“As I was reading Civil Rights Journey I found myself becoming totally captivated by the story that it conveyed. So many aspects of it resonated with me and brought forth feelings and emotions that I experienced during the years that it portrays. The depth and complexity of Joe Howell’s Nashville, revealed from the perspective of his life within his family and community, fleshed out the essence that was absent from my personal experience in that city as a student (when I was sixteen to eighteen years old) at Fisk University. It introduced me to a community that I never had the opportunity to know. With the exception of a few exchange students from Oberlin and a few international students at Fisk, my social contact with the white world was limited to a few Fisk professors and a handful of Vanderbilt students who were members of the Newman Club. On reflection it amazes me just how totally and methodically institutionalized segregation was at that time. The separation of races (and classes) could not have been more precise and decisive (and impassive?) if the scalpel of a skilled surgeon had brought it about.
Civil Rights Journey is an account of a young man’s coming of age, a young man shaped early in life by the crucibles of polio and segregation (both by decree and by custom) and later by that of the civil rights movement. Joe Howell’s story depicts the effects of human vulnerability and of human cruelty. The lingering effects of polio made him at times the object of bullying and derision, perhaps thus increasing his sensitivity to such cruelties manifested in the system of segregation. The reader shares the hopes, doubts, and at times despair that form Joe as he tries to wrest meaning from his experiences and determine what his path in life should be. Along his path Joe encounters and tries to reconcile the complexities and contradictions of the philosophies of members of SNCC and the Black Panthers, as well as those of his seminary colleagues and other volunteers who participated in that civil rights summer. The structure of this memoir is enhanced by the voice of Embry Howell, Joe’s wife. It complements Joe’s well. The thread of her voice is woven into the fabric of Joe’s story in the account of the civil rights summer that they shared, adding a richness of texture to that account. The story of the Holt family, also, is a compelling part of the memoir. It enriches the narrative. The Holts were a black family who embraced the Howells and added to their understanding of the reality not only of segregation in their community of Albany, Georgia, but also of injustices across our nation. Their story is a vivid portrait of the complexity of the black experience. The reader comes to know and care about the Holts and is inspired by the outcome of their story.
Civil Rights Journey offers the reader a multilayered account of a young man born in the pre–civil rights South, sheltered by a code of customs that privileged the white middle class at the expense of blacks and poor whites, and of his formation and moral development shaped by the crucible of his civil rights journey.”
-Janet Hampton, January 2011