Review of ‘By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution’ by David Talbot and Margaret Talbot

Essential reading if you want an overview of the civil rights movements in 1960s and 70s America. I would also recommend this book if you watched The Trial of the Chicago 7, as it covers some of the same material but in the context of the broader wave of anti-war protests and various liberation movements. This book also caught my eye on the library catalogue because I’d heard of the American Revolution but hadn’t previously heard of the 60s and 70s described as the second one.

Although this is a history book, it’s written in an accessible, journalistic way and uses a lot of material from interviews and archives to present a well-structured narrative. It filled some gaps in my knowledge; I’m assuming that people my age from the US would know more than I did to begin with, but as a Brit my understanding of the subject was limited to African American civil rights (which I learned about at college), the internet reading I did about the Chicago 7 (or 8) after watching the film, and some knowledge about Stonewall. It goes without saying that I already knew about Martin Luther King from a young age, as we learn about him at school.

People are at the heart of this book. The authors focus on figures such as Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Heather Booth, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Craig Rodwell, John Lennon, Dennis Banks, Madonna Thunder Hawk, and more. Their characters and backgrounds are examined and the way they worked with each other. This is of course a book biased towards these figures as pioneers and supporters of movements which intersected with each other. They clashed with the government and were infiltrated by the FBI. Writing from today’s perspective, no other view of the era would be possible. However, the character flaws and the tensions within the groups are laid bare, because they were all human – some of them could be described as heroes for the causes they believed in, but not saints.

If you already have a good knowledge of the civil rights movements, you can still learn something from this book, as the authors have talked to some of the activists who are still around, so the content is up to date and we’re seeing the parallels between today’s world and the events of 40 to 50 years ago. The book also includes notes, an index and photo section.

Published in 2021 by HarperCollins.

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