Scott Saul over at ‘The Nation’ has written a review of Thomas Sugrue’s ‘Sweet Land of Liberty’, released last Fall. The book is about the ‘Northern Phase’ of the Civil Rights Movement. I had Posted about it back on November 26th, here.
At that time I said that there was a fundamental and fateful difference between the ‘Southern’ or ‘First’ Phase of the Civil Rights Movement, presided over by Martin Luther King, grounded firmly in a genuinely comprehensive and spiritually effort to unite all Americans in the non-violent struggle to realize the country’s still-unrealized ideals. It is from this phase that the uplifting now-iconic images of sit-ins and Freedom Riders and arm-linked clergy – black and white – are taken.
The ‘Second Phase’, I said, resulted from the spread of the movement – especially after the signing of the Voting Rights Act in July, 1965 – to the Northern and coastal urban setting, where King lost influence and the more revolution-minded and separatist-minded younger generation of activists took over. Indeed, I noted, it was less than two weeks after the Voting Rights Act signing that Watts suddenly exploded, effectively gutting LBJ’s ability to further deploy his massive skills in the service of integration in consequence.
Now comes Saul, with an interesting piece.
He begins by going back even further than the 1950s and the Montgomery era of Rosa Parks, to the wartime 1940s and the indications of racism in the real-estate trade as well as the efforts of individual and local black folk to bring to fruition the promise of 1865 and Reconstruction. Black Americans, after all, were shedding blood for human dignity, democracy, and ‘freedom’ in World War 2 and yet did not have it themselves at home.
The efforts of American blacks to – quite legitimately – take advantage of the opportunity of World War 2’s societal developments sparked a racism in the non-Southern portions of the country; but it was a far more subtle racism than the brutishly obvious ‘Southern’ racism that performed so vividly for the cameras in the 1950s and early 1960s.
But Saul wants to back Sugrue’s effort to show that there was a very real, if not so organized, civil rights movement outside the South well before Rosa Parks’s day. Which is certainly a legitimate historical project.
Yet there’s something else piggy-backed in there. Saul also goes after the “now-standard accounts like the PBS documentary ‘Eyes on the Prize’” wherein “the Northern movement literally explodes into view with the urban insurrections of the mid-to-late ‘60s – with Stokely Carmichael’s chant of ‘Black Power’ taken up in burning cities from Watts to Newark”. Well, yes, this is also a legitimate point; black folk in outside of the South were trying to get things done to improve their lot. And they faced resistance, though – as noted above – of a more subtle type than in the South of that era.
But, Saul goes on quickly, “From this angle, the Northern civil rights movement seems to coincide with the starburst and subsequent flameout, of Black Power and Black Power appears largely as a betrayal of Martin Luther King’s inclusive vision rather than as a strategy that evolved from the painful dilemmas faced by the Northern side of the movement.” This is a big leap. The inference is that there was a non-revolutionary Northern movement, one that kept on all along, from the 1940s (at least) all the way up through the Sixties and beyond. And Yes, there may well have been.
But Saul honestly observes that Sugrue “offers a history of the Northern civil rights movement in which the Black Panthers have been demoted to bit players, Angela Davis and the Attica prison revolt make no appearance” and a bunch of good-hearted little folks, so to speak, are “battling against faceless if powerful entities like the National Real Estate Board”.
The present scheme of understanding, Black Power displacing King and engaging in actual ‘revolutionary separatism’ with all the callow commitment of the young, is “profoundly incomplete” and Sugrue is going to correct that with his history, Saul claims.
Well, I’m not sure about the profundity of the incompleteness. It was the sudden metamorphosis of the civil rights movement into the Black Power movement that shocked the citizenry – all those riots and threats of armed revolutionary force in the service of a violently achieved separatism – and so gutted the Democrats’ vote-garnering strategy that they proceeded in a desperate and addle-pated way to simultaneously pander to any ‘black demands’ while also courting all sorts of other Identities – especially the ‘womens’ movement and, more precisely, the radical feminist ideology that proclaimed itself the representative of ‘women’s interests’.
And, relevantly to Us here today, the ‘Jewish vote’ by initiating a thorough indenture of US foreign policy to the visions, hopes, dreams, schemes and excitements of the Israeli State.
So while I acknowledge that Sugrue is performing a good service by accurately expanding the historical record, he is not stepping in to correct a “profound” incompleteness. The profound effects of the Black Power phenomenon are with Us still, and have poisoned relations between the races, even as it helped to enable an even larger civil divisiveness between ‘the genders’. Oy.
