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A new generation recounts the struggle for civil rights

The children of the leaders and of the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, and those who are but the offspring of the dream, are telling their stories in a cluster of books recently published or about to be. The hope of the writers is that these narratives will engrave the movement as a defining event in the 20th century, particularly for this generation of Americans, in much the same way that Tom Brokaw and Stephen E. Ambrose did for World War II remembrance.

The books are by King and Abernathy and Shabazz, a daughter of Malcolm X. And Patricia Stephens Due, who was arrested at a lunch counter sit-in and describes herself as a "foot soldier" and who wrote a book with her daughter, the novelist Tananarive Due. And by a magazine editor, Patrik Henry Bass, "a child of the dream."

Historical events have a way of being wafted from the mind as if on a breeze. But the civil rights movement was a seminal life-changing episode of the second half of the century. So it was surprising to be told over and over by African-Americans that not only whites of this generation but also young blacks know so little about it.

Dexter Scott King, son of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., put it this way: "Young people see it somewhat as a relic of history." A souvenir tucked away in a drawer.

King wants, then, through his book, "to reach young people to help them understand the struggle of those who led and those who were the children of war _ nonviolent, unarmed conflict, but war," he said, adding, "I hope my book and the others will go a long way to show the time as a defining moment."

"My contemporaries, the children of the movement, understand that," he said. "Today's generation has no real sense of what it was like to endure such a struggle, and these books should help them see that there's no way they were not impacted." King's book, Growing Up King: An Intimate Memoir (Warner Books, $24.95, 320 pp), written with Ralph Wiley, will be published in January. His sister Yolanda King has an inspirational book, Content of My Character (Rodale), with no publication date set, and his other sister, Bernice King, is writing her own book.

If enormous social change and the immenseness of living with a martyred hero of that change is the stuff of King's book, Ilyasah Shabazz's book is a surprising tale of family normality amid the storm. She is one of Malcolm X's six daughters. She said that her father's "image was so distorted by emotion," with hints of racial hatred and violence, that she not only wanted to explain the historical moment but also to "build a family legacy of a man in search of truth, of compassion and love."

She went to private schools, lived in the suburbs; her mother, Betty Shabazz, was a teacher. Ilyasah Shabazz was raised mostly among white children. Still, during that era "when someone came to you and said white people are devils, you think that's true," she said, adding, "But when my father came back from abroad, he taught us that there were good whites and bad whites, good people and bad, of all colors." Her father was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965. Her book, Growing Up X (One World/Ballantine, $25, 225 pp), written with Kim McLarin, has been on the Essence magazine best-seller list for six months.

Patrik Henry Bass is the books editor of Essence and the author of Like a Mighty Stream: The March on Washington, August 28, 1963 (Running Press, $18.95, 160 pp), which goes on sale next month. "We are the children of the dream," is the way he describes his generation. "We didn't talk much about the civil rights movement in college, and Black History Month tends to focus on slavery, even now," he said.

He sees these books as a force, almost a gravity that can grab people and pull them back to that time. He said: "We can step back and realize the sacrifices made for us. It was very much a defining moment in the American narrative."

Taylor Branch's first two books of his trilogy about King and the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters in 1989 and Pillar of Fire in 1998 (both Simon & Schuster), and Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home _ Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2001), are among the most important chronicles of the civil rights movement. Now the books about the movement's impact on the leaders' children and tales from the trenches expand the story considerably, paradoxically by looking inward.

Donzaleigh Abernathy's book is a photography and text manuscript, Partners to History: Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and the Civil Rights Movement (Crown, $29.95), scheduled for publication next fall. "I go to schools and talk to young people, and they need to know history" is the way Ralph Abernathy's daughter explains her book. "People were so active and cared so much, not only black people," she said. "I was a young girl and watched this and wanted to share it."

Patricia Stephens Due was a student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee when she and five other students tried to integrate a Woolworth's lunch counter in 1960. She was arrested, one of the first to be so in civil rights action in Florida, and spent 49 days in jail for refusing to pay a fine.

"I did the book because I wanted to show you didn't have to be rich or famous to have made a difference," she said. In writing the book with her daughter, Tananarive, author of the novel The Black Rose (One World/Ballantine, 2000), each contributed alternate chapters. Tananarive Due grew up hearing of tear gas and other attacks and "never having seen a colored-only or white-only sign," she said. "There needed to be a memoir to help people who wouldn't read history understand," she said. The book is Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights (One World/Ballantine, $24.95, 320 pp) to be published in January.

These books revisit an essential era in America, and in doing so not only add another layer of information to understanding that time but, as important, introduce its reality to today's young.

Max Rodriguez, publisher of QBR: The Black Book Review, said that "the hip-hop generation thinks everything is newly created, and not really anchored to the past." He added: "For me, these books help to anchor again that moment in time that was the civil rights movement, and that brings to a younger generation an awareness of what went before."

New York Times News Service