I AM a MAN! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement

By Williams, Howell | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

I AM a MAN! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement


Williams, Howell, The Journal of African American History


Steve S. Estes, I AM a MAN! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Pp. 256. Cloth $45.00, paper $19.95.

In I AM a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement, Steve Estes examines how activists connected citizenship and manhood in their rhetoric calling for human rights. While Estes mentions feminist scholarship that uncovered women's participation and leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, he is particularly concerned with how notions of both white and black manhood contribute to understandings of race, racism, and gender in the U.S. Estes traces how African American men made the connections between the struggle to end racial oppression and their identity as men. He defines black and white manhood at the time of the modern Civil Rights Movement as men who valued serving as the heads of households, provided economically for their families, achieved some social status, and participated in local and national politics. Estes argues these attributes of manhood were denied to working-class black men, while some southern white men used the rhetoric of hyper-masculinity "to defend the privileges that whiteness and manhood had afforded them in the economic, political, and sexual spheres."

Estes begins with an examination of how World War II changed conceptions of African American manhood, arguing that "these changes set the stage for the civil rights movement." Estes explains how military action fostered notions of masculinity at the same time that Jim Crow military policies excluded black men from the same ideals. While the military upheld segregation, Estes argues that it also altered race relations through the development of strong friendships and provided an opportunity for some black men to prove themselves as "manly" soldiers. In the 1950s southern white men, like those who joined White Citizens' Councils (WCC), opposed segregation in gendered terms, especially in their calls for unity in defending the honor of southern white women by protecting them from sexual relations with black men. The harm went beyond threats to racial violence, as Estes documents cases of klansmen and WCC members castrating black men as a form of social control. Estes describes how civil rights activists fought back with nonviolent activism that provided opportunities for a new construction of manhood by defining nonviolence as "courageous and even manly."

The "Freedom Summer" projects in 1964 brought hundreds of white and black students to the South to work on voter registration drives and staff freedom schools, thus confounding traditional gender, racial, and sexual mores. Estes demonstrates that student groups, such as SNCC, were not without their own gender politics. Issues of gender and sexuality of movement volunteers have been popular scholarly topics; yet, Estes is more concerned with how previously overlooked local men and women contributed to the movement through reshaping the idea of community through notions of manhood.

Estes is aware that the civil rights activity through the 1960s did little to improve the economic conditions for many black southerners, but activists in the North offered an alternative path to black manhood such as the Nation of Islam (NOI) and Malcolm X's gendered messages about race and religion in the U.S. …

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