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Off Camera: Civil Rights in the North | The Nation

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Off Camera: Civil Rights in the North

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Sweet Land of Liberty is so capacious, encyclopedic really, that it can be startling to realize all it leaves out--not in terms of ground it doesn't cover but rather in terms of dimensions it doesn't probe. Happily, it resurrects a cast of less-remembered activists and traces their individual itineraries; less happily, it does not ask why they devoted so much of their lives to the movement, how they sustained themselves in its darker moments or how their lives changed with its vicissitudes. The human drama we so often associate with civil rights history--A. Philip Randolph jousting with Franklin Roosevelt at the White House over the integration of war industries; Martin Luther King Jr. praying to God for guidance after the bombing of his Montgomery home--is passed over so that Sugrue might focus on the nuts and bolts of organization, policy and court rulings.

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Scott Saul
Scott Saul, an associate professor of English and American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is the...

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At Berkeley in 1964, Mario Savio embodied the need to speak and act in the face of doubt.

Eliot Weinberger's enigmatic essays save him from becoming a prisoner of his polemical style.

Sweet Land may even be, on principle, antipsychological: one of the book's few openly polemical turns is Sugrue's critique of how social psychology misled the movement, promising activists that if whites were in contact with respectable black men and women, they would be shed of their prejudice and equality would become the law of the land. As Sugrue underscores, whites in the postwar era did lose much of their animosity toward blacks--in a 2007 survey, 87 percent of whites claimed to have black friends--but that transformation of the white psyche has paid many fewer dividends than expected. It may have helped to elect a mixed-race African-American to the presidency, but black babies still die more than twice as often as white babies, black men still live six years less on average than white men, black Americans are still almost six times as likely to be incarcerated as white Americans and black communities are still ravaged by levels of violence unfamiliar to white America: in a recent study, 70 percent of blacks reported that they knew someone who had been shot within the past five years. We seem, that is, to have arrived at a near-reversal of the state of affairs that Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal diagnosed in 1944: "The social paradox in the North is exactly this, that almost everybody is against discrimination in general but, at the same time, almost everybody practices discrimination in his own personal affairs." The paradox nowadays is that fewer whites practice discrimination in their personal affairs, but at the same time, a powerful majority countenances discrimination in general.

Sugrue's brief against the "prejudice" school of social psychology is convincing and should be required reading for all those pundits who enthused that Barack Obama's victory meant that the civil rights movement could hang up a "mission accomplished" sign. (For those unrepentant holdouts, here's another sobering statistic: among whites nationwide, John McCain beat Obama by a twelve-point margin.) Still, it's one thing to document how a psychological paradigm created false expectations, and another to downplay the psychological dimensions of experience in toto. Sweet Land's activists analyze their dilemmas in a cultural and emotional vacuum; they can seem like walking position papers, people with no time for such frivolities as family, church or entertainment--this despite the fact that the rise of "soul" culture counts as one of the Northern civil rights movement's most lasting contributions to American life. Fittingly, the book has an especially high regard for social scientists who gathered data, crunched numbers and produced reports documenting inequality--intellectuals who, in their faith in the power of statistics, much resemble Thomas J. Sugrue.

The problem here is not that Sweet Land's analysis is wrong but rather that the book isn't equipped to meet the larger challenge it faces: how to animate those damning statistics, and the lives of those who have struggled against them, so that they have the strength to take on the morality-play version of civil rights history, shift our cultural memory and galvanize a new debate about racial inequality. Against the traditional, and quite Christian, tale of sin, suffering, death and redemption, Sugrue offers a numbers-driven story of perseverance without relief--the myth of Sisyphus rather than A Pilgrim's Progress. How to produce a PBS miniseries based on that?

