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on July 3, 2004
Michael J. Klarman's book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality is the best book written about civil rights in America in quite some time. Klarman's book is one of the few works about the civil rights movement that analyzes the significant change that occurred in racial attitudes during 1900-1954 as well as the movement itself.

Klarman's book is a revisionist account that downplays the importance of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case. Klarman contends that there would have been a civil rights movement even if the Supreme Court had ruled the other way in Brown. Klarman believes that the conventional history gives court rulings too much credit for effecting change in America. Essentially, Klarman believes that the federal court system is actually very weak and does not affect America much in the long run.
Klarman believes, for instance, that the White Court's civil rights rulings during the Progressive Era did nothing to help blacks. Other than the Smith case of 1944, Klarman does not believe that Supreme Court rulings helped black Americans. In the Smith case, Klarman holds that it effectively opened the door for some black participation in Southern politics.
A large part of Klarman's book is devoted to debunking the idea that the Brown ruling helped speed the civil rights movement. Klarman holds that the Brown decision did little to inspire blacks to seek redress for racial grievances. He does, however, concede that the media coverage of Brown did help raise consciousness among white folks about racial injustice in the South.
Klarman's book is a revisionist account of civil rights history. It is well-written, makes its points well and is backed up by prodigious research. It deserves a wide audience.
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on June 19, 2008
Professor Klarman's book is a study of the interplay between Politics, Social Forces, and legal doctrine. He's searching for the links between political realities and legal rulings. How are they shaping each other? In studying the relations between the decisions of the US Supreme Court and the reality of White-Black relations in the American South, Klarman's conclusion is that the Supreme Court's opinions are very much shaped by the social and political realities. The effect of the Supreme Court's decision on the political landscape is more subtle.

Between the 1890s and the outbreak of the Second World War, the Court's rulings became slowly but steadily more pro-blacks. The earlier decisions were epitomized by the Plessey case, which held that states were allowed to discriminate in public transportation. Only one Justice, former slave-owner John Marshall Harlan had dissented, and argued that the "constitution is color-blind". But even Harlan did not doubt the propriety of segregation in education, and neither he nor any other Justice did much to prevent Lynching, voter intimidation, all-white-Juries and a variety of other discriminatory practices.

In this, the Justices were very much men of their time, an era of unquestioned white supremacy. America was a white man's land; with the Civil War receding into distant memory, White Northerners, who faced increasing immigration of blacks, Asians, and East Europeans, did not feel compelled to intervene on behalf of Southern Blacks.

But even if the Justices were inclined to combat Jim Crow (the popular name of the racist Southern regime), there was not much they could have done. Unlike the post-World War 2 era, the Federal government was not closely engaged within Southern states. Thus the Court's decisions had to be executed by Southern Judges, Politicians, and Policemen - the very leaders of Jim Crow. Furthermore, the legal segregation and discrimination were mostly formalities. Jim Crow kept Blacks "in their place" with the hanging rope and the burning cross, with economic sanctions and social intimidation. Whether their misery was legally sanctioned or not could not have made a large difference in the daily lives of Southern Blacks.

From the outbreak of the First World War to the outbreak of the second, race relations in America slowly improved, and the Judges' decisions became increasingly, albeit subtly, black-friendly. Beaten confessions were thrown out; patently racist disenfranchising laws were declared unconstitutional. The Justices for the first time inferred discrimination in Jury selection from the fact that Juries were, de facto, always white.

But the changes were slow. Only with the creation of Roosevelt's Court, with the appointment of new Justices such as Hugo Black and William Douglas, did the Court stridently strike against segregation and Jim Crow. The shift in the Court during and after the Second World War reflected the social changes in American society, which has become more egalitarian as the economic and political power of Blacks increased, as the nation was becoming more unified, and as revulsion of Fascism translated into widespread anti-racist views. The Cold War also played its part: When America competed for the alliance of Non-Western Countries, Jim Crow has become a liability and an embarrassment.

The New Deal Justices, and their successors, were strongly committed to destroying the racist policies of the South. They ruled against segregation in higher education, against all-white political primaries, against unfair police practices. And most famously, they hit the Apartheid's system's most cherished institution. The landmark case of "Brown vs. Board of Education" barred segregation in public schools.

Brown, Klarman argues, had a paradoxical effect: It made things better by first making them worse. Brown led to desegregation of the boarder South, but not in the Deep South. There, Brown's effect was to radicalize the white population. Before "Brown", Southerners were inclined to allow Jim Crow to be chipped away - the desegregation of higher education and public accommodation caused little or no fuss, and the opposition to voting rights was hardly insurmountable. Southern politicians in the pre-Brown era downplayed the racial element and focused on common 1940s and 1950s era issues: social programs and communist-baiting.

But after Brown, moderation in the South was dead. Rallying against the Northern intervention, moderate Southern politicians either lost their job (Alabama governor Big Jim Folsom) or transformed into fire-breathing segregationist demagogues (the infamous successor of Folsom, George Wallace, who had been a relative moderate in the 1940s and early 50s, as evidenced by his refusal to follow the Dixiecrats in 1948). Accommodation was out - resistance and rebellion became the rule for Southern whites.

