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Fighting for Civil Rights

The incomplete victory

May. 12, 2009
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The story of the civil rights struggle in the United States is almost always told with a Southern accent-with good reason. The region, with its history of slavery and repressive Jim Crow policies, provided the nation with the perfect backdrop for a large-scale morality play on race and rights in America. Yet Thomas J. Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (Random House) cogently reminds us that racial inequality did not cease to exist at the Mason-Dixon Line, and his magisterial work shows us just how vital the North was in the broader fight for civil rights in the United States.

Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is at his most useful when capturing pre-1960s civil rights history. More specifically, Sugrue's work makes it clear how such events as the Great Depression and World War II spurred the African-American community in the North to begin to demand equality. Whether through his attention to Anna Arnold Hedgeman (a Depression-era Harlem activist), the Communist Party (a forceful advocate for black equality in the nation at the time) or the creation of the wartime Committee on Fair Employment Practices, Sugrue illustrates how those living in the North took the early lead in the fight for civil rights. Taking the fight against racist empires around the world seriously, many African-American activists called upon their own government to live up to its lofty rhetoric. Such efforts pushed President Truman to unexpectedly support new civil rights legislation, culminating with the December 1946 creation of the President's Committee on Civil Rights.

Yet in 1947 Truman, caught up in anti-Communism concerns of the time, issued an executive order requiring government employees to take oaths pledging they were not members of the Communist Party. The chill of McCarthyism soon swept through the nation, and groups devoted to civil rights found themselves expending great energy in displaying their anti-Communist bona fides. Communists were expelled, and attention to economic concerns was placed on the back burner. At the same time, Cold War rationale pushed attention to racial inequality southward, where virulent American racism came to be seen as a liability that undermined U.S. credibility in much of the developing world and gave the Soviets an avenue of rhetorical attack.

Unable to fully capture federal attention, Northern civil rights activists sought to take on inequality at the local level. Sugrue does an excellent job of chronicling the fight to integrate such spaces as beaches, pools and movie theaters in the North, pointing out how "The battle against Jim Crow exposed white fears of black intimacy and black sexuality," a reality that made the integration of such "intimate" spaces all the more difficult. While struggles to overcome such conditions were eclipsed by the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the subsequent Southern lunch counter sit-ins, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leaders used accounts of these earlier Northern efforts to integrate public spaces in the North to train Southern activists. There was, in a real sense, a dialogue between the two regions.

Sugrue does not overlook those forces working against racial equality in the United States. In many ways, Sugrue tells a story of how mobility-both of capital and of people-has come to define the continued fight for civil rights in America. Faced with integrated public spaces, many whites simply abandoned large sections of Northern cities, leaving behind districts ravaged by disinvestment. A similar phenomenon occurred: Whites fled to the suburbs. And African Americans, for the most part, couldn't follow, as legally enforceable restrictive covenants, discriminatory federal housing policies, and the practices of private real estate agents all made sure much of suburbia remained lily white throughout the immediate postwar era. Here is the creation of the infrastructure that would make the "white flight" of the 1960s and '70s possible.

Making matters worse was that such trends corresponded with changes to the global economy. As low-skilled manufacturing increasingly moved overseas, African Americans in the nation's cities found themselves without reliable sources of employment. This is the reality that the next generation of civil rights activists must address. And such individuals would be wise to consult Sweet Land of Liberty-not only for words of inspiration, but also for words of caution.


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