'Unexampled Courage' Is The Civil Rights Book About the 1940s You Need to Read NowHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, books, African American history
Americans have begun to talk once again about Atticus Finch, the heroic small town Alabama lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Aaron Sorkin play based on the classic 1960 novel by Harper Lee is the biggest hit on Broadway. It stars Jeff Daniels as the attorney moved by his conscience, human decency, and faith in the rule of law to defend a black man wrongly accused of rape in the 1930s.
Good. We need reminding in today's America that lynch law—which we like to think is a thing of the past—always had another side: the kind of taken-for-granted easy-to-live-with racism white people were used to in the South of “Mockingbird.” And we should be aware as well that those attitudes never were limited to Southerners. A lot of Donald Trump’s followers clearly wish they could return to a world where white men were men, and all others were something less.
But for all the virtues of Harper Lee’s novel or its new Broadway incarnation, they are fiction. And history can teach us more if the stories are well told and the facts are clear.
A book to be published later his month, Unexampled Courage by Richard Gergel, does just that.
It’s set in Charleston, South Carolina, which used to be a city so deeply steeped in racism it started the American Civil War in 1861 to defend slavery. After that cause was lost, for generation after generation Charleston settled into what white folks came to accept as matter-of-fact Jim Crow repression.
Gergel’s book tells the story of huge miscarriages of justice in the years following World War II, and one of the central characters, a federal judge born and bred in Charleston, was not just a real-live Atticus Finch moved by conscience, decency, and faith in the law, he was a jurist who changed American history forever.
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