Sugrue comes closest to capturing the soul of the Northern movement with the twin tales of Herman Ferguson and Roxanne Jones. Ferguson was a New York City teacher and school administrator, "one of those mild-mannered, slow-burning but very dedicated kind of guys," in the words of a colleague. In the spring of 1963 he led protests against a Jamaica, Queens, bank for its "Billy Banjo" mural, a plantation scene with a smiling, strumming, barefoot Negro at its center. That summer, he spearheaded a campaign demanding that black workers be employed in the construction of a 6,000-unit apartment complex. The demonstrations grew more militant until, in September, Ferguson and eight other protesters broke into the construction site, locked themselves to the top of a crane and threw away the keys. By the end of 1963 the campaign had widened to include boycotts against neighborhood stores and had drawn in Malcolm X, with his call for black communities to "buy black."

Yet while Ferguson's methods became steadily more confrontational, they didn't produce the hoped-for results: even "Billy Banjo," with his wide grin and straw hat, was a tough, unmoving antagonist. By early 1964, Ferguson had joined Malcolm's Organization of Afro-American Unity, chairing its education program. When Malcolm was assassinated not long after, Ferguson blamed the government and turned broodingly apocalyptic, eventually calling for blacks to "obtain weapons and practice using them" in preparation for the imminent race war.

His paranoia, while profound, was not totally misplaced. In 1967, Ferguson and fifteen other members of the Revolutionary Action Movement were arrested on charges of conspiracy, accused of having planned raids on the homes of more moderate civil rights leaders. Yet who were the actual conspirators here? Ferguson and his comrades had stockpiled guns and ammunition under the auspices of the "Jamaica Rifle and Pistol Club," but an undercover police officer revealed, during the ensuing trial, that he was the one who had purchased the maps of the relevant neighborhoods and copied out the directions to the homes. When the jury--all white and all male--found Ferguson guilty under an obscure New York law forbidding "anarchistic" conspiracies, Ferguson refused to serve time, jumping bail and moving to the socialist state of Guyana, where he lived for nineteen years under an assumed name.

If Ferguson's trajectory suggests a sadly familiar spiral of radicalization and repression, the story of Roxanne Jones is a tale less told, perhaps because it asks us to reconcile how, in the wake of the civil rights movement, black Americans have been simultaneously empowered and marginalized. Born in South Carolina in 1928, and the first black woman elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate, Jones lived nearly half her adult life on welfare and cut her teeth as an organizer with the welfare rights movement. In 1976 she co-founded Philadelphia Citizens in Action, an organization that advocated for the city's poor in a post-Great Society moment. While Ronald Reagan conjured up the image of a welfare queen driving a white Cadillac, Jones highlighted the image's absurdity. She herself could not afford a car--only a quarter of the people in her neighborhood even had access to one--and much of her community work tried to figure out how to shuttle people without cars to jobs outside their neighborhood. Through the early '80s, she remained undeterred by the conservative counterrevolution, fighting back by filing a lawsuit against Pennsylvania's workfare program and leading a two-week occupation of the State Capitol rotunda.

Deciding that community organizing was not enough to remedy the plight of the urban poor, Jones made an Obama-like transition: in 1984, two years after occupying the Capitol rotunda as a protester, she returned to it as a state senator, building bridges between policy wonks and welfare recipients, corporate attorneys and ex-cons. Like many black officials elected to legislatures in the post-civil rights wave, however, she found it easier to be re-elected than to influence policy. Most of her proposals were torpedoed by a Republican majority. One of her last acts was to introduce legislation that would provide reimbursement for the bus fares of poor children attending school; it too was defeated. By 1983, Pennsylvania's welfare benefits had dipped below pre-movement levels; by 1992, federal welfare payments were 43 percent lower than in 1970. In August 1996, two months after Jones's death, Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, reversing the gains secured by Jones and other activists by limiting welfare to a temporary program.

It's easier to explain why Herman Ferguson ended up in Guyana, the vanishing point of his militant journey, than to explain why Jones ended up a coalition-builder with no forceful coalition behind her, a lonely defender of the poor. Sugrue deserves much credit for forcing attention on the hard questions that the Northern civil rights movement asked of American society. He deserves even more for forcing attention on the arduous questions that the movement's disappointments reflect back on us.

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