Thursday, November 14, 2013

Stephen V. Ash

Stephen V. Ash is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of Firebrand of Liberty, A Year in the South, and other books on the Civil War era.

His newest book is A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Ash's reply:
Although I’m a historian, when I read for pleasure I’m more likely to pick up a novel than a work of history; and when I do pick up a work of history, it’s usually not one in my field (American Civil War and Reconstruction).

The most interesting book I’ve read lately, which caught my eye as I was roaming the aisles of a used-book store, is neither fiction nor history. It’s a work of journalism published more than half a century ago: Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin.

In 1959, as the Civil Rights crisis roiled the South, Griffin--a white magazine reporter--conceived the daring idea of disguising himself as a black man, traveling through the South, and writing about his experiences. After undergoing a medical treatment that temporarily darkened his skin, he set out on a six-week odyssey, walking, hitchhiking, and riding buses through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Unobtrusively he kept a daily journal, a gripping account of the casual humiliations, deliberate insults, and frightening threats he endured from whites and of the pervasive fear, grim poverty, and narrowly constricted horizons that characterized black life in the Jim Crow South.

Published soon after, Griffin’s narrative was a smash success and helped open the eyes of millions of non-Southerners to the hideous reality of race relations below the Mason-Dixon line. It’s still in print today, although not as well known as it deserves to be. Reading it now, one gains a deeper appreciation of the obstacles and dangers that the Civil Rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s had to confront, and thus a deeper admiration for their courage. For me, personally, the book is also a forceful reminder that many of the issues Americans grappled with in the Civil War and Reconstruction were still unresolved a century later---and, indeed, are still unresolved.
Learn more about A Massacre in Memphis at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Firebrand of Liberty.

--Marshal Zeringue