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The decade that changed America

Beyond the parties, Mr Boyle traces the racial reckoning as it coursed through the nation

BOOK REVIEW | Literature

James A Morone | NYT 

Book cover
THE SHATTERING: America in the 1960s

THE SHATTERING: America in the 1960s

Author: Kevin Boyle

Publisher: WW Norton

Price: $32

Pages: 480

Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford walked alone through the crowd of jeering whites. She hadn’t heard about the escorts assigned to the nine Black youngsters integrating Little Rock’s Central High School because her family had no telephone. So Elizabeth took the city bus, filed past the screeching adults, went up to the guardsmen who blocked her way with raised bayonets, turned around, returned to the bus stop, sat down and tried not to cry as the mob around her kept screaming. It was 1957 and Americans were about to plunge into the 1960s. A seemingly unified nation would confront its original sin, endure all kinds of vertiginous changes and never quite recover.

Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Northwestern University, tells this story and many others in The Shattering, his luminous guide to a tumultuous decade — “a season of hope,” he writes, “and a season of blood.” Going back to one of the book’s cover photos, three dozen smiling neighbours pose on July 4, 1961, to celebrate the 38 flags they’ve hoisted over their bungalows on Chicago’s northwest side. It’s a snapshot from the time before: A simple era of patriotism and consensus. But not for everyone.

Not for African Americans pushing against white supremacy. In the South, they demanded simple things — the right to vote, play in the park, get care at the nearest hospital, attend a school whose roof didn’t leak. Mr Boyle emphasises both the implacable violence they met with and the media images that shocked so many. Birmingham’s snarling police dogs, leaping at young Black students, flashed onto the front pages of newspapers around the world. In the early days of television, NBC interrupted its programming with video of helmeted troopers, some on horseback, slamming their clubs into peaceful protesters in Selma. Those pictures changed the United States.

For starters, as Mr Boyle explains, they transformed both political parties. Democrats had traditionally defended enslavement and then segregation, but in the 1930s and 1940s Northern Black voters clambered into the party — Republicans were taking their votes for granted while Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal offered help during the Great Depression. Democratic leaders frantically tried to hold together an improbable coalition of Southern segregationists and Northern civil rights activists — till the images streaming out of the South forced a moral reckoning. After Selma, President Lyndon Johnson bet everything on civil rights. This was, he insisted in a national address, nothing less than a test of America’s soul. Across the aisle, Republicans — long the party supportive of Black rights — grabbed the Southern votes that the Democrats were leaving behind. President Nixon, elected in 1968, honed the tactic to a fine art. No Democratic presidential candidate has won the white vote since.

Beyond the parties, Mr Boyle traces the racial reckoning as it coursed through the nation. Young African Americans in the North bristled at the Southern violence. Up north, they did not face legal segregation, but they were jammed into congested neighbourhoods, pushed into marginal jobs and always at risk of violence. Violence begot violence, south and north, until Martin Luther King Jr.’s horrific murder.

Mr Boyle twines this story of racial revolution with two others. First, the rise of a sprawling military. He portrays four presidents — Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — flailing to get control of what Eisenhower had called the military-industrial complex. College campuses increasingly raged against the government as it blundered into an Asian war that seemed unwinnable.

Second, a sexual revolution had taken hold in the country. Magazines like Playboy were bringing sexuality out of the shadows. And then Estelle Griswold challenged Connecticut’s ban on birth control devices. In 1965, the Supreme Court, balancing the rights of married couples against Victorian-era moral codes, found a right to privacy in the penumbra of the Bill of Rights.

The Shattering wears its scholarship lightly. The book traces each of its themes to a different finale. Racial reform seemed to drift to a dead end when Nixon’s Supreme Court appointees limited school busing. Northern whites were fine with racial equality until it impinged on their own privileges. Dreams of racial justice would have to await future generations.

The peace movement petered out, too. Nixon succeeded in diffusing antiwar politics while troubling questions about the military-industrial complex slipped entirely from sight. In contrast, the era’s sexual politics ended with Roe v. Wade. A terrific hullabaloo — over abortion, gay rights, morality and the nature of sexuality — was about to burst onto the American scene.

The Shattering begins with middle-class Americans proudly waving their flags. But along the way something vital did indeed shatter. White Americans were forced to confront the injustices perpetrated in their name, both at home and abroad. Those flags would continue to fly over Chicago for a few more years, but they would never mean quite the same thing.


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First Published: Sun, November 07 2021. 22:30 IST