Book Review: A Forgotten Struggle Against a Still-Forgotten Opposition

[Note: I have removed citation information since this is, after all, a blog. Such info can readily be provided.]

Thomas J. Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, published in 2008, is a sweeping synthesis of epic proportions. Sugrue roots his narrative in the 1930s and the 1940s tracing the shifts in the movement from “interracialism” and “moral uplift” into the more radical movements of the late sixties and seventies. Part three, “Freedom Now,” begins with 1960, a year that “made it clear that black America was at a turning point” thus beginning an era of unfulfilled hopes, pessimism, and anger on the part of blacks and fear, flight, and delusion on the part of whites. Sweet Land of Liberty hits on many major themes most scholars will consider of importance: housing, education, urbanization, work. “[D]espite twenty years of sustained activism” (covered in parts one and two), “Northern metropolitan areas were as segregated in 1960 as they had been in 1940”—10.2 percent of blacks compared to 4.9 percent of whites were unemployed, and black women earned an almost equal income as that of white women, but only because they worked twice the hours. Sugrue has written an excellent work that, in many ways, situates the civil rights movement as a story of only marginal, moderate successes and one of unachieved truly progressive goals. However, the underlying narrative about how the movement failed to realize some of these larger progressive goals can get lost in the details and in his chosen methodology.

A new generation of black activists came to the fore in these years who were no longer content with the traditional forms of resistance embodied by the NAACP, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, or Martin Luther King, Jr. And they were not alone: many older activists grew weary of the persistence of white pushback, and so found themselves increasingly asking why they should try to integrate with white communities who clearly wanted no part of them. Many in the black community traded in church-inspired moral uplift in exchange for Black Power—Huey Newton instead of MLK. And the shifts were as ambiguous as Malcolm himself was, too. Sugrue is admiringly accurate and empathetic in not caricaturing the radical shift to the left noting, for example, how black businesses and neighborhoods were leveled or cut-off from white suburbia by expressways and city planning.

The black power movement is clearly one of Sugrue’s favorite topics and for good reason. Rarely do historical characters catch the imagination such as Elijah Muhammad, Stokely Carmichael, and, of course, Malcolm X. While the Black Panthers and other black power movements undeniably shaped American culture during the 1960s and 1970s, it remains debatable whether they held as much sway as Sugrue argues. The author does posit that black power was “tailor-made for the mass media” which led Sugrue to claim, for instance, “What was more striking was how many ordinary blacks shared black radicals’ view”. However, for a group such as the Black Panthers who, in the words of Jean Genet, relied on “Spectacle” for much of their substance, one wonders how this compares to the influence of mass movements.

Sugrue invokes the issue of education throughout the work though he couches it in almost purely economic terms. In line with his point that “The two civil rights issues that mattered most in the North were housing and employment”, Sugrue reduces education, at times, to primarily an economic concern. There is no denying that parents truly wanted material gain for their children and that they saw education as one of the few avenues towards that goal. However, that black radical Herman Ferguson desired to create “liberation schools” where students would learn armed self-defense points to a much more expansive conception of education than mere economic gain. Boston activists set up “Freedom Schools” and a “Stay Out for Freedom” boycott in 1961 which was then emulated, for example, by CORE activists in 1963 Chicago who led boycotts of dilapidated segregated schools and set up “freedom schools” of their own. “Liberation” and “freedom” are terms loaded with meaning, pointing towards cultural memory and aspiration along with desires for economic uplift. The threats posed by cultural issues are not only evident in the “culture wars” of the 1990s or in the recent statutes in Arizona, but also shed light on why 1960’s school reform engendered such a vehement white backlash. Indeed, in 1971 white parents bombed ten school buses in the school district of Pontiac, a city just outside of Detroit.

At other times, cultural history is clearly on Sugrue’s radar, especially when he delves into the cultural world of the Black Panthers. “What was new about the Panthers, however, was their singular focus on the criminal justice system”, Sugrue argues. He also delves into the multiple layers of meaning ascribed to the use of “pig”, revealing a web of meaning Clifford Geertz would be proud of. Clearly, everything civil rights related was not economically determined.

Sweet Land of Liberty takes a radical departure from some historians, notably Donald T. Critchlow, in his arguments concerning black uprisings. In The Conservative Ascendancy¸ Critchlow confusingly argues that “Surveys showed consistently improving attitudes by whites toward blacks . . . including school integration. Racial riots did not derail improving racial attitudes, but they raised apprehension among whites about social order”. Sugrue would most likely argue that Critchlow falls amongst though who have “forgotten” the struggle for civil rights in the North and South. In fact, Sugrue is sure to stress, repeatedly, that it was the contradiction of changing attitudes (that Critchlow is eager to cite) which made it so incredibly difficult (and in the end impossible) to desegregate northern schools. Northern whites were able to claim a rhetoric of color-blindness wrapped in the cloak of free market “choice” as they fought open-housing and school integration movements “tooth and nail.” Sadly, he concludes, “In 1990, metropolitan Chicago was barely less segregated than it had been fifty years earlier” no matter what polls reported about “attitudes.”

Further research could fruitfully explore the increasing tendency, unremarked upon by Sugrue (though we cannot demand he cover everything in a single book), of the usage of the language “Uncle Tom.” Throughout part three, covering 1960-onwards, black activists moving to the left increasingly utilized the disparaging label “Uncle Tom” for those other activists who did not share their radical orientation. So acerbic had the environment become that members of the Revolutionary Action Committee yelled “Uncle Tom Go Home!” to none other than Reverend Joseph H. Jackson, long-time leader of the five-million member Baptist Convention, after he had spoken at an NAACP-sponsored Fourth of July event in 1963 Chicago. Conceivably a topic that could span many regions and centuries, a linguistic, intellectual history of the term’s usage in the style of Winthrop Jordan would be interesting to research.

Ultimately, the larger picture can become lost in the immense amount of details and anecdotes on offer in Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. It’s hard to forget the consistent, hard-work of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Henry Lee Moon’s “balance of power”, or Herman Ferguson’s inspiring radicalism that Sugrue expertly presents. But, with all of the focus on the actors within and for the movement, one thing is attenuated: the forces and people who were not for the movement, not for equal rights, those who actively worked to undermine the Civil Rights Movement and why they did so.

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