Book Review of “The Rock and The River” by Kekla Magoon

In this absorbing coming of age story, you will learn along the way something about why this country has had a vested interest in deifying the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and in vilifying the reputation of his more activist rivals for power in the black community.

In the late 1960’s, Dr. King was battling the more militant elements among the black leadership over the direction that the fight for civil liberties would take. (This was not a new conflict; Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois also went head-to-head on this issue.) Groups like the Black Panthers saw the non-violent, “gradualism” approach of Dr. King as too slow and too tolerant of abuses against black citizens. As Paul Robeson observed years before: “[I]n no other area of our society are lawbreakers granted an indefinite time to comply with the provisions of the law.” Magoon explains the philosophy of The Panthers, on whom this book focuses, in her afterword:

“The Panthers rejected ‘passive resistance’ in favor of self-defense and self-determination. They believed it was up to black communities to demand equality, defend their rights, and look out for their own needs. [To this end they] initiated landmark community organizing efforts to bring much-needed services into black neighborhoods. Their programs included free neighborhood health clinics, drug-awareness education, GED classes, clothing supply, tutoring, legal aid and referrals, free dental care, free ambulances, bussing families to visit loved ones in prison, and free breakfast programs for school-age children.”

In Magoon’s story set in Chicago in 1968, thirteen-year-old Sam and his seventeen-year old brother “Stick” are compelled to confront the difference between these two philosophies of the black civil rights movement, and to make a choice. Their father, Roland Childs, is a well-known (fictional) colleague of Dr. King’s and an important figure in his own right in the non-violence movement. But the impatience and optimism of youth are powerful catalysts. Stick begins to sneak out of the house to attend meetings of the Black Panthers, in direct violation of their father’s wishes.

Sam, younger and more trapped by the tug between parental worship and rebellion, not to mention the pull between love for his father and love for his brother, can’t decide what to do. He is also influenced by his sweet and smart girlfriend, Maxie, who is drawn to the Black Panthers. Faced with Sam’s vacillation, Stick tells him:

“‘Well, you can’t be the rock and the river, Sam.

‘The rock is high ground,’ Stick explained to Sam. ‘Solid. Immovable.’ ‘The river is motion, turmoil, rage. As the river flows, it wonders what it would be like to be so still, to take a breath, to rest. But the rock will always wonder what lies around the bend in the stream.’

‘I want to be both,’ [Sam] whispered.”

In the midst of the boys’ own political growth and turmoil, Dr. King’s assassination takes place, and Chicago erupts in riots. King’s death makes a profound impression on Sam:

“Dr. King’s speeches and his life were all about peace and brotherhood, about finding justice. And we listened. Yet, all we had learned was that when you stand up, you get shot down.”

The Panthers carried guns to protect themselves, but their purpose was deterrence, and in fact, in those years, blacks needed deterrence from the violence of the police perhaps even more than now. Ultimately their goal was changing hearts and minds, not killing. As Sam’s father (who, inexplicably to Sam, cooperated sub rosa with the Panthers) pointed out, “People are more afraid of ideas than of guns.”

Nevertheless, the story ends with guns and ends tragically, as it unfortunately did with dismaying frequency back in those years. And because I am part of a family with educators, I hear – also with dismaying frequency – “why teach that history to today’s blacks? It will only stir them up and make them angry.” And so it is not often taught. And the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for nonviolence is hyped and praised and honored with a special holiday.

The author states in an interview she gave to Zetta Elliott that she wanted to write this book because in school she only learned about the champions of non-violent protest. She never heard about all the social programs of the Black Panthers, nor about the effect that the threat of more direct action had on the government’s desire to appease Dr. King and elevate his reputation to the detriment of his rivals. With this book, she aims to contribute to a more balanced presentation of the history of the movement.

Evaluation: This book won the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and has been named a 2010 ALA Notable Book for Children and a YALSA 2010 Best Books for Young Adults. It is an excellent way to find out more about relatively recent American history in a gripping format that provides a fair look at both sides of the question of civil rights strategy. I believe it is a must-read for those born after the events described in this book.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Aladdin, 2009

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