FREE AT LAST?: THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT AND THE PEOPLE WHO MADE IT. Fred Powledge. Little, Brown. 736 pages. $24.95. The images are etched in the national consciousness: Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955; four black college students desegregating a Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter in 1960; Freedom Riders assaulted in Alabama; and James Meredith, a )) black air force veteran, enrolling at the University of Mississippi under federal guard in 1961. Two years later, police dogs attacked demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala.; Gov. George Wallace stood in the door at the University of Alabama shouting, "Segregation forever"; and Martin Luther King intoned, "I have a dream" at the March on Washington.
Five years later, after more marches, violence, speechesvoter-registration drives and countless clashes with the police, King was assassinated in Memphis. The civil rights movement was already in disarray. Factionalism, the emergence of black power militants and the war in Vietnam had splintered the cause. But it had altered the course of American life.
No one is more assured of that than Fred Powledge, a Southern-born white newspaperman who witnessed much of what he chronicles in "Free at Last?" He is convinced that "the Movement" is "the most important social event in American history since Independence."
If he doesn't quite prove that huge claim, he has produced a splendid "people's" history. He acknowledges King's towering and courageous role, along with the contributions of Bayard Rustin, James Farmer and James Forman. But Mr. Powledge cautions against forgetting the hundreds of ordinary people who gave their hearts and souls, and sometimes their lives, to the movement. They are the unheralded heroes of the great cause, the sort the history books overlook.
Mr. Powledge interviewed scores of former activists. Hintersperses their stories throughout the text, usually letting them speak in their own words. We meet sons and daughters of poor blacks: L. C. Dorsey, who as a teen-ager committed herself to the cause; Charles Jones, today a practicing civil rights attorney; Constance Baker Motley, a battling attorney for the NAACP; or Arthur Shores, for years the only black lawyer in Birmingham. Such people, along with scores of white activists whose stories Mr. Powledge also records, made it possible for the charismatic King to shine and focused attention on Selma, Ala., and Oxford, Miss.
The Southern black church gets high marks from Mr. Powledgewho says that an intense religious faith allowed blacks to endure and persevere through the fight to end America's version of apartheid, in which even drinking fountains were marked "white" and "colored." Virtually everyone Mr. Powledge interviewed said the white Southern church was no help whatsoever. Nor was the FBI any helping hand to blacks, as the movie "Mississippi Burning" implies. Just the opposite: The FBI, Mr. Powledge reports, knew what violence the Ku Klux Klan was planning but did nothing. Worse, the bureau worked hand in glove in covert actions with the local police, while FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with eavesdropping on King's private life.
Jack and Bobby Kennedy get only passing marks from thformer activists, a view that should surprise nobody today. Jesse Jackson merits but a few sentences, mainly because his main claim to fame in the Movement was that he happened to be in Memphis with King the night the killer fired.
A hint of nostalgia hangs over Mr. Powledge's testament of hiand the movement's youth. There were giants in those days: Rosa Parks' full height was revealed to all but the coldest heart when she sat in the front of the bus.
Dr. Clayton is author of "W. J. Cash: a Life," published this month by Louisiana State University Press. He is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.