If you know Calvin Trillin only as a humorist, you may be unaware that he has written penetrating essays on race in America. “Jackson, 1964” is a collection of these essays, most from the 1960s and ’70s and all originally written for the New Yorker magazine.
One of the weaknesses of collections of reportage that span decades is that they can be heavy on facts and light on analysis. But an advantage is that they give a snapshot of an era. And that’s what “Jackson, 1964” gives us: a chilling portrait of the discrimination, student protests and police shootings that have characterized African-American life.
The episodes chronicled here span the country, from the Delaware National Guard patrolling Wilmington streets after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to the 1975 Seattle incident in which a white police officer pulled over an African-American driver and, in a tragic overreaction straight out of contemporary headlines, shot him in the head.
That article isn’t the only one that feels modern and urgent. Essay after essay reminds us that the history of this struggle consists of events that easily could happen today. A 1972 piece describes tensions between Italians and African-Americans in predominantly black Newark, N.J., over a proposed public housing project. In 1970, a black man is arrested in Houston for selling marijuana and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
One of Trillin’s greatest gifts is his reporter’s eye for the telling detail. That skill is very much in evidence here, from pieces on Brigham Young University’s reaffirmation that priesthood orders “would remain closed to Negroes,” to the controversy over New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Zulu parade, with African-American marchers in blackface and a “King” dressed in gold boots and a grass skirt.
In the title piece, Trillin describes efforts to register African-American voters in Mississippi and offers a firsthand account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s calm but forceful refutation of a white man’s claim that King’s activities did more harm than good. And Trillin has written updates to each piece, most of which reinforce the sad reality that in some ways, little has changed since the Freedom Rides of 1961.
The writing is sometimes too detached for the racial injustices described, but these essays still feature shocking passages, as when, in 1969, opponents of mandatory forced busing in Denver argue that “any time white people are expected to associate with black people, they ought to have a choice in the matter.” As Trillin states in the introduction, “the dream Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of has not arrived.”
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
By: Calvin Trillin.
Publisher: Random House, 275 pages, $27.