Monday, June 30, 2014

NONFICTION MONDAY: More Civil Rights Books


This book tells a group of intertwining stories that culminate in the historic 1947 collision of the Superman Radio Show and the Ku Klux Klan. It is the story of the two Cleveland teenagers who invented Superman as a defender of the little guy and the New York wheeler-dealers who made him a major media force. It is the story Ku Klux Klan's development from a club to a huge money-making machine powered by the powers of fear and hate and of the folklorist who--along with many other activists-- took on the Klan by wielding the power of words. Above all, it tells the story of Superman himself--a modern mythical hero and an embodiment of the cultural reality of his times--from the Great Depression to the present.


I found this a very readable, fascinating account of the creation of Superman and how this fictional superhero was used to fight the Ku Klux Klan.  I've heard the story of Superman's creation before but not in as complete a fashion as is explained here.  It's an interesting story about two Jewish teenagers growing up during the Great Depression who desperately wanted to join the comics industry.  But neither could ever imagine their creation becoming the phenomenon it did.  Unfortunately for them, they turned the copyright over to DC Comics (normal procedure at the time) and as a result didn't receive the benefits they should have. But Superman has throughout his history provided not only entertainment but the idea that good can defeat evil, even the real thing.

The Ku Klux Klan may not have started out as an organization of evil but it certainly became one.  What I didn't know was that it petered out after their extreme acts of violence got out of control.  Reading about the deliberate reincarnation of the organization was a bit sickening, but ironically it seems that the people responsible for its recreation were more interested in money than ideology. Unfortunately, many of those who joined the organization did fully buy into the hate and fear that the organization encouraged and often acted on it, violently.

Seeing these two stories come full circle when the Superman radio show decided to have Superman face an organization that clearly represented the KKK.  This book represents the impact that even a fictional character can have on the history of a nation.  The power of propaganda for good or evil can easily be seen in this story, a story that happens to be true. A great example of the kind of history book that children will want to pick up and read.  There is however a lot of text here, more photos and extras would have been nice.  But the story is compelling enough to make up for that, but reluctant readers will be put off by the amount of text.  A great read though for more advanced readers.

The True Story of the Spy Network That Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement
by Rick Bowers
National Geographic Children's Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4263-0595-5
MG/YA Nonfiction (History)
Grades 7 and up
Source: purchased
All opinions expressed are solely my own.


 The Spies of Mississippi is a compelling story of how state spies tried to block voting rights for African Americans during the Civil Rights era. This book sheds new light on one of the most momentous periods in American history.

Author Rick Bowers has combed through primary-source materials and interviewed surviving activists named in once-secret files, as well as the writings and oral histories of Mississippi civil rights leaders. Readers get first-hand accounts of how neighbors spied on neighbors, teachers spied on students, ministers spied on church-goers, and spies even spied on spies.

The Spies of Mississippi will inspire readers with the stories of the brave citizens who overcame the forces of white supremacy to usher in a new era of hope and freedom—an age that has recently culminated in the election of Barack Obama.


Fear and hate, two of the most dangerous weapons on the planet.  And boy did the segregationists use them to manipulate the public. Segregationists in Mississippi were so determined to undermine the civil rights movement and the legal decisions that were increasingly turning against them that they set up the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to combat it.  They recruited spies to check on civil rights workers and anyone they considered a threat.  Generally they tried to use more subtle methods to stop the movement, things such as manipulating jobs, white supremacist organizations, etc.  All to undermine and stop integration.

Bowers shares the stories of men who worked for both sides, those who worked against integration and those who worked for it.  Some of these stories were encouraging and some of them were sad.  It just bothered me what these men were willing to do to preserve their way of life, no matter how distorted.  A powerful example of how much some people hate change and yet how impossible to avoid.   

This is an important book about the dangers of too much power in the hands of a few and how easily it can be misused.  It's also an important book about the courage of individuals in making a difference despite the sacrifices that are sometimes required.


February 21, 1965. Controversial civil rights leader Malcolm X is gunned down during a speech in Manhattan. Few were shocked by the news of Malcolm X's death. Since 1952 the former member of the Nation of Islam had supported the Nation's philosophy of violence as the method to achieve justice for blacks in the United States. But in March 1964, after a major shift in his philosophy, Malcolm changed his message. He no longer agreed with the Nation of Islam and feuded with its leaders. The 39-year-old was shot in public at point-blank range. The news devastated Malcolm's followers. But other people reacted to his death with relief. Three men were found guilty of the murder. But rumors of conspiracy and cover-up still swirl. In this chronicle of an assassination, find out the answers to these questions and learn more about the impact of Malcolm X's life, and his death, on civil rights in the United States.


I've long had mixed feelings about Malcolm X. On the one hand, the man had a great passion for his cause and he expressed himself powerfully.  But on the other hand, his long expressed ideas about hate for whites and the use of violence to achieve black rights I don't agree with at all.  Yet I learned some really interesting things reading this book.  The information about Malcolm's background caused me to empathize with tragedies of his life. His father's death when he was six, watching his home burn at age four, having his mother committed to an asylum when he was 13 and of course the constant bigotry he faced because he was black.  It wasn't hard to see what lead Malcolm to hate whites and why the Nation of Islam appealed so much to him while he was in prison.

The irony in all this is that after spending so many years working for and promoting Nation of Islam, his own ideas and passion led him away from it.  A pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia changed some of Malcolm's extremist views and pointed him toward greater cooperation with the mainstream civil rights movement.  This infuriated Malcolm's former allies with the Nation of Islam.  He himself expected to be targeted and he was right.  The book explains what is known about the circumstances surrounding the assassination including the questions that remain.  While many suspected the Nation of Islam of being behind it, it was never proven.

What I found so sad was that if greater precautions had been taken, it might have been postponed or not occurred at all.  A well put-together book about a controversial figure from history who left his mark on the world.  The book is beautifully designed with quotes, photographs, a glossary, index, and brief biographies of some of the major players.

Check out other great nonfiction reads at the Nonfiction Monday blog.

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