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Activist Takes Readers on Black History 'Trail'

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

But first, Charlie Cobb has seen a lot in his life. He left his studies at Howard University to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. Since then, he's reported for outlets such as "National Geographic" and NPR, helped start the National Association for Black Journalists and more. His latest book retraces some of his own steps and those of others during the civil rights movement. "On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail" is a guidebook to hundreds of historical sites in the south, from Washington DC through Mississippi and back up to Tennessee. He joins us now from member station WJCP in Jacksonville, Florida. Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. CHARLIE COBB (Author, "On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail"): Thank you for inviting me to talk about this work.

MARTIN: So Charlie, let's just fess up. We've know each other. We've known each other for quite a long time as journalists working in DC. And my recollection is that you've been thinking about this for quite some time.

Mr. COBB: Yes, I believe I talked to you about it even before you had the twins.

MARTIN: Who are four. So that would be at least sort of five or six years ago.

Mr. COBB: Yeah, and it grows out of, you know, my thoughts about it. Really I've been thinking about writing about the civil rights movement most of my writing and reporting career. But as a veteran of the civil rights movement, writing about the civil rights movement, was a growing concern, partly because I felt that people really were missing some of the main lessons of the movement. People sort of remember, really, that there was something called the civil rights movement. I wish they really mean the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the drama of mass protests in public spaces led by charismatic leaders. And I suppose Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is a great symbol of that. But people don't get it in the sense that really, from my perspective anyway, one, when you talk about the civil rights struggle in the United States, you really are talking about community organizing, which goes back much, much further than the 1960s or even the 1960s. Probably the first African stepping off the first slave ship in chains was trying to organize, figuring out a way to escape or plotting a way to make insurrection. There are very specific lesions imbedded in the movement, that have sort of been lost as the movement gets characterized by kind of iconic figures and iconic events. You know, march on Washington or Selma to Montgomery march, or Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, Jr. The deeper lessons of the movement are barely discussed.

MARTIN: Is part of what you're trying to do here to kind of lift up the stories of some of the lesser known but pivotal events in the movement, sort of beyond the names that everybody knows?

Mr. COBB: My thought in taking on this project was to bring to the floor first the idea that you had whole communities in motion, and beginning to organize themselves to challenge segregation and white supremacy and all that. Part of writing this book was to also put forth names of people that aren't usually even mentioned in what might be called the civil rights cannon. And lastly in writing this book, it was to put forth several themes that I thought were important to consider if you were going to really seriously consider the civil rights movement.

MARTIN: And what were those themes?

Mr. COBB: Firstly, although people look at the movement in terms of protest against white supremacy and segregation, which were all important factors, more importantly were the challenges black people made to one another within the black community. Secondly, what you have with the movement is kind of a convergence of young people with older people who had really been engaged in struggle for a long time. And people don't really see that. People forget that when Martin Luther King first emerged in the Montgomery movement, A - he was 26 years old. Two - he rose up in response to a challenge by an older man who accused black ministers in Montgomery of being cowards. And Martin Luther King stood up and said I'm not a coward. Thirdly - the movement was really in many, many ways, or at least you wouldn't have had the kind of movements you had in the 1960s, without the leadership of women.

People talk, when they talk about the Civil Rights movement and its history, of the supporting role of women. I make a different kind of play in the book. I say women led and he would not have had the kind of movement you have without the leadership of women.

MARTIN: I'm dying to figure out where this book is going to be placed in the bookstore because it's got a very unusual format. I mean it's got the usual travelogue idea in the sense that you name the places and you give some background, but you also have a lot of reporting. You've got a first-person interviews with people, you've got key documents like the letter from a Birmingham jail you reprint. How did you come up with this idea?

Mr. COBB: Here's a story about how it actually began to take root. I was actually working on another book project which took me to Mississippi, a book called, "Radical Equations," which is really the story of Bob Moses, a legendary figure in Mississippi's movement. And I was in Medgar Evers' old neighborhood, sitting on the steps of a middle school and I was trying to engage some middle school students in a discussion about Civil Rights in Mississippi, and specifically, Fannie Lou Hamer, because we were sitting across from the Fannie Lou Hamer library.

And the kids didn't know anything. And my ride came to pick me up and I had to go, and I told them - these are 13, 14-year-olds - I said, look, I'll be back in a few days, I want to talk to you about Mrs. Hamer. And I told them, I know Mrs. Hamer. And I was getting ready to tell them a Fannie Lou Hamer story when this little boy, about 14-years-old, leaps up from the stairs, fixes his eyes on me and says, Mr. Cobb, you was alive back then?

