When I was an undergraduate, I noticed that there were certain books that seemed to be unavoidable (at least at my liberal arts college). They were assigned in many classes, and they were discussed in many others. Reading them seemed to be a secret requirement for graduation. These “liberal-arts essentials” included Plato’s Republic, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Lockes’ Two Treatises on Government (especially the second), Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, and John Bergers’ Ways of Seeing.
Another was William Sheridan Allen’s The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945 (Quadrangle Books, 1965). It explained the rise of National Socialism in a new and revealing way: from the bottom up. In Sheridan Allen’s story, the local politicians, shopkeepers, and housewives of Northeim (Hanover) moved to the fore, while Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels remained in the background. Here the locals “made history,” and they did so ways that we would all recognize from our own local communities.
Charles McKinney, Jr. has written a similar book, though one with a much happier ending. Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina (UPA, 2010) tells the tale of how one small city in the South negotiated the rough transition from Jim Crow to Civil Rights and beyond. In McKinney’s telling, the people of Wilson (North Carolina) make history; Martin Luther King, et al. remain off stage. These common folks–both Black and White–discuss, argue, protest, sue, threaten, fight, organize, lobby, and vote their way to a “greater freedom” over the course of many decades. In the pages of McKinney’s fine book, we see how Civil Rights actually happened “on the ground.” I hope it becomes required reading as Sheridan Allen’s book once was.