Linda's Reviews > Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas

Arsnick by Jennifer Jensen Wallach
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's review
Jul 17, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, non-fiction, highly-recommended, civil-rights
Read from July 17 to October 10, 2011

If you were to judge by the existing scholarship on the U.S. civil rights movement, you could be excused for thinking that not much of any interest happened in Arkansas beyond the desegregation of Central High School in 1957. While that signature struggle is obviously well known, it is also true that the biggest swath of scholarship on the civil rights movement is focused on other places. That is a grand shame, because as important as the headline events in those places are, they still represent only the tip of the iceberg of the massive social change happening in the South in the 1960s. The great bulk of the iceberg – that which, so far, has remained largely under the surface – is the demanding and often perilous day-to-day work of committed activists and local people in lesser-known but equally challenging locales.

Until now, this important era in Arkansas and civil rights movement history has been woefully underexplored. But that is all about to change with the publication of Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas. This much-needed volume, a remarkable collection of academic articles, first-person accounts, and primary sources on the critical work undertaken by the activists of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Arkansas in the 1960s, is sure to become a milestone zero in scholarship on the civil rights movement in Arkansas, the point from which many future roads will emanate. It is hard to imagine that from this point onward any serious scholarship on movement history in Arkansas will not include early reference to this one-of-a-kind book.

Arsnick is as notable for the organization of its contents as it is for its subject matter, and the editors are to be commended for their especially well thought out approach to the material. Part I collects the (regrettably few) scholarly articles currently available on Arkansas SNCC all in one place. These provide a basic survey of notable names and events that serves as the background for the more detailed portrait of the era that emerges through the personal stories and recollections of participants in SNCC work in Arkansas, presented in Part II. For this reader, these individual narratives and interview transcripts are the high point of the book, providing a wonderfully multifaceted view of the history, as different details and perspectives on some significant actions – such as the risky attempt to desegregate a local McDonalds restaurant – and people – including a certain memorably-named FBI agent, Agent Smart – appear in multiple retellings. Lastly, following this section is an excellent compilation of primary-source materials in Part III, which illustrates events as they happened through contemporary field reports, personal correspondence, and local news articles.

In telling the story of SNCC in Arkansas, Arsnick’s focus is not limited to the student organizers, white and black, northern and southern, who came from outside Arkansas to advocate for change. It also tells the story of local leaders and ordinary people moved to action, people who, unlike many of the SNCC workers, would have to spend their lives among the whites they were confronting, and who had the audacity to step out of line and challenge the system at great risk to themselves and their families. While this focus reflects SNCC’s emphatically grassroots vision, it also speaks to the care taken by the book’s editors, who have not fallen into the easy (and, sadly, far too common) trap of framing the history of the civil rights movement as essentially one of a few influential leaders.

In short, Arsnick represents a meaningful step forward in Arkansas and movement history, and should inspire much new investigation and writing in the future. The primary sources used here indicate just how much more is there to be discovered in the available archives. And the personal narratives of movement participants capture vitally important perspectives. At the very least, the book ought serve as a timely reminder to historians that the recollections of these veterans themselves are a significant resource simply waiting to be explored.

One final note: Readers of Arsnick have access to a special additional resource. The book’s 2011 publication was celebrated with a symposium at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, timed to coincide with the city’s commemoration of the first Freedom Riders bus to arrive in Little Rock on July 10, 1961. To our great good fortune, parts of this symposium were filmed by C-SPAN and are available for viewing on the C-SPAN website here (Panel 1) and here (Panel 2). These feature panel presentations by many of the book's contributors and participants of the movement in Arkansas. To see and hear them tell their own stories is a unique opportunity that should not be missed.

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