When I saw While the World Watched on the Tyndale Summer Reading list, I decided this would be a good opportunity to learn a piece of history that had never been covered in any classes in school. When I was growing up, the Civil Rights Movement was too recent to be in our history books, but by the time I was in middle school (and had actual history classes instead of just an occasional social studies lesson), it was no longer part of current events. I remember seeing a picture of Governor George Wallace in a wheelchair, when I was in seventh grade (the year after he was shot), but I had no idea of the history behind that.
At church I occasionally heard references to the importance of race relations, but I had no context for understanding what they were talking about. My parents were friends with a black family, as well as with the black janitor at church, but that was about the extent of my experiences with people of other races. I was only a baby when the church bombing in Birmingham took place, and in first grade when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I knew vaguely that there were places where whites and blacks didn’t get along but gave it little if any thought.
Reading the firsthand account of Carolyn Maull’s experiences growing up in Birmingham gave me a new perspective on the whole subject. I had, over the years, picked up some general knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement, but seeing it through the eyes of a child who lived through it gave it a vividness and emotional immediacy that whatever I had read previously lacked. It’s one thing to read about the fact of atrocities committed decades ago. It’s another to feel her anxieties as she tries to cope with the violent death of her friends.
As an adult, I have occasionally heard people question whether there should be a holiday to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. (I had graduated from college by the time Reagan signed it into law.) I’ve never heard anyone argue vehemently about it one way or another; it’s just raised sometimes as an example of giving what someone considers undue honor to King, considering all the other important Americans who are not likewise honored with a holiday. I have also heard the opinion expressed that he wasn’t such a great man anyway, due to alleged ties to communism and/or alleged extramarital affairs.
Reading this book, however, it’s easy to see why so many people did want to honor King in this way. He gave black people hope that their lives could be better; he provided direction in leading the non-violent protests; his stirring speeches motivated both blacks and whites to work towards achieving the dream of living together in peace and prosperity. He was not only a powerful leader but a symbol of hope and justice.
I’m sure I had read all that before, but in a more general, less personal context. Reading the details of what people like Carolyn and her family and neighbors faced on a daily basis, it’s easier to imagine the despair she sometimes felt and the hope that King inspired. People are sometimes inspired by high ideals and well-worded calls to action, but far more by a leader who leads by example as well as by words and ideals. No doubt King had his faults, as all people do, but to Carolyn he was a hero, and his death was a great blow to her.
The book is a mix of both eyewitness account of events, particularly the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Children’s March, and Carolyn’s personal struggle to deal with grief, fear, and depression that resulted. She didn’t know, at the time, that her depression had any particular cause. As she says, today children who witnessed their friends die in a bombing would have grief counselors as well as parents help them work through it. But no one talked about these things, at least not when the children were present. So she suffered silently and lived joylessly and eventually found some relief in alcohol.
My one criticism of the book would be that it is difficult to follow the thread of either the historical events or her personal struggles, because the story jumps about chronologically. I also would have liked her to give more space to how things changed in the following decades, both in terms of her own life and race relations in the country. Perhaps that’s beyond the scope of this book, but when she spends a chapter talking about her current work toward racial reconciliation, I think it would help to at least touch on some of the issues in today’s social and political climate.
I have read that most whites in the U.S. today think that racism is mostly a thing of the past. Yes, there are individuals who are prejudiced, but they don’t see systemic racism – at least not directed against blacks. Some whites feel that it is they who are the victims of racism now due to affirmative action programs that are biased in favor of non-white minorities.
Blacks, on the other hand, do see ongoing evidence of racism, particularly in terms of education and the criminal justice system. When whites point to the effects of non-racial factors such as poverty, broken families, drugs, gangs, and problems with public schools, they are accused of harboring racist attitudes but finding ways to disguise it in socially acceptable ways.
I no longer accept all the conservative ideas that were promoted at the churches and colleges I attended in my teens and early twenties. But my graduate studies in business administration confirmed what I had been taught about the power of capitalism to improve society as a whole, as opposed to the inefficiency and inherent injustices in the efforts to use state control of the economy to better distribute wealth. I have read that while King was not himself a Communist, he did not promote free-market capitalism either, and his ideas helped lead to programs that ended up hurting rather than helping black people in the long run.
Carolyn ends by calling for people love one another, which is certainly important. But many of the social problems today are inextricably tied to economic issues. No doubt any society will fare better when people love rather than hate, but programs based on unsound principles are not fixed by the fact that the people who run them are loving people.
There are no easy answers, that’s for sure. But that’s no excuse for not trying to do something to help. So I’m glad Carolyn wrote this book and works for racial reconciliation, and that I read it and have some better understanding now of what she and other people went through.