Wednesday, August 27, 2014

2014 Lillian Smith Book Award Recipient Reviewed by 2013 Recipient

On Sunday, August 31st during the Decatur Book Festival, a Lillian Smith Book Award will be presented to M.J. O'Brien, author of "We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth Sit-in and the Movement it Inspired."

"The book . . . easily draws the reader into the emotion, tragedy, and messiness of movement activity. O'Brien neatly dissects an iconic moment encapsulated by photographer Fred Blackwell's image of the Jackson Woolworth sit-in on May 28, 1963, showing a mob of white youth pouring condiments and insults on the seated protesters. He then moves from the previous sit-in demonstrations in Jackson to the immediate and long-term reverberations of the three-hour ordeal the activists endured that day. O'Brien rubs off some of the movement's gilt by narrating intra-movement struggles that thwarted cohesiveness among activists when segregationists frustrated their attempts at every turn, then killed their most visible leader, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, two weeks after the sit-in. He does this by collating biographical narratives of the subjects of the photograph, both the abused and their abusers, as well as those—from Evers and the journalists and photographers to the police and politicians—not in the photograph but who helped to frame the scene.

"O'Brien uses this image to spin a sophisticated and effective narrative focused on the planning and aftermath of this incident that publicly showcased such vitriolic displays of human hatred. He helps us understand why the participants' paths crossed in Woolworth's that day, what that meeting did to them, and how they made sense of it afterward, complicating the factors that can drive, feed, and impede a movement. By contrasting the ugliness and human weaknesses on both sides with the bravery and fortitude of a few, O'Brien has crafted a beautifully written text that transcends the local story with a simple, effective, and appealing structure that will lend itself to the many other movement campaigns with equally iconic images.

"O'Brien's writing reflects his journalistic skills—he knows how to tell a story, and how to analyze images, interview his subjects, and craft tight prose that engages readers and elicits empathy for those on both sides. By structuring the book through the dissection of an image, he provides a lesson in how to "read" photographs and weigh the cultural, historical, and political significance of an image by understanding the individuals pictured, those the photographer chose not to frame, and the photographer himself."

--Franҫoise N. Hamlin, 2013 Lillian Smith Book Award Recipient, writing in American Historical Review, June 2014

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