A review by Jo Freeman published in Gulf
South Historial Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Fall 2001, pp. 101-2.
Rabby, Glenda Alice, The Pain and the Promise: The Struggle for Civil
Rights in Tallahassee, Florida, Athens: University of Georgia Press,
2000, 330 pp. ISBN: 0-8203-2051-X
is an excellent book. By focusing on one small city, the author allows
readers to experience "the pain and the promise" of the civil rights
movement through the lives and experiences of the participants. She
brings the people to life and goes beyond the headlines to let us see
the consequences, good and bad, of the movement. In the 1950s and 1960s
the Florida panhandle was as much a part of the deep South as Alabama
and Georgia and almost as resistant to change. Even with the combined
weight of the U.S. Supreme Court, a mobilized black population, and
a few moderate whites, desegregation took several decades to achieve
and came largely at the expense of the black population, particularly
its youth and community leaders.
in Alabama, the first public protest was over the busses. And as
in Montgomery, the incident which precipitated it was not planned.
In May of 1956 two young women simply sat down next to a white
woman and were arrested. Inspired by the six-month-old boycott
in Montgomery, Tallahassee's ten thousand black citizens refused
to ride until they could sit in any available seat. Although the
boycott ended the following year without a clear cut victory or
a court order, it empowered the black community.
national civil rights organizations were quick to see the possibilities,
and to offer support. CORE became the principle direct action organization
while the NAACP supplied lawyers to handle the many criminal cases
that came with mass protest. But it was the local Inter-Civic Council
which provided the leadership, and the students, mostly from Florida
Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) who provided the bodies,
gave generously of their time, and took the risks.
the students it was two sisters, Priscilla and Patricia Stephens who
became the key organizers. They mobilized the FAMU students, encouraged
them to stay in jail when arrested, and kept up their spirits when
suspended from school. Under their leadership FAMU students participated
in the boycott, freedom rides and sit-ins. They also worked with some
bold white students from neighboring Florida State University to begin
the slow process of integration.
Alabama and Georgia, Florida governor Leroy Collins believed the state
should follow the law as mandated by the US Supreme Court. Serving
from 1953 to 1961, he looked for ways to make the pill of integration
easier for Southern whites to swallow, rather than counseling regurgitation
as did so many of his contemporaries. But even a moderate Governor
would only stick his neck out so far because there were so many politicians
ready to cut his head off. When he counseled slow compliance, the legislature
passed a law permitting local districts to close the public schools
rather than integrate them. His veto was barely sustained. The three
governors who succeeded Collins were all strident segregationists.
segregated schools were the first public institution to be declared
unconstitutional by the Court, they were the last to go. The federal
district court -- particularly Judge Harrold Carswell -- charged with
overseeing the Court's order, and the local officials charged with
enforcing the law, dragged their feet. They beefed up black schools
that had been starved for decades and put the burden of switching to
white schools on black students and their parents. Not until 1970 did
the district court order the creation of a unitary school system and
even then implementation was slow. It was the federal government, not
the state, that made the local districts obey the law. With school
integration came the removal or demotion of black principles, coaches
and teachers and the loss of black schools as unifying community institutions.
Rabby described the consequences for the black community of the civil
rights movement and integration, she doesn't tell us much about what
happened to the brave individuals who risked their lives and careers
to bring about change. This is the one big hole in the book. Since
she interviewed many of the activists of the period, she should have
told us their fate as well. Did they benefit at all from the movement
they sacrificed for, or did they only pay the price? Before the book
comes out in paper, she should add an epilogue.