The growing belligerency of Southerners played right into the hand of the new generation of social activists, led by Martin Luther King. With boycotts, "Freedom Rides", sit ins, and mass demonstrations, the protestors courted Southern violence. With the flames fanned by segregationist political leadership, Southerners lashed out against schoolchildren, white liberal college students, and ordinary middle class African Americans. The national opinion, formerly weary of forced desegregation, swung. Buoyed by public opinion, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson pushed through Congress a radical Civil Rights agenda. Now King and his supporters had the government on their side, and the opposition to desegregation crumbled.

Thus, Klarman argues, by striking at the heart of segregation, the Supreme Court's decision transformed the struggle for Civil Rights from a gradualist movement to a radical one. This is how, because of "Brown", Jim Crow came to an end: not in a whimper, but in a bang.
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on January 6, 2012
I will admit that I only started this book a few days ago and I am only at 5% completion (I bought it for the Kindle), but I am struggling a bit. Not with the subject matter, because I am a lawyer, but with the way in which it is written. Thus far I feel like I am reading a treatise for a civil rights course in law school. If that is the intention, then mission accomplished and I stand corrected. However, if this book was written for all who wish to be enlightened on Jim Crow and Civil Rights, I would try another text first.

The author does state up front that it is meant to be factual. And it is. It is disturbing to understand our nation's history - a history not so long ago. We are a young country and the systematic intentional disfranchisement of blacks is incredibly disturbing, especially in our judicial system and government. Though the original intent of the book may not necessarily be to incite passion, I think one may have to be emotionally dead inside not to be moved, shocked,or horrified. And ultimately thankful that the jurisprudence of our Courts (and public opinion) have evolved.

That said, I really feel there's a way to represent this information in a fashion more suited for reading than for study. When I first bought the book, I thought perhaps it was for a general audience - a way of helping the nonlawyer understand a fascinating but complex topic. Upon initial reading, I am now guessing that the target audiences are law students, scholars, lawyers, judges or perhaps government actors - not the enlightened citizen.

I believe if the amazon peruser is interested in understanding more about Jim Crow laws and our Courts' struggles with these laws under our Constitution, look for another book or, better yet, ask a civil rights lawyer or professor to lead a discussion group featuring this text. Again, this book, in my reading thus far, gives a fantastic factual picture of the interplay. It would be a great reference if you are a law student writing a paper for a civil rights course. The author is clearly an expert. That said, I don't believe it's written for casual reading, Starbucks in hand, feet up on the coffee table. It's a more "formal read" if you get my meaning. EXAMPLE: It's filled with deliberate transitions - reminiscent of thesis writing - you need to get to the next point because it was in your outline, so you use lots of "According tos and Moreovers" to move from topic to topic. If you are a young law student, keep your Black's Law Dictionary nearby. I also suggest you make sure you have an internet connection or 3G/4G access for your iPad, computer or phone while you read, in case you need to Google a few terms.

I cannot imagine how humbled I would be to meet the author, me being a new attorney, not even wet enough behind the ears to speak in court without sweating. However as a journalism undergrad and a pretty decent blogger, I think if the target is the general enlightened citizen, it's a little off center.
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on January 20, 2014
This book is insightful but painfully repetitious. I could have eliminated two hundred pages and the result would be the same. Klarman's work argues the same thing over and over again: Supreme Court justices and the decisions they make are products of their time. Justice does not transcend context, and a successful verdict must link jurisprudence with a prudent understanding of what is socially acceptable and enforceable in its time. Thats basically it. 468 pages.
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on September 26, 2004
Having had the opportunity to hear Professor Klarman speak, I knew before reading the book that it would be a great work of scholarship. I was blown away. Meticulously researched, eminently readable, and full of the details necessary to support any conclusions about that troubling time in American history. It's a must read for every law student, historian, and American.
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on November 25, 2005
This work is full of interesting, insightful, and provocative ideas that will make readers rethink the impact of the Supreme Court's civil rights decisions. I predict that the revisionist arguments in this masterpiece will some day become the orthodoxy. This book will be read by many future generations of American history and law students.
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on August 26, 2004
A comprehensive account not just of civil rights legal history, but also the political and social context that Klarman shows were never far in the background of court decisions regarding civil rights. The book doesn't just chronical events, but uses history to test and illustrate theories for why courts decide cases as they do.
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on February 9, 2014
I would highly recommend this book. It has taught me a lot about the history of the civil rights movement. All the details that were left out in the past, I was able to read and understand.
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on June 5, 2013
This book came in very handy for my Civil Rights paper in college. Found out a lot about the Civil Rights Movement through this book.
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on April 20, 2013
Brillaintly written and richly detailed. Can't say enough good things about it. The very best of its kind. Enjoyed every word.
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