Born in 1935 during the Great Depression, Bryant spent his early youth in Little Rock, Arkansas, largely cloistered from the reality of racism in a “small, close knit world.” In fact, the “system of racial apartheid that governed our lives” only came to his full awareness gradually—until it was brought home forcefully by a tragedy he experienced while in the second grade. Fellow classmate Lee Andrew Peters died while trying to make his way home during a storm, a death that might have been avoided if the Black neighborhood he lived in was constructed as well as the White neighborhoods. This disaster effectively shattered the author’s “sheltered existence” and brought to his attention an issue that would form the fulcrum of his work as an activist: the ways racial discrimination causes environmental injustice. Bryant would go on to have an impressive career both as an academic and as a social justice advocate. During the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s, he opposed war and was immersed in the civil rights movement as a member of the Congress of Racial Equity. He was also a founding member of the Environmental Advocacy Program at the University of Michigan—a groundbreaking organization. The author was eventually appointed to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council under President Bill Clinton. Bryant came to adopt and evangelize nonviolent protest, a philosophy he presents with great clarity as well as candor: “I was well aware that I’m no moral superstar. I’m just an average person. At times I felt brave, at other times I felt fearful. Sometimes, in the face of violent and racist language spewed at me, I had to void myself of feelings of both love and hate in order to survive emotionally and control my violent instincts.”
Bryant furnishes a vivid depiction of the civil rights movement during its most turbulent times—when the resistance to equal rights was at its zenith in the United States. His commentary on the racial tensions within the world of higher education is particularly instructive, especially his account of the ways college administrations, even unwittingly, pushed policies that created racial disparities. Furthermore, the author ably limns the differences between his youthful experiences in both the North and the South—his family moved to Flint, Michigan, in 1943; while his new community was officially desegregated, he sensed an unmistakable alienation there. He writes, “Still, there was something sinister about Flint, particularly by the time we got to be teenagers. We lived in racially segregated communities, even though the public schools were desegregated. When Negroes moved into a white community, whites would move out.” Bryant’s memoir can lean too much into granular, personal detail—it likely could have been shorter and more focused. Nonetheless, he provides a lucid account of an admirable life devoted to praiseworthy causes and an insightful synopsis of a troubled time in the nation’s history.