Let America Be America Then: Imagining a More United Front in the Early Civil Rights Era

By Dennis, Michael | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Let America Be America Then: Imagining a More United Front in the Early Civil Rights Era


Dennis, Michael, Labour/Le Travail


Eric Porter, The Problem of the Future World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Race Concept at Midcentury (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010)

Barbara Foley, Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010)

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE REBELLIOUS 1960s, writing about black activism meant writing about Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality, and the Freedom Rides. How could it not? Young black and white activists courageously overturned the structures of Jim Crow and set the example for subsequent movements of liberation. They rejected the litigious moderation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, demonstrated the utility of nonviolent direct action tactics, and exemplified the ethic of participatory democracy that defined the New Left. In short, the activists who transformed their confinement in Parchman Penitentiary into a badge of honour set the tone for an era of idealism. They also captured the imagination of historians shaped by its dramatic events.

In this movement, and in the chronicles written by its earliest historians, labour unions and political economy figured only incidentally. The bravery and audacity of young activists or the malfeasance and cynicism of liberal politicians mattered most. (2) Even when historians turned their attention to organizations inspired by Black Nationalism, the focus tended to be on how violent revolutionaries undermined a movement defined by interracial cooperation and liberal pragmatism. (3) Of course, historians explored earlier episodes of racial rebellion, including those surrounding Marcus Garvey, the Harlem Renaissance, and the black nationalism of the antebellum era. (4) Yet the evidence of the connection between black protest and organized labour remained subordinate at best. Moreover, the earlier examples of civil rights activism were seen as mere precursors to the full flourishing of the 'real' civil rights movements. Like many civil rights activists, they saw the movement as sui generis, born out of the unique zeitgeist of the New Frontier, owing nothing to the Old Left, which now seemed as much part of the problem as the solution.

Over the past 20 years, historians have gradually modified that focus. They have questioned the presupposition that the depression years simply paved the way for the 'classic' phase of Montgomery to Selma. (5) They now assess the relationship between organized labour and the civil rights movement, often coming to diametrically opposed conclusions. (6) Using evidence that Black Power groups contributed to community improvement by addressing concrete social needs, they have challenged the assertion that black militancy meant destructive racial separatism. (7) Responding to a number of stimuli, including the gradual disappearance of race from political debate (which was inversely proportional to its incendiary prominence in the culture wars of the 1990s), historians reinvigorated the study of black civil rights. They pushed the chronological boundaries backward, studying the political possibilities as well as the glaring inadequacies of the New Deal for black equality. Increasingly it was not a matter of when the civil rights movement began, but the character of the movement that developed in those years. For many historians, including Eric Porter, that movement was transnational, cosmopolitan, and distinctively radical. Foreign relations now matter in the long view of the civil rights movement.

In it, the celebratory tone of civil rights historiography diminished. (8) This was an analysis informed as much by frustration as by hope. In a period in which conservative agitators fused crime, welfare, and blackness in the public mind, what hope was there to reverse the trends toward disproportionate black incarceration, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, and income inequality? …

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