Sunday Salon – Review of “The Rock and The River” by Kekla Magoon

The Sunday

In this absorbing coming of age story, you will learn along the way something about why this country has had a vested interest in deifying the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and in vilifying the reputation of his activist rivals for power in the black community.

In the late 1960’s, Dr. King was battling the more militant elements among the black leadership over the direction that the fight for civil liberties would take. (This was not a new conflict; Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois also went head-to-head on this issue.) Groups like the Black Panthers saw the non-violent, “gradualism” approach of Dr. King as too slow and too tolerant of abuses against black citizens. As Paul Robeson observed years before: “[I]n no other area of our society are lawbreakers granted an indefinite time to comply with the provisions of the law.” Magoon explains the philosophy of The Panthers, on whom this book focuses, in her afterword:

“The Panthers rejected ‘passive resistance’ in favor of self-defense and self-determination. They believed it was up to black communities to demand equality, defend their rights, and look out for their own needs. [To this end they] initiated landmark community organizing efforts to bring much-needed services into black neighborhoods. Their programs included free neighborhood health clinics, drug-awareness education, GED classes, clothing supply, tutoring, legal aid and referrals, free dental care, free ambulances, bussing families to visit loved ones in prison, and free breakfast programs for school-age children.”

In Magoon’s story set in Chicago in 1968, thirteen-year-old Sam and his seventeen-year old brother “Stick” are compelled to confront the difference between these two philosophies of the black civil rights movement, and to make a choice. Their father, Roland Childs, is a well-known (fictional) colleague of Dr. King’s and an important figure in his own right in the non-violence movement. But the impatience and optimism of youth are powerful catalysts. Stick begins to sneak out of the house to attend meetings of the Black Panthers, in direct violation of their father’s wishes.

Sam, younger and more trapped by the tug between parental worship and rebellion, not to mention the pull between love for his father and love for his brother, can’t decide what to do. He is also influenced by his sweet and smart girlfriend, Maxie, who is drawn to the Black Panthers. Faced with Sam’s vacillation, Stick tells him:

“‘Well, you can’t be the rock and the river, Sam.

‘The rock is high ground,’ Stick explained to Sam. ‘Solid. Immovable.’ ‘The river is motion, turmoil, rage. As the river flows, it wonders what it would be like to be so still, to take a breath, to rest. But the rock will always wonder what lies around the bend in the stream.’

‘I want to be both,’ [Sam] whispered.”

In the midst of the boys’ own political growth and turmoil, Dr. King’s assassination takes place, and Chicago erupts in riots. King’s death makes a profound impression on Sam:

“Dr. King’s speeches and his life were all about peace and brotherhood, about finding justice. And we listened. Yet, all we had learned was that when you stand up, you get shot down.”

The Panthers carried guns to protect themselves, but their purpose was deterrence, and in fact, in those years, blacks needed deterrence from the violence of the police perhaps even more than now. Ultimately their goal was changing hearts and minds, not killing. As Sam’s father (who, inexplicably to Sam, cooperated sub rosa with the Panthers) pointed out, “People are more afraid of ideas than of guns.”

Nevertheless, the story ends with guns and ends tragically, as it unfortunately did with dismaying frequency back in those years. And because I am part of a family with educators, I hear – also with dismaying frequency – “why teach that history to today’s blacks? It will only stir them up and make them angry.” And so it is not often taught. And the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for nonviolence is hyped and praised and honored with a special holiday.

The author states in an interview she gave to Zetta Elliott that she wanted to write this book because in school she only learned about the champions of non-violent protest. She never heard about all the social programs of the Black Panthers, nor about the effect that the threat of more direct action had on the government’s desire to appease Dr. King and elevate his reputation to the detriment of his rivals. With this book, she aims to contribute to a more balanced presentation of the history of the movement.

Evaluation: This book won the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and has been named a 2010 ALA Notable Book for Children and a YALSA 2010 Best Books for Young Adults. It is an excellent way to find out more about relatively recent American history in a gripping format that provides a fair look at both sides of the question of civil rights strategy. I believe it is a must-read for those born after the events described in this book.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Aladdin, 2009

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16 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of “The Rock and The River” by Kekla Magoon

  1. Barbara says:

    I remember the press in those days always belittled the efforts of the Black Panthers to provide social services, presenting it as a coverup for violence. Most people had a very low opinion of the Black Panthers and probably still do. It’s always important to get the truth out in the open objectively so we can judge for ourselves.

