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Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the Northby Thomas Sugrue
"Dutifully, earnestly...[Sweet Land of Liberty] lumbers along from chapter to chapter, touching all the bases but never bringing anything to life. This may have something to do with being the fruit of what is by now standard big-time academic practice...in which the accumulation of massive research assumes greater importance than constructing a narrative that real people out in the real world might actually want to read." Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World (read the entire Book World review)
Synopses & Reviews
The struggle for racial equality in the North has been a footnote in most books about civil rights in America. Now this monumental new work from one of the most brilliant historians of his generation sets the record straight. Sweet Land of Liberty is an epic, revelatory account of the abiding quest for justice in states from Illinois to New York, and of how the intense northern struggle differed from and was inspired by the fight down South.
Thomas Sugrues panoramic view sweeps from the 1920s to the present-more than eighty of the most decisive years in American history. He uncovers the forgotten stories of battles to open up lunch counters, beaches, and movie theaters in the North; the untold history of struggles against Jim Crow schools in northern towns; the dramatic story of racial conflict in northern cities and suburbs; and the long and tangled histories of integration and black power.
Appearing throughout these tumultuous tales of bigotry and resistance are the people who propelled progress, such as Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a dedicated churchwoman who in the 1930s became both a member of New Yorks black elite and an increasingly radical activist; A. Philip Randolph, who as America teetered on the brink of World War II dared to threaten FDR with a march on Washington to protest discrimination-and got the Fair Employment Practices Committee (“the second Emancipation Proclamation”) as a result; Morris Milgram, a white activist who built the Concord Park housing development, the interracial answer to white Levittown; and Herman Ferguson, a mild-mannered New York teacher whose protest of a Queens construction site led him to become a key player in the militant Malcolm Xs movement.
Filled with unforgettable characters and riveting incidents, and making use of information and accounts both public and private, such as the writings of obscure African American journalists and the records of civil rights and black power groups, Sweet Land of Liberty creates an indelible history. Thomas Sugrue has written a narrative bound to become the standard source on this essential subject.
"According to Sugrue (The Origins of the Urban Crises), most histories of the civil rights movement 'focus on the South and the epic battles between nonviolent protestors and the defenders of Jim Crow during the 1950s and 1960s.' The author's groundbreaking account covers a wider time frame and turns the focus northward to 'the states with the largest black populations outside the south.' Sugrue highlights seminal people, books and organizations in his tightly focused study that restores many largely forgotten Northern activists as integral participants in the civil rights movement — such as Philadelphia pastor Leon Sullivan; Roxanne Jones of the 'welfare rights movement' and first black woman elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate; and James Forman, advocate for reparations. The National Negro Congress, the Revolutionary Action Movement and the National Black Political Convention share history with the NAACP and the Urban League, as Sugrue traces the phoenixlike risings from the ashes of old organizations into new. Dense with 'boycotts, pickets, agitation, riots, lobbying, litigation, and legislation,' the book is heavily detailed but consistently readable with unparalleled scope and fresh focus." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
It is true, as Thomas J. Sugrue says at the outset of "Sweet Land of Liberty," that histories of the civil rights movement and the era in which it was at its zenith tend to focus on the South, where segregation was de jure rather than de facto and where white resistance to African-American claims was sclerotic and violent. It is equally true that though in the rest of the country blacks enjoyed in... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) name the same rights as whites, in reality their lives were circumscribed by prejudice every bit as mean and oppressive as in the South: "Northern blacks lived as second-class citizens, unencumbered by the most blatant of southern-style Jim Crow laws but still trapped in an economic, political, and legal regime that seldom recognized them as equals. In nearly every arena, blacks and whites lived separate, unequal lives. Public policy and the market confined blacks to declining neighborhoods; informal Jim Crow excluded them from restaurants, hotels, amusement parks, and swimming pools and relegated them to separate sections of theaters. All but a small number of northern blacks attended racially segregated and inferior schools. As adults, blacks faced formidable obstacles to economic security. They were excluded from whole sectors of the labor market. And, as a result of the combined effects of segregation, discrimination, and substandard education, they remained overrepresented in the ranks of the unemployed and poor." Or, as Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1963, not long before the historic March on Washington, "We must come to see that the de facto segregation in the North is just as injurious as the actual segregation in the South." He was right, of course, and in the last years of his life he confronted dispiriting evidence, especially in Chicago, of just how deeply rooted discrimination was in the North and how intransigent were those whites who practiced it. But Sugrue is quite wrong to claim, as he does, that "Sweet Land of Liberty" breaks new ground. Yes, it brings together an impressive amount of material, and it lures out of the shadows a number of men and women who labored valiantly to force the North — especially its largest cities — to live up to the promises in its noble laws and pious words. This is useful and welcome, but no one who has paid reasonably close attention to civil-rights history of the past century will find much of importance here that has not been recorded previously, and — it gives me no pleasure to say so — readers coming to "Sweet Land of Liberty" in