We Shall Not Be Moved
The Jackson Woolworth's Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired
Once in a great while, a certain photograph captures the essence of an era: Three people--one black and two white--demonstrate for equality at a lunch counter while a horde of cigarette-smoking hotshots pour catsup, sugar, and other condiments on the protesters' heads and down their backs. This iconic image strikes a chord for all who lived through those turbulent times of a changing America.
The photograph, which plays a central role in the book's perspectives from frontline participants, caught a moment when the raw virulence of racism crashed against the defiance of visionaries. It now shows up regularly in books, magazines, videos, and museums that endeavor to explain America's largely nonviolent civil rights battles of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yet for all of the photograph's prominence, the people in it and the events they inspired have only been sketched in civil rights histories. It is not well known, for instance, that it was this event that sparked to life the civil rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963. Sadly, this same sit-in and the protest events it inspired led to the assassination of Medgar Evers, who was leading the charge in Jackson for the NAACP.
Winner of the 2014 Lillian Smith Book Award, We Shall Not Be Moved puts the Jackson Woolworth's sit-in into historical context. Part multifaceted biography, part well-researched history, this gripping narrative explores the hearts and minds of those participating in this harrowing sit-in experience. It was a demonstration without precedent in Mississippi--one that set the stage for much that would follow in the changing dynamics of the state's racial politics, particularly in its capital city.
It's all here: solid research, relevant history, honed prose. Masterpiece is not too grand a word to describe the excellence of M. J. O'Brien's enduring work.- Colman McCarthy, former columnist for the Washington Post and now director, Center for Teaching Peace, Washington, D.C.
Michael O'Brien has written a detailed history and fascinating study of one of the iconic moments of the modern civil rights movement and the powerful effect it had. . . . Avoiding the triumphalism of most civil rights history, O'Brien shows the human weaknesses common to us all, analyzing the emotions and maneuvering that characterized some of civil rights history. Readers will enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at an important event in movement history.- From the foreword by Julian Bond, chairman emeritus, NAACP
With exhaustive research conducted over a decade, O'Brien interviewed many of the participants and utilized archival materials, films, and secondary sources. . . . Part biography, part traditional history, We Shall Not Be Moved is a welcome addition to an expanding field of local movement studies.- Tony Gass, The Journal of African American History
We have all seen the photograph. Three weary protesters, wearing milkshakes and mustard, sit stoically as dozens of young white men gleefully harass them at a Jackson, Mississippi, Woolworth's lunch counter. The picture, taken by twenty-two-year-old Jackson Daily News photographer Fred Blackwell, captures the chaos of the May 1963 confrontation. . . . This extraordinary image inspired M. J. O'Brien's meticulously researched exploration of the tumultuous period of protest that engulfed Jackson for several weeks. A corporate communications executive with a passion for research, O'Brien spent two decades tracking down and interviewing more than three dozen protesters and their antagonists, including the reclusive Anne Moody, the unrepentant segregationist D. C. Sullivan, and a transformed Fred Blackwell in one of his only interviews about the picture. . . . O'Brien's interviews provide a richness of detail that will surprise and enlighten even those scholars intimately familiar with the Mississippi movement. . . . [S]cholars and lay readers alike will find much to learn and enjoy in this book. O'Brien's labor of love has produced a fascinating account of this important civil rights story.- Chris Myers Asch, Journal of Southern History (Volume LXXX, No. 3; August 2014)
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's 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, American Historical Review (June 2014)
I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading Mike O'Brien's book about the Woolworth Sit-in in Jackson. I thought I knew that story pretty well, but soon realized that Mike (not a professional historian) had done about ten times the research I had done on Jackson, the Movement, Medgar Evers, the Kennedy Administration, the Citizens' Council, local black leadership--you name it. This book is full of new information and insights. And it is beautifully written, from the narrative of the sit-in itself to the detailed descriptions of the major players. This book will work especially well in undergraduate courses, either on the Movement or in U. S. survey courses.- John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi and many other works