David Greenberg

A Tugging String

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A Tugging String Summary

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A Tugging String (2008) is a novel about the United States’ Civil War era by David Greenberg. Based on the author’s experience growing up with his father, Jack Greenberg, a prominent civil rights lawyer, it alternates between his memories of this lived experience and fictionalized episodes that recapitulate key events in the civil rights movement between 1964 and 1965. Known for its mixed-genre approach to historicizing the political and social movement under question, A Tugging String provides valuable insight about the inner legislative life of the movement from the son of one of its key lawyers.

The novel begins in 1964, but focuses primarily on the culmination of a string of nationwide civil rights protests in 1965, when a crowd marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, a trek spanning almost fifty miles. Greenberg chronicles his memories of growing up in the 1960s, a time of great unrest. At the age of twelve, Greenberg loved popular science and inventing new things. Not prodigious in sports, he is disliked by some of the members of his football team for not fitting in. He recalls his parents were major influences, his mother for her love of language, reading, and writing, and his father, Jack, a dry but intellectual civil rights figure who believed in social justice. His mother’s poetic approach to language contrasted with his father’s erudite and technical diction, allowing Greenberg to see how language could be put to many different ends. Indeed, learning was the Greenberg family’s refuge when the social climate of their segregated white neighborhoods ostracized them for allying with civil rights protestors.

Greenberg departs from his family background to a fictional family, the Miltons. An African-American family, they are used as an emblem for discussing the starkly different social conditions and stressors that black people had to live under in the 60s. The Miltons live in a segregated black neighborhood, inhabiting a profoundly marginalized, lower-class world just because of their skin color. In one scene, Dorothy Milton, a woman aspiring to become a voter by registering, is rejected with the justification that she answered a question wrong. The error is revealed to be for an absurd multiple-choice question asking how many bubbles are contained in a bar of soap.

Milton reaches out to Dr. King, who is rising to fame as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. In the process, she forms a relationship with Jack Greenberg, who offers to represent her. She accepts, and he begins a civil lawsuit against the state for categorically denying voting rights to Milton and other black people for their race, framing it as a failure to score high enough on an arbitrary test. Jack’s case comes with its fair share of dangers. When working on a related case about the right of people to engage in civil protests about justice for African-Americans, he is shot by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Though he recovers, it is a formative experience for his son, who feels the traumatic impact of the bodily violence inflicted by racist ideology.

As Jack Greenberg helps Dr. King and the Milton family litigate, the narrator comes to realize that these are mere symptoms of a larger awakening in the United States. The number of protests and sit-ins multiplies exponentially during the two years covered in the book’s historical scope. During this major political and cultural shift, the twelve-year-old son of Jack Greenberg learns how to act according to the values espoused by the civil rights movement. In one scene, he encounters a black boy outside a bakery where he would always walk to get a free cookie from the chef. The boy asks Greenberg if there are any cookies left; he tells him yes. When the boy goes in and asks for one, he is refused because of his skin color and treated like a loiterer. In response, Greenberg argues on behalf of the boy for being treated as lesser. At the same time, an older female customer accuses the chef of being racist, starting a food fight. Greenberg and the boy go on to become friends.

The novel ends with the culmination of the march from Selma to Montgomery. President Lyndon Johnson responds by delivering a speech in which he introduces the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits unnecessary barriers to voting, such as fees and tests. The new legislation is considered a huge historical landmark in the long, arduous progression to racial equality in the country. The elder Greenberg is happy, but knows that his work is not done. Observing the aftermath of the march and the new legislation with a degree of ambivalence, knowing that racism still pervades the United States, the author of A Tugging String still comes to fervently believe that solidarity and kindness can cause real progress.