The fight for civil rights up North
Sweet Land of Liberty:
IN HIS lengthy, well-documented account of Black civil rights struggles in the North from the 1920s to the present day, historian Thomas Sugrue advances the concept of a “long civil rights movement.” Sugrue takes on the conventional timeline of the Black civil rights movement—which generally dates from the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision in 1954 and runs through the Voting Rights Act of 1965—to argue for a longer narrative that starts with the uplift notions dominant after the first Great Migration of Blacks from the South following the First World War.
As a result of that war and growing industrial production, the racial composition of Northern cities was transformed in the twenties as more than 1.5 million Blacks moved out of sharecropping and tenant farming in the South. Chicago’s Black population increased by 148 percent, Detroit’s by more than 600 percent, and New York’s Harlem went from being an almost all-white neighborhood to the capital of Black America in that first wave North. While this approach may have the advantage of historical breadth, it also seems to drown historical turning points such as Brown in details that don’t necessarily help elucidate why and how momentum accelerated at certain milestones and came to a halt at other times.
The racial consciousness of Blacks who fought in a segregated military for “democracy” in the Second World War only to return home to brutal housing, education, and social conditions was decisive in paving the way for Brown and the movement that took root in its aftermath. The radical growth of an urban Black population in the postwar era laid the basis for a class-conscious Black industrial workforce that increased by 135 percent from its prewar level. By 1960, a greater percentage of Blacks than whites lived in urban America, thus transforming the potential for labor gains and interracial organizing efforts.
Sweet Land of Liberty focuses on the history of the Black civil rights struggles north of the Mason-Dixon line in rich detail, but with a liberal’s suspicion of the contributions of revolutionary organizations and politics. Readers can glean fascinating details of desegregation struggles in housing and education, such as the 1951 white riot in Cicero, Illinois, in response to a Black family renting an apartment. The grand jury indicted both the Black family and white rental agent for “conspiring” to lower property values in the Chicago suburb.
Yet Sugrue’s disdain for organized leftists is hardly veiled in his constant references to Marxist “sectarians” and leftists “spouting rhetoric” to diminish the contributions of revolutionaries, which even he must grudgingly accept played a crucial role at times. Unaccountably, he characterizes the revolutionary left almost exclusively through the depiction of the small, pro-China, Philadelphia-based Maoist group, the Revolutionary Action Movement, despite the fact that thousands joined various far-left groups in the sixties and participated in victorious struggles.
Sugrue favors pacifist approaches and condemns the Black Power movement: “Black power-influenced protests, by contrast, took the form of shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theater.” The Black Panthers come in for harsh treatment for their use of “spectacle” and “Panther publications were the journalistic equivalent of the ‘dozens,’ a game of ever-escalating insults,” he writes. Elsewhere he seems to justify police repression of the Panthers: “Black power’s romanticization of violence became a self-fulfilling prophecy—and the retribution that authorities exacted was the tragic consequence.”
Sugrue’s disdain of the radical left seriously mars his narrative, yet there’s no denying the archival scholarship put into this massive work, which, despite the author’s prejudices, compels him to give voice to the role of struggle in forcing Democrats from Roosevelt to Clinton to pass reforms. For example, toothless legislation prohibiting discrimination in government construction contracts, signed by President Kennedy in 1961, carried no means of enforcement. Demonstrations that erupted in 153 cities over the two-month period following JFK’s executive order were crucial in forcing integration on work sites.
Sugrue’s detailed account of 1960s rioting provides a refreshing riposte to most mainstream accounts of wanton violence carried out by a crazed and disaffected rabble. Rather than a mindless mob bent on total destruction, Sugrue shows rioters as generally better-paid and educated workers who carefully chose their targets and coordinated their activities to minimize violence. They targeted police and white business owners in the ghetto, especially those who did not hire Blacks or who treated the community with contempt. “Urban, working-class men, those who made up a majority of rioters, were also those hit hardest by the tidal wave of economic restructuring that swept through urban America after World War II,” explains Sugrue.
Overall, Sweet Land of Liberty makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of Northern Black civil rights struggles. But Sugrue’s sweeping attention to detail can be overwhelming, while his dismissal of revolutionary perspective is best read alongside other radical analyses.