Master, Slave, Husband, Wife: an epic journey from slavery to freedom by Ilyon Woo is the story of Ellen Craft, a light-skinned enslaved woman and skilled seamstress, and her husband William, also enslaved and a skilled cabinet maker, and their 1848 flight from their masters in Macon, Georgia to Philadelphia, Boston, Canada and England. Ellen binds her breasts and dons gentleman’s clothing to disguise herself as William’s master. He dutifully protects her during the dangers of their thousand-mile journey, from spies hired by slave masters to return them to Georgia, from suspicious railroad officials, ferry and carriage operators, and random racists posing physical threats. Their journey is aided by White abolitionists in the Underground Railroad like William Lloyd Garrison and Black Freemen, like Wendell Phillips and William Wells Brown. With Brown, the courageous couple joined the international lecture circuit in the fight against slavery. They drew huge audiences, but their celebrity also made them targets of renewed efforts to capture them by their former owners, intent on reinforcing the power of the Union through adherence to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.
To their consternation, they learned they were not safe, even in the North, even in abolitionist Boston, nor in Canada. I saw a new side of Daniel Webster who, even though he opposed slavery, supported that despicable law, viewing it as a compromise to save the Union. I learned about many others, Black and White, who defended Ellen and William when their owners sought to use the law to recapture them.
Along the way, they managed to trade their skills in needlework and cabinetry for a much longed-for education and finally learned to read and write. In 1860, they published the story of their dangerous flight and ultimate success. They raised a family in England, and William traveled to Africa to fight the roots of slavery there. When they eventually returned to Georgia, Ellen and William made it their mission to educate those who had been emancipated after the Civil War. The book was a NY Times best seller last year, one of the best books of 2023, and the animosities and collaborations of 175 years ago, the love and hatred, the inspiration and the inhumanity, resonate strongly today. Highly recommended.
Fists & Flowers: Leaflets from the Sixties by Richard Hertzberg is an imaginatively conceived and finely executed history of the social, political and cultural changes brought about in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. (Full disclosure: Hertzberg was a schoolmate of my husband more than half a century ago at U.C. Berkeley, where the “The Movement” was launched.) He organized this history around the leaflets and fliers of the era, starting with the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at Berkeley. The book is 8 ½ x 11” to reflect the actual size and impact of the fliers. The contents and designs of the messages wonderfully capture the turbulent history.
Hertzberg’s finely written commentary enables “Fists & Flowers” to tell vividly a story too often lost today. It was a time of authentic grassroots populism when pro-democracy activists would go to class, organize meetings all day, write their fliers and leaflets into the middle of the night, churn out a thousand copies by mimeograph machines, and have them ready to hand out next day to students entering campus by multiple gates, alerted to the task by rudimentary phone trees. The Free Speech Movement brought together pro-Goldwater Republicans on the right with fair housing and other activists on the left to protest the University’s policies barring on-campus political speech, fundraising, and activism. The Free Speech movement laid the groundwork for campus actions across the country and led to widespread support for the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, environmental, gay rights and women’s rights movements.
The rich selection of leaflets from all these movements retells the Herculean efforts to change the course of events. It is a history of reforms that today’s right wing MAGA and Trump-controlled Supreme Court are working hard to annul. This book is must reading for boomers, but it should also be read by younger generations too often clueless about what their parents’ and grandparents’ generations struggled to achieve.
What Works in Community News by Dan Kennedy and Ellen Clegg, for those who bemoan the loss of vibrant, meaningful connected local news, is a reason for optimism. Thanks to competing technologies, multiple platforms offering new promotional options for advertisers, and acquisition of newspapers by hedge funds interested only in wringing the last dollar in profits, hundreds of local news outlets have gone out of business in the last decade. City and town residents across the country have gone through multiple election cycles with inadequate information, and government officials have been free to function without the scrutiny of the fourth estate, both trends imperiling democracy. In addition to chronicling the problems, Kennedy and Clegg have traveled the country finding new models of local news operations offering solutions for these news deserts. Northeastern journalism professor Kennedy, a friend and former writer for one of my alma maters, the Boston Phoenix, and Clegg, former editorial page editor of the Boston Globe, have uncovered some nascent success stories, reasons to hope.
While there are hundreds of examples across the country where concerned citizens are innovating, the authors focus on ten that are representative of different approaches and diverse locales, ranging from affluent white suburbs to underserved minority communities, from struggling rural farm counties to gritty urban hubs. The book gets very granular in terms of how these news entities, often non-profits, develop revenue streams, run their newsrooms, develop their stories and meet the needs of the communities they serve.
In some respects, I see my own life playing out, from the beginning of my career 50+ years ago in a start-up newspaper funded by local members of the anti-Vietnam War/peace movement, to working in a successful division of a national corporate news behemoth, to today, when I’m involved with a new online publication, the Newton Beacon. No matter where you intersect with local news, this book has useful ideas and potent reminders of the centrality of responsible, professional news reporting to the civic life of a local or regional community.