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Weary Feet, Rested Souls - Jacket Design by Julie Metz. Jacket Photograph: Selma March c 1978 Matt Heron/Take Stock
Weary Feet, Rested Souls
Hardback published
January 1998
Jacket Design by Julie Metz.

Weary Feet, Rested Souls - paperback cover
Weary Feet, Rested Souls Paperback published
February 1999


The Lawyer's Bookshelf
Reviewed by Lancelot B. Hewitt

WEARY FEET, RESTED SOULS: A Guided History to the Civil Rights Movement

By Townsend Davis, 1998: W.W. Norton & Company, NY, NY,
432 pages, $27.50 hardback

Most scholars agree that there is no one single event in American history that marks the beginning of what has become known as the civil rights movement. Rather, the movement came about as a response to nearly a century of racial oppression suffered primarily by African Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation. The objective of the movement was simple: secure the civil rights of African Americans through political activism.A great many historical figures emerged from that period of the 1960s, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Thurgood Marshall, Angela Davis, and Malcolm X. It was also a period in which significant federal legislation was enacted which addressed specifically (but not exclusively) the problem of racial discrimination in housing, employment, education and other areas of daily life. The U.S. Supreme Court decided a number of important cases during this period, including NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Flowers 377 U.S. 288 (1964), and Walker v. City of Birmingham, 388 U.S. 307 (1967), to name two. As a result of the political and legal activities of this era, the various social and cultural configurations existing in this country at that time were permanently reshaped.

Numerous books, articles, documentaries and other media have dissected and analyzed the civil rights movement over the years. Doubtlessly aware of this fact, Townsend Davis, the author of Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement, accepted the daunting task of offering a fresh view of well-covered material and he, Davis, is largely successful in his effort.

Focusing on the southern states of Alabama Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee during the period 1954 to 1968, Davis has produced an impressive and scholarly account of the historic events which helped give definition to the movement. The uniqueness of the author's approach to this slice of American history comes from his identification and description of more than 100 historical "movement sites" from which the drama of the movement was played out. It is an effective tool in that it urges the reader to visualize and/or relate to the setting, and to imagine what the civil rights activists may have felt as they risked their lives and participated in the making of history.

"City Jail (Southside)," a three-story building located at 417 Sixth Avenue South in Birmingham, Ala., we are told, was the jail where Dr. King and his trusted assistant, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, were held for eight days following their arrest on "Good Friday in 1963 for their civil rights activities. It is also the place from which Dr. King penned his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in margins of a newspaper," according to Davis. Dr. King's letter, the author points out, became "a classic document of American history." Today, Davis informs us, the cell which once held Dr. King has been reconstructed with the original bars in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (another historical movement site).

Davis also describes the role the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, located in Montgomery, Alabama, played in the movement. It was in the basement of this church that the Montgomery bus boycott had it genesis.

On Dec. 2, 1955, as word spread throughout Montgomery that Rosa Parks, a youth leader of the local NAACP, had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white rider on a public bus, Dr. King called a meeting in the basement of the church to see what could be done about segregated seating in public transportation in Montgomery. Mrs. Parks was invited to tell her story to about "fifty people" and after a "heated discussion," the idea of bus boycott was endorsed.

The boycott lasted a year. In the interim, the matter was litigated and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually affirmed a lower court decision holding that this Alabama segregation law was unconstitutional. Founded in 1877, the church was renamed in Dr. King's honor in 1978, and according to Davis, is today the only movement church to be designated a National Historic Landmark.

Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., had no African American students prior to 1957. The school has special significance in American history because it was the "first major test of federal power" to enforce Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). A federal court order had directed that the school be integrated pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, however, had been elected to office in 1954 using staunch opposition to integration as "his rallying cry."

On Sept. 2, 1957, two days before the start of school, Gov. Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to surround the school and to deny the entry of nine African American students who became known as "The Little Rock Nine." Angered by Gov. Faubus's violation of the court order, President Dwight D. Eisenhower nationalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne "screaming Eagle" Division of the 327th Infantry Division to assist in carrying out the court's order.

According to Davis, the Little Rock Nine "negotiated the cavernous, maze-like corridors of the school with one solider each to serve as their bodyguards, They endured nearly continuous abuse, and several eventually moved to other cities……"Davis also informs us that Gov. Faubus later closed the school to all students for an entire year rather than integrate. On May 27, 1958, however, Ernest Green became the first of the nine to graduate. Each student, the author reveals, eventually went on to college. Today, according to the author, the majority of the student body of the school is African American and "continues its academic and athletic dominance in the state."

To the uninitiated, Davis's book offers an excellent launching pad into the expansive universe of the civil rights struggle. The 25 maps and 113 photographs and other materials should assist such a reader in keeping his or her bearings. Students of the movement may well find Davis's contribution to the many bodies of work in this area, but quite enlightening in others. In the main, Weary Feet, Rested Souls is a worthwhile addition to anyone's library.

Lancelot B. Hewitt, an associate court attorney with State Supreme Court, Civil Branch, chairs the International Law and Human Rights Committee of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association


Originally Published: June 19, 1998
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