Saturday, March 9, 2013

Book Review: Sweet Land of Liberty

Thomas Sugrue. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. New York: Random House, 2008.

For many Americans the civil rights movement remains a southern-rooted morality play providing reassuring testament to how far the nation has come. Thomas Sugrue argues that including the North in the story of the black freedom struggle upends this soothing narrative and fundamentally reshapes our understanding of both the movement and America’s present progress toward racial equality. Traditional histories that focus on the South in the 1950s and 1960s are, Sugrue says, “as much the product of forgetting as remembering." This is forgetfulness with a purpose, as simplistic tales of past victories produce complacency in the present. By broadening the geographic and temporal scope of civil rights history, Sugrue challenges this forgetfulness.

Sugrue employs a blend of topical and chronological approaches to show the importance of the North in the black freedom struggle. He begins his narrative in the 1920s and 1930s with chapters on topics ranging from the fight to desegregate public accommodations in the North to school integration, open housing, and fair employment efforts. Sugrue reveals a northern landscape of broad-based activism, much of it led by grassroots groups operating under the radar of the white press. It becomes clear that the North was anything but a sideshow. Indeed, while the South still appeared relatively tranquil the movement was already well underway in the North. Like other recent civil rights scholars such as Glenda Gilmore, Sugrue explores the radical roots of much of this protest. Activists achieved significant – if frequently symbolic – gains, as many northern states passed laws banning de jure segregation in the 1930s and 1940s.

Sugrue sees 1963 as a turning point. In that year alone, the justice department tallied 1,412 civil rights protests, the result of an unprecedented surge of activism driven by an increasingly militant and impatient grassroots. Yet Sugrue’s book differs in important respects from classic texts such as Taylor Branch’s epic trilogy. In Sugrue’s hands, the splintering of the civil rights movement and the rise of black power in the latter part of the 1960s is not a false turn or unprecedented change. Rather, it appears as an organic development that is markedly familiar, rising out of the wide-ranging radicalism of the interwar years. Here Sugrue’s difficult blending of topical and chronological approaches works well as he comes around to the same topics covered earlier – housing, schools, work – but explores the struggle over them in the different context of the 1960s and 1970s as everyone from radical nationalists to moderate integrationists drew on decades-old currents of protest.

Sweet Land of Liberty is as comprehensive an account of the civil rights struggle in the North as we are likely to have for quite some time. Sugrue deftly covers subjects as diverse as the violent uprisings of the urban North to issues of gender and the politics of welfare. Crucially, Sugrue carries his narrative through the 1990s. Though this final section of the book is less developed, it bolsters Sugrue’s thesis that examining the northern civil rights struggle forces a reappraisal of the movement and America’s present condition. He points out that in education, housing, employment, and wealth inequality, the conditions that produced the black freedom struggle remain astonishingly similar. Seen from the North and in the broad sweep of the twentieth century, it becomes clear that the civil rights movement ended not merely because it achieved its goals, but because it was defeated.

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