Although the history of the civil rights movement is dominated by the larger-than-life personalities of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and George Wallace, the more compelling lesson is that it was really a movement comprising courageous, nameless Americans who put their lives on the line to guarantee the freedoms we all enjoy today.
That lesson is at the heart of David Kushner's "Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb," a riveting account of two families -- one African-American, the other white and Jewish -- who worked together in the summer of 1957 against tremendous odds to begin the inevitable integration of America's first suburbs.
This fight against racism and mob violence did not occur in Alabama or Mississippi but, instead, in Levittown, Pa., where activists Lew and Bea Wechsler helped Bill and Daisy Myers move into an all-white suburb. Although the Myerses were not civil rights activists themselves, they were hardly naive about what would follow.
"They were well aware of the gravity of their decision," Kushner writes. "While they always had, as Daisy put it, 'a faith that right would triumph,' they considered the potential consequences. Every night after the boys were asleep, they would sit on the edge of the bed and ask themselves, 'How much can we take? How much can the children take?'"
It turns out the Myerses could endure a lot. Overnight their three-bedroom ranch house was the scene of boiling mobs waving Confederate flags, burning crosses, breaking windows and shouting hateful epithets.
How did this come about? Kushner, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, builds a strong case against the creators of such exclusionary communities, the Levitts. Abraham, and his sons William and Alfred, became this nation's biggest builders, cashing in on the housing needs of returning World War II veterans. Levitt & Sons built thousands of identical, affordable homes stocked with shiny new appliances. Strict covenants regarding lawn care and parking were written into the leases, along with the following language: "The Tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian Race."
The Levitts used their own narrow definition of Caucasian. Communists were not welcome, and even though the Levitts were Jewish, they did not want Jews living in their homogeneous communities. As William Levitt wrote in his weekly column, "No one realizes better than Levitt that an undesirable class can quickly ruin a community."
Although the whites-only clause was removed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against it, the exclusionary policy remained until the Myerses turned public opinion and the rule of the law against the Levitts. The support for Bill and Daisy Myers from the Wechslers and from people across the country is a heartwarming subtext to "Levittown." As Daisy wrote in her journal, "Bigots are a small minority and the American people, for the most part, are kind and tolerant at heart."
Stephen J. Lyons reviews books from his home in Illinois.