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Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in
Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma
By J. Mills Thornton III
The University of Alabama Press, 2002
Hardcover, $59.95 (733 pages)
ISBN: 0-8173-1170-X
 
 
 

At last, a gigantic volume of J. Mills Thornton III’s massive research into the way city politics played its part in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and ‘60s has been published. It is a lifetime of work from a scholar who has diligently worked in his own backyard for numerous years. Throughout the time Thornton, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and a native of Montgomery, has been collecting his mountain of facts, he has published bits and pieces of research in historical journals and various collections concerning civil rights. Each of these has been a splendid piece in its own right. Now, all of his work has been put together as a major work.   

Unlike some of the weekend historians who come south on their vacations and then retreat to their comfortable towers of academic security in the North, Thornton has worked in his own backyard, compiling statistics showing voting patterns, economic diversities, splits in political ties, and other local situations. Thornton delineates the divisions in society with exact numbers and percentages. For instance, he tells us that “by 1950 Montgomery had 813 black voters, or 3.7 percent of the persons registered in the city. By 1955 the number had doubled, to 1,678 of the city’s 22,210 voters, or 7.55 percent. Moreover, by 1955 black voters represented substantial proportion of the electorate in some wars: 31 percent in Beat 7W, around the city’s black Alabama State College; almost 25 percent in Beat 2, in the working-class black neighborhoods of west Montgomery; and 20 percent in Beat 6, which served the city’s poorest black areas of north Montgomery.” 

The historian covers much old ground that has been reviewed by David Garrow in Bearing the Cross, Taylor Branch in “Parting the Waters” and Diane McWhorter in Carry Me Home. But Thornton is diligent in his compilation of statistic on top of statistic, showing the cold hard facts, and describing the incidents that came from these statistics. Too often, however, he skirts the emotional struggle, choosing instead to impart what he sees as the exact happening as it would appear in a court document rather than the heartfelt rage of an oppressed people. And because of this, his history lacks the anecdotal vibrancy that comes from an individual fighting for freedom. Still, his history is very worthy. It is not without merit that he includes 111 pages of fine print footnotes to list his sources. However, as much as I respect and appreciate his history, its significance is lessened, I think, when he quickly dismisses the enormous importance of the local and national leadership of E.D. Nixon in the struggle before and after the Montgomery bus boycott. This kind of judgment reminds me of my old professor at Harvard, Thomas Pettigrew, who taught social psychology and often said that historians should stick to physical facts and leave the determination of truth to novelists. 

Still, the importance of Thornton’s work cannot be diminished because of one undersight in one person’s opinion. His work is not only important, I think it is monumental. I have great respect for the great effort and intellectual investigation that was necessary in the putting together of this volume. It should stand on library shelves in our state next to Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home and Alabama: The History of a Deep South State by William Warren Rogers, Robert David Ward, Leah Rawls Atkins and Wayne Flynt.

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

Wayne Greenhaw, a writer who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, covered the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s for The Alabama Journal. He has written about the Freedom Riders, the Ku Klux Klan and other subjects for The New York Times. Wayne Greenhaw is the author of Montgomery: The River City, a history.

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