  2. This sounds fascinating. I took a course on social movements in college and we studied the civil rights movement in depth. I’ll keep this book in mind.

  3. Sounds great! I remember meeting the author at last year’s BEA and wanting to read it since then. And I guess I was born after the events in the book so I must!

  4. bermudaonion says:

    I was a little young to remember everything about this time in our history, but my biggest memory of the Black Panthers was them boycotting stores that they felt violated civil rights. I do think this book sounds like a great read!

  5. I thought the author did an outstanding job of presenting the Black Panthers in all their complexity and agree with you 100% on your evaluation, including your discussion of why Dr. King’s work is emphasized in schools. In fact, Dr. King became more forceful in his denunciations of racism, class divisions, poverty, and the Vietnam War later on, something that’s also not taught in schools. Magoon’s depiction of the help Sam’s father offers to Bucky and the other Panthers, I think, is an acknowledgement of this reality.

    • Thanks for your comment, Lyn!

      There is a little vignette in Book 3 (“At Canaan’s Edge”) of Taylor Branch’s masterful chronicle of the King years that I think so well illustrates the difference between the philosophy of the Panthers and of King. King had joined Black Panther Stokely Carmichael at a protest in Mississippi over the illegal restraints on black voting rights. A reporter asked Carmichael, “What do you mean when you shout black power to these people back here?” “I mean,” Carmichael replied, “that the only way that black people in Mississippi will create an attitude where they will not be shot down like pigs, where they will not be shot down like dogs, is when they get the power where they constitute a majority in counties to institute justice.” “I feel, however,” King Interjected, “that while believing firmly that power is necessary, that it would be difficult to me to use the phrase black power because of the connotative meaning that it has for many people.”

      As you say, their goals were the same; there was just disagreement on the best road to get there. But what a shame one whole side of the argument has been squelched!

  6. Margot says:

    Another excellent resource you’ve mentioned here – this time in fictional form. During the early/mid sixties I was teaching in an all-black school and heard all the talk in the teacher’s break room. I learned first hand about the options for blacks mentioned in this story. I also learned the difference between what was reported in the newspaper and what was happening in real life. It taught me to be very skeptical of what news organizations have to say. I’m so glad this story is getting so much attention. That part of our recent past should not be over-looked.

  7. EL Fay says:

    Thanks for the True Blood links! 😀

    I remember on last MLK Day the progressive blogosphere was full of articles denouncing his “Santaclausification.” I didn’t realize it, but apparently MLK was a lot more radical than we like to remember. Apparently, he was a socialist who was pretty critical of the US. Same with Helen Keller, who’s gotten the same treatment.

  8. Alyce says:

    That is an amazing quote about the difference between the rock and the river. This sounds like a very informative book. I knew about the philosophical differences between the groups, but never knew about the social programs of the Black Panthers.

    Also – that quote about people being more afraid of ideas is so true (you don’t have to look any further than banned books for that).

  9. Frances says:

    Really enjoyed this book too. What was especially interesting for me in sharing this with young readers at my school is how unaware young blacks are today that any other blacks might have opposed Dr. King’s message of peace and love. The politics of protest in a more aggressive form does not come to students until high school.

  10. Valerie says:

    This seems like a thought-provoking book — it does seem to show that there were different paths towards the goal of racial equality. It is sad, though, that there is still some ways to go in many places, regardless (I’m thinking about prejudice in general, also).

    I’ve just added this to my books-to-look-for list.

  11. Staci says:

    What an excellent review on this book. I will have to make sure I order this one in the fall and I definitely want to read it.

  12. zibilee says:

    Beautiful review! I don’t know much about this subject, but it sounds like I could probably learn a lot from the book, and also hand it down to my teenagers at home. Thanks for sharing this excellent review. I will be looking for this one!

  13. stacybuckeye says:

    I know so little about the Black Panthers and I’m guessing from your review that this would be real eye opener. I don’t read muh YA, but I;m definitely adding this to my wish list.

  14. Jenners says:

    Excellent review!! I agree with you that (most) of us are only taught about Martin Luther King and the rest of the movement is left untaught and unsaid. This sounds like a wonderful book for bridging the two worlds and presenting a fuller view of history.

  15. Pingback: Review: The Rock and the River, Kekla Magoon « Jenny's Books

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