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My favorite teacher in middle school was Mr. Miller.

He taught Social Studies, which was the closest we got to History, and was himself the closest we had to a hippie on the faculty; young, with a beard, longish hair, and clothing that was at least somewhat fashionable, Mr. Miller had come to teaching by way after college and a stint in the National Guard.  He had a real knack for the quirky and the dramatic, his lectures were laced with humor as well as facts, and he was completely at ease with a very difficult age group.  His classes were a joy and a delight, and a real highlight during a time when I was getting my first taste of just how vicious a bully could be.

Our class was supposed to cover modern American history, which meant primarily the 20th century from the Progressive movement and Teddy Roosevelt to roughly the Cold War.  I’d already started reading my uncle Oscar’s copies of American Heritage by then, but much of what Mr. Miller covered was new to me.   One assignment (write a ten page paper, your choice of subject) was not only my first experience with writing an original research paper, but possibly the only time in my life that I got away with using “Ibid” thirteen times in a row; in my own defense, all I can say is books on Prohibition geared to middle schoolers are not easy to find, and that knowing about the likes of Tex Guinan has enriched my life in ways that the average person cannot appreciate.

And then there was the Civil Rights movement.

This particular time in America may be history to certain people reading this diary, but to me it was current events.  My father had been an administrator at several colleges during the 1960s, which meant that I’d grown up in an atmosphere where coffee houses, folk music, serious political discussion, and Tom Lehrer records were common place.  I don’t recall Vietnam ever coming up (my parents were Republicans in the Eisenhower mold, with a strong streak of old style liberalism on certain social issues), but they were horrified by the assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr. King.  They also made sure that I was raised never to use a racial or gender pejorative, ever, and that I treated everyone alike regardless of race, religion, or skin color.  

So even if we didn’t march on Selma or have a portrait of Peter Seeger in the living room, we were firmly in favor of equal rights for everyone, period.

So was Mr. Miller.  He made very sure that his students knew about what had gone on in the South only ten years before, and had seen first hand the despair and destruction in the inner city when riots erupted after Dr. King’s death in 1968 thanks to his service in the National Guard.  It was balm to my soul after two years in a small Virginia city where my family was scorned for being “damnyankees” and the most common term for someone of African descent began with an “n” and ended with an “r.”  

Best of all, Mr. Miller made being a liberal look natural, and easy, and (dare I say it?) fun.  He once encouraged several of us, all girls, to come up with a skit on the Soviet Union where we’d play famous dictators, from Lenin on down to Brezhnev, and you can just imagine the happy chaos that resulted.  Even better, he encouraged us to use language in unexpected ways, like the time he asked us all to imagine the sound of frogs eating prunes…and it says a lot about the man that I’m still wrestling with this concept forty years later.  

Mr. Miller continued to work for my old middle school for several years, but I lost track of him years ago.  Wherever he is, and whatever he’s doing, I wish him nothing but the best.  He helped to shape my conscience and my sense of social justice, and if there is a single person that started me on the path that led me here to this blog, it’s him.

So...Mr. Miller, if any chance you’re reading tonight’s diary, this one’s for you!

Far too many people don't remember how different America was only fifty years ago.  Jim Crow was the law of land in a fifth of the country and the de facto law in many other places, mixed marriages were illegal in a large number of states, and little girls were blown up for the heinous crime of attending church.  Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his life in the effort to see that this changed.  His vision of social justice for all Americans, rich and poor, black and white and all the shades in between, male and female, sexual orientation be damned, was critical to shaping a country that, barely a generation after Brown v. Board of Education, elected the son of an African student and a girl from Kansas to lead it during its greatest crisis since 1929.  

Next weekend we commemorate Dr. King's birth with a holiday, and it is my sincere hope that many of us commemorate it by continuing to apply his principles to our everyday lives.  My old teacher George Miller did his best to instill those beliefs in the children he taught, and if he could do that in a time when his lesson plans could have gotten him fired if he'd lived two hours to the south, there's no reason we can't do so today.

Tonight I bring you not one, not two, not even three, but five books on the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King, and his legacy.  Some are history, one is theology, but all are worth your time and attention on this cold Saturday night:

Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman - Howard Thurman was a brilliant African-American clergyman, theologian, and philosopher who deserves to far better known.  Among his accomplishments were serving as chaplain at Howard University, heading the first intentionally intercultural, integrated Christian church in the United States, and writing several books on Christianity, civil rights, and the African-American experience.  Jesus and the Disinherited, his best known book, is a graceful, lucidly written, utterly beautiful little book about the effects of the three most damaging side effects of prejudice -  fear, deception, and hate - on both the victim and the perpetrator of all three, all as seen through the eyes of a Christian who was well aware of his faith's flaws but utterly committed to the message of love and justice preached by Jesus himself.  The passages on the oppressed meeting oppression with non-violent resistance deeply influenced Dr. King's work, especially his insistence that the Civil Rights marchers never descend to attacking or fighting with the police.  

The Devil in the Grove, by Gilbert King - excellent book on Thurgood Marshall and his involvement with the anti-lynching movement of the mid-20th century.  It starts with a harrowing passage describing Marshall barely getting out of town ahead of a group of angry whites determined to make sure the mouthy colored guy from New York shut up permanently, then focuses on a hideous false rape case in the Florida citrus groves in the 1950s.  Class warfare, the refusal of black veterans to tolerate Jim Crow, the corrosive effects of lying on both accuser and accused, and most of all, the fact that the sheriff who was behind the violence continued in office until well after the Civil Rights Movement ended...this book has it all.  The cover photo alone will drive home how much has changed, and how far we have yet to come.

Parting the Waters, by Taylor Branch -the first volume of Branch's magisterial three-volume biography of Dr. King/history won the Pulitzer Prize for history, and it's easy to see why.  Superbly written and impeccably researched, Parting the Waters not only tells the story of Dr. King and other civil rights pioneers like Vernon Johns, it brings the period to life in a way that helps the reader understand not only what people did, but how and why.  Highly, highly recommended.

Hellhound on his Trail, by Hampton Sides - Dr. King's life was ended by a man who called himself Eric Starvo Galt, tn James Earl Ray.  This brisk, penetrating account of Galt/Ray's life, the assassination, and the manhunt that ended in Great Britain, where Galt/Ray had fled in hopes of making his way to South Africa, is one of the best true crime books of recent years.  Ray comes across as simultaneously fascinating and repellant, Dr. King as both dedicated and flawed, and a host of secondary characters (the opportunistic Jesse Jackson, "Galt's" unnamed Mexican lover, and the FBI men who tracked the assassin to London) spring vividly to life.

Sundown Towns, by James Loewen - ever wondered why there's so much residential segregation in America, especially outside the Old Confederacy?  Ever heard of Rosewood?  The Tulsa race riots?  James Loewen's searing look at the phenomenon known as "sundown towns," those all-white enclaves where anyone who wasn't 100% Caucasian had to be out of town by sundown "or else," makes it clear that America didn't get this way by accident.  There's plenty of excellent information here about the deliberate attempts by eliminationist whites to drive not only blacks, but Chinese, Native Americans, and other racial/ethnic minorities out of desirable towns and neighborhoods.  Particularly good is an examination of the wealthy Connecticut town of Darien, and a chapter analyzing the damage that keeping racial minorities out of the suburbs has done not only to inner cities but to the suburbs themselves.  

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And so, my friends - have you any suggestions for expanding this little list?  The floor is yours!

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 06:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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