BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY, PRINT DEPT.
The year 1943 seemed, to contemporary observers, “1776 for the Negro”–a revolutionary time in which the promises of full citizenship for African-Americans were finally to be redeemed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had desegregated the war industries two years before, and blacks were migrating en masse from the Jim Crow South to Northern cities, streaming into decent-paying jobs as welders, shipbuilders and machinists. The war was stirring a passionate commitment from black Americans, who came to understand it as a fight against fascism abroad and racism at home–and to understand themselves, in turn, as democracy’s cutting edge.
Yet in retrospect 1943 was also a time of quiet counterrevolution, in which longstanding inequities were being consolidated under the pretense of business as usual. The National Association of Real Estate Boards, for instance, issued a seemingly innocuous brochure titled “Fundamentals of Real Estate Practice,” which warned realtors that, no matter the size of the down payment on the table, they needed to guard against selling to undesirable elements. “The prospective buyer might be a bootlegger who would cause considerable annoyance to his neighbors, a madam who had a number of call girls on her string, a gangster who wants a screen for his activities by living in a better neighborhood” or–the grace note here–“a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.” Just as more blacks were earning enough to consider moving to better neighborhoods, that is, realtors were being instructed that they needed, in defense of American property values, to stave off this “form of blight” and nix any such deal.
It might seem incongruous to lump together bootleggers, madams, gangsters and upwardly mobile black Americans, as if black wealth were a form of ill-gotten gain, but that bitter absurdity sits at the heart of Sweet Land of Liberty, Thomas J. Sugrue’s panoramic account of the civil rights movement in the North. Again and again, Sugrue shows, Northern blacks rallied against racial inequality but were shut out from postwar prosperity–isolated from job- and tax-rich suburbs, their neighborhoods demolished or cordoned off by urban renewal, their schools left underfunded and decaying–in an exclusionary process ratified by state-backed policies and court-issued decisions. Sweet Land of Liberty is a sobering and meticulous excavation of the barriers to Northern black advancement in the three decades after World War II–an invaluable historical primer on why, even with the recent expansion of the black middle class, black household wealth remains distressingly low on average, only one-tenth of that of white households.
The book is also a bold, if decidedly underdramatic, rewriting of civil rights history. In now-standard accounts like the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, the Northern movement literally explodes into view with the urban insurrections of the mid- to late ’60s–with Stokely Carmichael’s chant of “Black Power” taken up in burning cities from Watts to Newark. From this angle, the Northern civil rights movement seems to coincide with the starburst, and subsequent flameout, of Black Power, and Black Power appears largely as a betrayal of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inclusive vision rather than as a strategy that evolved from the painful dilemmas faced by the Northern side of the movement.