On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail
By Charles E. Cobb Jr.
Algonquin Books, 388 pp.

One of the more startling revelations of Charles Cobb Jr.’s On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail, out last month from Algonquin Books, is just how rapidly the physical history of the Civil Rights movement is withering before our eyes.

In Cobb’s chapter on North Carolina alone, we find site after site that is memorialized only by a tiny plaque, if indeed the location is marked in any way at all.

Some of this is surely a consequence of the repressive violence of segregation itself, a violence that dates all the way back to the first North Carolina landmark Cobb cites: the destruction of Wilmington’s African-American newspaper The Daily Record during “the only known coup d’état in the United States,” the Nov. 10, 1898 overthrowing of an elected black-majority city government by a white mob. Cobb directs his travelers to a marker on Third Street between Nun and Church streets in Wilmington, the only marker for this singular historical event, and surely an insufficient one. It is a beguiling aesthetic problem: How can we begin to memorialize what segregation and violence have long since destroyed?

But the vanishing of our civil rights history is not merely a consequence of the destructive power of segregation; it is also the result of our own negligence in preserving key locations from our collective past. In Greensboro, the famous Woolworth’s at 132 S. Elm St. that sparked the nationwide sit-in movement on Feb. 1, 1960, has been closed since 1993. Plans to build an International Civil Rights Center and Museum on the site have been stalled since then over perennial funding issues; there is no completion date on the horizon. The city of Greensboro has renamed the corner “February One Place,” but beyond that there is almost nothing to see at the site todayuntil the ICRCM is built, tourists in search of the past will have better much luck at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where a section of the original lunch counter has been preserved.

The abandonment of the Woolworth’s site is by no means an aberration: In fact, if and when the ICRCM is eventually completed, 132 S. Elm St. will probably become the best-preserved civil rights memorial in the country overnight. Over and over in On the Road to Freedom we rediscover a crushing rejection of historical memory, finding in America a nation that is all-too-eager to let the memory of the civil rights movement recede forever into its past. One of the saddest passages in the On the Road to Freedom concerns the former location of the Royal Ice Cream Parlor in Durham, site of an early 1957 sit-in; all Cobb can write of the site is “corner of Roxboro and Dowd streets, now a vacant lot.” Ironically, the historic building’s destruction in 2006 was undertaken by a nearby predominantly black church, Union Missionary Baptist, to create more parking spots.

In Raleigh, the psychic enormity of the civil rights movement is likewise far greater than the sites that one can visit. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, founded on the campus of Shaw University in 1960 in meetings led by influential activist and organizer Ella Baker, would go on to play a central role in both the sit-in movement and the March on Washington, as well as 1964’s Freedom Summer: In the face of all this, the historical marker on Shaw’s campus seems hopelessly small.

If, as Cobb’s book implicitly suggests, the memory of segregation and the Civil Rights movement is defined by absence and by invisibility, perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in Durham itself, where the famous Hayti districtonce one of the most prosperous centers of African-American wealth and community in the countryis now mostly gone after having been carved up and demolished during the building of the Durham Freeway.

Still wrestling with the hard evidence of racism as a betrayal of its stated egalitarian creed, America seems to be have fully embraced denial as its solution. Should we really be so happy to consign the memory of both segregation and the Civil Rights movement to the murky, irrecoverable past? Can we afford to let these seminal historical events just slip out of reach?

Even Cobb himself, early in the book, falls into this trap; his introduction states that the Civil Rights movement “culminated”which might as well read endedwith the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965the moment “ordinary black people across the South” “defeated Jim Crow.” The defeat of Jim Crow is a supremely wonderful truth, a transcendent moment of spiritual victorybut Cobb’s phrasing, it seems to me, confuses a single battle for the whole war in a way that obscures the greater truth of an ongoing struggle for civil rights that has never ended because the dream has never been realized.

Worse, the tendency to memorialize the Civil Rights era as if it ended in 1965, rather than recognizing it as a still-urgent movement, plays directly into the hands of those looking for ways to reinforce the same old divisions. From the destruction of Haytiwhich occurred five years after the supposed defeat of Jim Crowto the recent tensions at Duke over the behavior of the men’s lacrosse team, it’s clear that the battle for equality continues. We’re allowing ourselves to forget a struggle that isn’t even over.

America needs a book like Cobb’s to remind us of its civil rights history, to give interested people one last chance to get in touch with this vanishing history before it fades away. And perhaps this book and others like it will help spark a popular movement that seeks to properly preserve these places and honor our shared civil rights past.

But perhaps too we need another book, one that covers the decades-long struggle for equal rights in all its victories and defeats, that puts the reader in contact with more than just printed words on the sidewalk, that recognizes and wrestles with the political consequences of losing these memoriesa book that presents the civil rights movement not as a fait accompli or a fly in amber but as a living struggle that is located not in forgotten plaques or tiny historical memorials in out-of-the-way places, but in the air we breathe, the streets we walk, and the freeways we drive every day.

Charles E. Cobb Jr. appears at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham on Monday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m.