MARTIN: Oh no. When dinosaurs walked the earth.

Mr. COBB: And I'm realizing, yes I was alive back then. And I had a kind of obligation, given the ignorance. And I don't mean in an insulting kind of way, but given the ignorance or the lack of information, I said, I better do something about this.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and I'm speaking with Charlie Cobb, he's the author of "On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail." Take us to some of the places in the book that stir memories for you. And I guess I'm sure there are too many to count, but just give us a couple.

Mr. COBB: The Fannie Lou Hamer gravesite, a woman I knew very, very well. I was with her the first time she tried to register to vote. And even before I was writing this book, to stand at that gravesite in rural Mississippi, which is really in the heart of the cotton country of the Mississippi delta, and look at her grave, which has, the headstone has written on it, I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.

And I asked myself, I wonder how many people realize how blood soaked the ground on which they stand, taking advantage of opportunities that, say, my mother could never have imagined. A lot of the places that move me personally as, you know, or places like that, the bell, which is all that remains of the church that was burned by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi where Mickey Schwerner and Jimmy Chaney and Andy Goodman were killed in 1964. And there are heroic sites that move me. Like if you go to Atlanta, what used to be the Rich's Department Store - called Rich's Department Store, the largest department store in Atlanta - was the primary target of student sit-inners.

It's now the Sam Nunn Federal Center. But there's a big ceramic mural on that wall portraying the student sit-in in Atlanta. And you realize also how young many, many, many of the participants of the movement were.

MARTIN: Was it hard for you to go back to some of these places, because the story of the movement, as you point out in a evocative way throughout this book is a story, it's a story of triumph, it's also a story of a lot of pain.

Mr. COBB: The hard parts for me related to the bodies, for a lack of a better phrase. You know, I knew James Chaney, I knew Michael Schwerner, you know, I was close to Fannie Lou Hamer. These are people who died before their time because of what they did.

MARTIN: I noticed in the book that you go out of your way to balance the stories of the people who are very prominent, people who are, whose names are quite familiar with the stories of those who are less well known. And you make a particular effort, I think, to lift up the stories of women, particularly wives in the movement. Why is that? Why did you do it that way?

Mr. COBB: Firstly because I have a very, very hard position that you wouldn't have had the kind of Civil Rights movement you had in the 1960s and 1950s without the leadership of women. And I was determined to portray that. I was going to show you Gloria Richardson in Cambridge, Maryland. I was going to show you not only Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, but Jo Ann Robinson of Montgomery, Alabama. There are all of these heroic women.

In Ruleville where I first worked in Mississippi in 1962, there was not a single black church that wanted to let us hold meetings in it. It was the women who threatened the preacher, say, you let these boys meet here or I don't know what they said. They probably said, or you won't get any fried chicken from us.

MARTIN: That would've been a steep price to pay.

Mr. COBB: You know, but my experience in the movement has been everywhere, you know. It was the women who led the way.

MARTIN: It might be an odd question because the book is nearly 400 pages long, and it is the right size for a travel book, something you can just kind of carry in your hand as you're wandering around, but was there something that you just couldn't include for space? It just kills you right now that you think, oh, I wanted to get that in, but I just couldn't.

Mr. COBB: There is more than one something about that. I actually feel guilty at some levels about, you know, what's not in the book. Clyde Kennard, a name hardly anybody knows. Clyde Kennard applied to the University of Mississippi before James Meredith and he was declared insane and locked up in filthy conditions. And then he was let go, he was working on a farm, they falsely accused him of stealing a chicken, or something, and he was jailed again. And he was not let out of prison until the doctor said, he was about to die.

MARTIN: Finally, how would you recommend people use this book?

Mr. COBB: I think you can use it in several different kinds of ways. You can be in a place, Charleston, South Carolina, Atlanta Georgia, wherever on business and you can say, and if you're interested in Civil Rights movement, you have a few hours, the book will guide you to places that you can visit. Sometimes it's museums, sometimes it's statues, sometimes it's monuments, sometimes it's something as simple as a plaque.

Or you can use this book to plot a real three, four, five-day, one week Civil Rights tour, either within a state or though several states. You can also use this book as a teaching tool. It was consciously written to offer up some history, to connect some dots. And I wanted to get the reader from slavery to civil rights. I wanted to get the reader through the whole history of the black experience in America to Civil Rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s.

So you don't even have to leave your house. You can prop yourself up in your couch or an easy chair and read the book for its history.

MARTIN: Charles Cobb is a senior writer for Africa.com. His latest book is "On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of a Civil Rights Trail." Mr. Cobb, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. COBB: I thank you for having me here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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