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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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BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY, PRINT DEPT.Mothers for Adequate Welfare protest, Boston, 1966

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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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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.

Sweet Land recovers an altogether different Northern movement, one that generally operated far from the cameras of the major networks (though black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier covered it fastidiously). Its most powerful foot soldiers were not men packing guns but mothers carrying picket signs and filing legal briefs on behalf of their children, community organizers armed with clipboards and pens, and social scientists wielding an array of statistics to press the cause. Sugrue offers a history of the Northern civil rights movement in which the Black Panthers have been demoted to bit players, Angela Davis and the Attica prison revolt make no appearance and a less-celebrated band of local activists--from smaller cities like Jersey City and New Rochelle--dominates the stage, battling against faceless if powerful entities like the National Association of Real Estate Boards.

It's not an easy story to tell. The old civil rights story may be profoundly incomplete, as Sugrue and a new generation of historians have suggested, but it owes its endurance to undeniably riveting characters and an easily grasped dramatic arc, from the "once upon a time" of Brown v. Board of Education to the qualified "happily ever after" of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even a historian's historian like Sugrue sometimes struggles to animate his tale, which is mostly the arcless story of how local activists exposed hidden structures of inequality, only to learn they were much more difficult to dismantle than to describe. That said, having a movement that doesn't move was a much more poignant problem for the movement itself, which was stymied in no small part because its adversary was changeable, elusive and frustratingly impersonal--often simply "the market." Unlike in the South, few Northern whites openly defended racial injustice. The sorting of blacks into less desirable schools, careers and neighborhoods, they suggested, "just happened"--an argument that resonated in the culture and, perhaps more fatefully, in the courts, where justices interpreted Brown v. Board of Education as a mandate requiring proof of discriminatory intent. Iconoclastic NAACP lawyer Paul Zuber, one of Sweet Land's heroes, summed up the South-North contrast this way: "Down home, our bigots come in white sheets. Up here, they come in Brooks Brothers suits and ties." The racism of the North wore the robes of cultural legitimacy; to many whites, it was wrapped up in their pursuit of the American Dream.

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