For many of us the Civil Rights movement is epitomized by Martin Luther King, Jr. It is
unfortunate that we seldom recall the contributions and sacrifices made by young men and women
whose names and accomplishments are overlooked in standard accounts of the 1950s and 1960s.
Andrew B Lewis’s book goes a long way toward correcting that oversight.
The Shadows of Youth covers the early years of the movement, before the average
American realized there was a movement. College students Diane Nash, Julian Bond, and Marion
Barry, among others, were the tip of the iceberg. Around the country, and particularly in the
southern states where Jim Crow still ruled, kids—black and white—were breaking
out of the traditional mindset. They refused to accept the status quo, and with the courage
found only in youth, they took action.
Wiser minds would have predicted that impetuous protests and spontaneous sit-ins were
doomed to failure. Had older activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. been in charge, plans for
those events might still be in the works today. As Lewis’s subjects remind us often within
the pages of this book, it is only in hindsight that we see the passion-fueled strategies
behind the improbable but significant progress made by the Student Nonviolent Coordination
Committee and other grass-roots organizations. As an example: Years of negotiation, lobbying,
and business-as-usual politics had resulted in negligible improvements in civil rights. One
of the biggest steps toward equal rights occurred when Diane Nash, a Fisk student, impulsively
pushed Nashville’s mayor, Ben West, to declare publicly that he thought lunch counters should
Lewis lays out the story of these bright and courageous students in The Shadows of Youth.
Drawing on an impressive list of publications as well as interviews with five of the key
players in the movement, he describes events and personalities that were little known at the
time and are almost forgotten now. Beyond Birmingham and Montgomery, thousands of activists
led sit-ins, marches, and Freedom Rides that ultimately gained the attention of the world and
forced white Americans to take an honest look at ourselves. There isn’t room in a single book
to cover the efforts of every individual who contributed, but Lewis’s well-researched work
provides insight into the brief and turbulent years that turned America upside down and
shook out the truth.