I’ll admit, I’m not entirely knowledgeable when it comes to the history of the civil rights movement in America. Perhaps it’s because I was born too late, or perhaps it’s because I had no real connection to it in my upbringing as a white, northern individual in the close of the 20th century. In light of this, when offered a chance to review Joseph Howell’s Civil Rights Journey, I was extremely excited to get started; I wanted to increase my knowledge of this time period to really understand the tumultuous changes that our country experienced in such a short time. It left such an indelible mark on our history that I felt that it could not be ignored, least of all when I had such an opportunity to read a firsthand account!
Howell begins his work by telling the abbreviated version of the early years of his life, growing up in Nashville, Alabama, at the close of the Jim Crow laws of the time. He was fortunate to grow up in a family that would be considered quite liberal for the time period. Although they had a black maid, his family was extremely respectful of her and treated her almost as a member of the family. One memorable passage was when his mother told one of his friends (after hearing him use the N word), “Young man, you will never use that word in our home or in our yard again. Ever”. Despite this light of progressiveness, Howell still experienced de facto segregation in his childhood. Two experiences served to make him more sensitive to the suffering that was going on around him with racial inequality: an experience traveling to the impoverished neighborhoods around his own to collect money for charity, and a childhood bout of Polio that attacked the muscles of his stomach and arm. Through these (especially the Polio account), Howell was able to distance himself from the cocoon that he was enveloped in while growing up.
The second portion of the work is a diary of Howell’s accounts as he traveled with his wife Embry to Baker County, Georgia to work with local civil rights leaders and the SNCC (student nonviolent coordinating committee) to increase black voter registration, promote greater local leadership, and advance the Head Start Program, a national integrated education program by the Office of Economic Opportunity. All of these goals were initially met with distrust and sometimes outright hatred by the local civil rights workers in the county. Some of them distrusted all whites, and wanted to make changes without any outside intervention, while others were wary and accepted help, while still others were eager to discuss and move forward with the partnership. Overall, Howell, Embry, and the others encountered struggles, triumphs, and numerous moments of soul-searching. While I won’t reveal the ultimate outcomes of their experience, it was an amazing journey reading all the events that Howell and Embry worked through during their time in Baker County.
Although as I admitted earlier that my civil rights knowledge was lacking, I now more than ever consider this point in our nation’s history to be pivotal to making us the people we are today. Elegantly written and poignant, Howell’s story takes us through the struggles he faced internally and externally when encountering harsh resistance upon first entering Georgia. He highlights the fact that too easily the country could have erupted into full-scale racial war, as has occurred many times across the globe throughout history. Reminding us of how closely we came to this scenario, his stories show the “ground level” work that was being performed all over the country to integrate the seemingly separate and unequal races. I consider knowledge of this part of our past critical to understand the issues of today that parallel it, such as equal rights under the law for gay individuals. Howell writes that his son stated that he was lucky to grow up in a time when the social issues were right in your face. Currently, it is all too common for individuals to be mislead through slander and polarizing of political views. It is important, now more than ever, to be able to understand and sympathize with those that are being mistreated. Howell did a wonderful job not only in teaching us this lesson, but showing us that we can be something greater than just ourselves. We cannot rely on others to lead us and make decisions for us. Now is not the time to be apathetic. We all must learn to be more like Joseph and Embry Howell, and take matters in to our own hands, deciding to dive right into the fray and come out more enlightened, if a little scarred by the process. Kudos to them both for being brave enough to do so and thoughtful enough to tell their story to future generations in the hopes that they too follow in their lead!
5 out of 5 Stars
Civil Rights Journey by Joseph Howell
Paperback 200 pages