Title: Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
Author: Thomas Sugrue
Categories: Civil Rights Movement, Race, Housing Segregation, Urban History,
Place: New England, Upper Midwest
Time Period: 1930s-1990s
Thomas Sugrue takes on the standard narrative of the Civil Rights, which begins after World War II, often with Brown v. Board (1954), focuses on the gross injustices of segregation in the South, and culminates with the Civil Rights Act (1964) or Voting Rights Act (1965). After this point, black militancy and urban rioting causes a backlash of white conservatism that marked the decline of the civil rights era in the 1970s. Sugrue rewrites this narrative by a) expanding it beyond the American South to the urban and suburban North, and b) lengthening it to a "long" movement that stretches back to the 1930s and forward to the 1990s. At the center of Sugrue's work is an effort to dynamite the myth of Northern innocence and Southern exceptionalism. Sugrue argues that the optimistic narrative of increasing racial tolerance that stresses white racism as an aberration of American ideals (embodied for him by Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma), hides the much deeper structural forces of racial and economic inequality. Ignoring these systemic inequalities propagates the notion that northern whites are absolved of finding solutions, and that things like segregation and achievement gaps are simply natural, unintentional results of aggregated individual decision-making or market forces.
Sugrue places the origins of the Civil Rights movement in the 1930s and describes how earlier "talented tenth" emphasis on racial uplift gave way to alliances with a more militant labor ideology that centered on employment practices and workplace discrimination. The New Deal ended up being a mixed bag for civil rights: on the one hand it fostered a "Rights Revolution" ideology of positive government empowered to actively help individuals, but on the other it instituted deep and far-reaching discriminatory policies, particularly in the realm of housing and the FHA. During the post-war 1950s, Sugrue notes that anticommunism limited reform and contributed to a more gradualist approach that focused on employment practices and then school desegregation. Sugrue argues that northern urban desegregation was much easier in more public spaces (such as movie theaters or restaurants), but met violent resistance with more private spaces (such as housing and neighborhoods), and that oftentimes instead of the kind of graphic resistance of white Southerners, white Northerners would simply leave or quietly gerrymander neighborhoods to maintain segregation. He also gives significant agency to local, grassroots efforts at school desegregation as "setting the agenda" for national reform.
Sugrue places housing at the center of the battlefield for northern civil rights. Far from being the work of market forces comprised of millions of individual choices, Sugrue demonstrates just how intentional and deeply systematic housing segregation was in the north (through restrictive covenants or federal policies, for example). He is also critical of the liberal "open housing movement" that worked towards integration, which notes appealed to the same idea of reforming white hearts and minds without tackling the deeper structural issues. This gave way to a split in the civil rights movement during the late 1960s, between the "open housing movement" or "deghettoization" side and the Community Action strand of civil rights that often emphasized black power and improving conditions of black communities rather than simply integration. Sugrue similarly points to a broader division within the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s to the 1970s between gradualists/integrationists and those who advocated for more confrontational policies and black power. Sugrue notes the deficiencies of each: integrationists only ended up benefiting a small sliver of middle-class blacks, while black power and the Community Action campaign (which increasingly took precedence after the 1970s) pitted small, local efforts against systemic forces that were largely beyond their control. Sugrue does note some successes, such as Lyndon Johnson's War On Poverty initiating a lasting wave of employment for black people (particularly the middle class) in the public sector and the rise of black electoral politics from the 1970s onwards, but paints a crushingly depressing picture of persistent, lasting racial inequality in the North through the 1990s.
Key Themes and Concepts
- "Long" Civil Rights movement - places origins in the 1920s-1930s labor movement and extends it forward into the 1990s
- Civil Rights movement from a northern perspective - blows up the morality tale of southern sin and northern innocence
- Wants to shift emphasis from racist behavior and attitudes towards STRUCTURAL racism
- Housing at the center of northern racism
- Move away from Southern de jure segregation towards economic and housing inequality of North
- New Deal legacy mixed bag: "Rights Revolution" and activist government protecting individuals vs. discriminatory policies
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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