Tar Heel’ editor, and Pulitzer Prize-Winning journalist Wayne King.
I read this for Nonfiction November which was focused on my desire to deepen my understanding of US civil rights history. My local indie book store featured this book as important and sold me on the quality of the writing.
This appealed to me as a book with a timely and fresh impression of the activities covered. The first events happened in 1963 with court dealings mostly in 1964 and the book was published right after, 1965. This wouldn’t be a glossing over what happened way back but would deliver a true feel of the atmosphere of that ‘now’. I wanted to experience it truly like I was there with no 21st century ‘wiser’ perspective. Set in Chapel Hill, a town presumed to be the most liberal because it was the host of the flagship premier university of the state, the University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill is close to the state capitol of Raleigh and less than an hour’s drive from where I live in Greensboro.
I am not a native North Carolinian and to be honest, I’ve yet to set foot in Chapel Hill. But it is so on my list to visit and I want to see if I can be transported to the Franklin Street of downtown as it looked in 1965; to see the Post Office and the site of the original picketed restaurants. I know much has to have changed but I love the feels of old downtowns and the imaginings of the people who walked the streets years and years and years gone by.
He had come into the South to get to know the South, and now he was held by the South, but what he had not learned was the ponderableness of the South, … The instinct of the South was not part of him yet. As is the case in any revolution taking place, the need for immediate action was inside him and was what he breathed.
This was a fascinating portrayal of the key individuals involved, how the movement got started in the town, the machinations of the politics, the fears and commitments and frustrations of good people who wanted things done right but had different ideas of the best way to achieve or promote or demand results. It also gives some time with the side against desegregation. Fascinating. Oh, and let’s throw in one crazy tough bastard judge.
Those who support the superiority of conscience often have the embarrassment of explaining how their system is to work on a practical level; those who support the superiority of laws have the embarrassment of the way their system does work, day in and day out, at the working level.
And it showed that not a lot has changed in 50 years.
I admit that it got tough keeping track of who was who and what was when. If I had kept notes and timelines, I probably would have rated this a 5 star read. So, my failings.
This amazing book is a very good example of how things might need radical happenings to force change. Also fabulous discussion on how both sides of the rightness to ‘radical happenings’ (my words). Any social justice warrior would find this book valuable. Any student of journalism history would find this book insightful.
I’m glad I read this. I aspire to such courage of conviction as these men and women demonstrated.
“They had been condemned by the court, and they knew they were in a sense guilty of breaking laws, but they were moralists essentially, and what they were trying to determine now was the nature of their deeper crime whether they had violated not only laws but also justice.”
This is one of those books that inspires MORE research. I was constantly looking up people in Wiki, places on the map, and other stuff. I found a 1989 interview of Pat Cusick who ended up in Boston after being forced out of North Carolina – click this link for fascinating discussion and reflection of the events described in this book and beyond. He recommended the following book as pivotal and now I want to read it. Click the cover to go to goodreads:
The best understanding of America begins, or so it seems to me, with the realization that this nation is young yet, that she is still new and unfinished, that even now America is man’s greatest adventure in time and space.
Wishing us all a sensible 2016 of peace and freedom.
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