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Friday, November 21st, 2008
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Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North

by Thomas Sugrue

From the Rise of Civil Rights to the Debate over Affirmative Action

A review by Jonathan Yardley

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 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

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