hopes of enlightenment will be discouraged by the book's stupendous length, plodding chronological narrative and pedestrian prose. Sugrue, of the University of Pennsylvania's history department, is a deservedly respected scholar of civil rights with a particular focus on the big cities of the North, but if this book is an attempt to reach a broader readership — as it certainly appears to be — its prospects of doing so do not seem especially bright. The period about which Sugrue writes — from the tentative rise of civil-rights organizations in the early decades of the 20th century right through to today's arguments over affirmative action and "diversity" — is rich in incredible drama, yet there's absolutely no sense of that in "Sweet Land of Liberty." Dutifully, earnestly — and not a little self-importantly — it lumbers along from chapter to chapter, touching all the bases but never bringing anything to life. This may have something to do with being the fruit of what is by now standard big-time academic practice — assembled by an uber professor presiding over a flock of scurrying graduate students — in which the accumulation of massive research assumes greater importance than constructing a narrative that real people out in the real world might actually want to read. The great migration of blacks from the rural South to the big cities of the North, a subject well covered by Nicholas Lemann in "The Promised Land" (1991), was an immense challenge to the North, which by and large failed it miserably. The influx to the cities of ill-educated, desperate yet hopeful Southern blacks was a problem, to be sure, but it was also an opportunity. A few Northern whites recognized the possibilities offered by this new labor supply, but mostly — except during World War II, when there were jobs for everyone — blacks were denied access to good jobs, good education and good housing. Sugrue goes into all of this, and into the early efforts by black leaders — most important among them A. Philip Randolph, who in the early 1940s was "the most visible black activist in the United States" — toward "orienting the struggle for civil rights as a question of power — economic and political." Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Whitney Young, head of the Urban League, were the most prominent figures of the Northern civil-rights movement from the 1940s until well into the 1960s. They were admirable men up against staggering odds — indifferent government at all levels, hostile employers and landlords, a mostly unwelcoming white community — whose only white allies were some labor unions and various leftists and radicals whose value to the cause was undermined by communist and socialist connections. The most useful part of "Sweet Land of Liberty" deals with the North (and, less comprehensively, the Midwest and West) between the Depression and the late 1950s. Well before the rise of civil-rights activism in the South — which dates to the Brown school decision and the Montgomery bus strike in the mid-1950s — Northern blacks were organizing in various ways. Two people's stories are especially interesting: Anna Arnold Hedgeman — "Pious and proper, she was the embodiment of the black churchwoman, sometimes prone to self-righteousness but deeply committed to leading a life of faith in service of social change" — and Henry Lee Moon, "a journalist, labor organizer, government official, and longtime NAACP activist who became one of the most influential black political strategists of his time," especially during the 1930s and 1940s. In everything from jobs to public accommodations to housing, they were up against a wall of complacency: "In the North ... public officials claimed that the separation of races was just a fact of life, not mandated by law or controlled by the state. Whites could deny responsibility for racial segregation, for their choices about where to live and where to send their children to school were individualized and ostensibly race-neutral. The logical conclusion of this line of reasoning was that it was the natural order of things that the vast majority of whites lived in all-white communities and that blacks were confined to segregated neighborhoods and mostly minority schools. Like lived with like, birds of a feather flocked together. No one was at fault." In such an environment it is scarcely surprising that "what activists and pundits alike began calling the 'Negro Revolt of 1963'" took place. It was, Sugrue writes, "like most rebellions, ... the fusion of hope, frustration, and solidarity." Malcolm X was new on the scene, with his "acerbic denunciations of white supremacy" and his gospel "of black economic and political separatism," but hope was still in the air. "Rebellion depends on frustration at the status quo but a belief in the possibility of change." The voices were louder and the rhetoric angrier, but a sympathetic national government was in power, especially after Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency in November 1963, and white opinion was turning somewhat more supportive after the outrages in Birmingham and elsewhere in the South. You know the rest of the story: the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the rise of black power and then the Black Panthers, the succession of "long hot summers" of the 1960s as the cities exploded in frustration and fury, the "shift to electoral politics as the primary strategy of black empowerment" and the subsequent rise of black officialdom in cities and towns of all sizes, the debate over affirmative action. Much of it is a story in progress, all of which we can see right here in Washington: a prosperous black professional class that shows us how far we have come, desperate black neighborhoods that show us how far we have to go. It's all here in "Sweet Land of Liberty," which is neither the first nor the last word on the subject. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Thomas J. Sugrue is a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is currently Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology. Sugrues first book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in American History, the Presidents Book Award of the Social Science History Association, the Philip Taft Prize in Labor History, and the Urban History Association Prize for Best Book in North American Urban History. He has also published essays and reviews in The Washington Post, The Nation, London Review of Books, Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Detroit Free Press.
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History and Social Science » African American Studies » Civil Rights Movement