Indeed, future historians may come to mark the fall-out of the Black Power movement as the beginning of the end of America as a coherent polity, society, and citizenry, setting in motion a decline in civic health and unity that only increased as the decades of ‘revolution’ eagerly mushed forward on their Long March (Marches, plural, more properly).
This is a rather profound reality that the Left and those who like to think of themselves as ‘liberals’ would rather not contemplate. And who can blame them? Now that the fake-wealth and almost-fake money that plastered over the increasingly large and deep cracks in the very foundations of the polity has run out, and its greasy golden miasm starts to dissolve in the harsh cold winds of global and historical actualities, the Left would rather not look at things … in much the same way as the former Bushist banditti most strenuously resist being examined as to the lethal and duplicitous frakkery that they perpetrated when they were gaudily dressed in a lot of brief but vast authority.
More specifically, as Saul observes, it’s hard to tell a good story with no dramatic arc, and all the small, genuinely ‘grass-roots’ efforts of all those little-folk really doesn’t make for good theater or – face it – good television ‘news’. No blood, no threats, no posturing, no flames and wreckage … just a bunch of decent people trying to improve things in the face of admittedly subtle obstruction.
But this was, again, a key fracture-point. Faced with an opponent no longer providing overt hostility (think the Southern cops and politicians and a whole lotta the Southern white folks, firehoses, billy-clubs, police dogs, and even white-robes), the blacks looked to the government when the Dems controlling the government declared themselves ready to deploy the awesome government power against such a subtle enemy. It would be – if I may – the ‘military option’ by virtue of adopting the military metaphor and by virtue of attempting to root out a complex and deeply-rooted and profoundly subtle attitude on the part of a very large number of citizens, using the offensive weapons of the government police and regulatory power as if it were a military instrument. (An eerie doppelganging of the mistakes already being lustily funded in Vietnam, and an even more eerie precursor of the current wars in Iraq and Af-Pak.)
This was a grave – perhaps ultimately fatal – mistake for at least two reasons. First, the government cast itself as a warrior against a sizable fraction of its citizens (the ‘white, racist’ fraction), which – to all but the most inebriated – can only seem … ill-advised and fraught with darkling potentials.
Second, the government was going to be going after something so ‘subtle’ that the usual weaponry of civil and criminal law – attuned to ‘acts’ rather than ‘attitudes’ – were far too blunt as instruments or weapons to really and quickly achieve the objectives. Rather than ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the ‘subtle white racists’ of the not-Southern parts of the country, the government simply went to war against them.
But that’s the classic American way of doing things, isn’t it? Find a clear enemy, go after that enemy with ‘shock and awe’ and overwhelming force, and conquer that enemy quickly, cheaply, and with no lasting ill-consequences. And if you don’t succeed in that damp-dream on the first try, then keep doing it even more, with more of everything. Thus the course of the Vietnam War.
(And let Us not here overload the circuits by envisioning what happened when the government then went and declared war on an even larger fraction of the citizenry – males – on behalf of an even more politically attractive ‘demographic’, that ‘women’s vote’, administered, for convenience’ sake, by the ideological and radical elements of feminism. Oy gevalt.)
Now, of course, nobody in the past or present ‘elite’ wants to really talk about it. I suppose it would be like the captain and bridge team of the Titanic locking themselves away up there, to avoid having to come down to steerage, or even first class, to explain how they meant well and stuff happens and isn’t it good that we’re all now really really Nearer My God to Thee?
We’re going to be seeing a lot more of this type of ‘history’ now. For two reasons. First, these ‘elites’ of those storied days are now getting on and would like to ensure their legacy with a How-We-Did-It sort of memoir. Thus to some extent Sugrue here and – in matters feminist – Fred Strebeigh’s recent history* of the feministical machinations to change – by hook or by cocktail – the Beltway approach to American law in the service of their excited visions. They succeeded, by the by, although the consequences have not been altogether what they intended.
Second, it is prudent, wise, and surely shrewd to start spinning things before – the money and the miasm having blown away as aforementioned – folks start seeing more clearly just what the frak has been done over the past three and a half decades. Teddy Kennedy isn’t the only one looking to lock-in a preemptive spin before the fog blows off or before he is no longer – ummmm – physically present to ensure with the weight of that presence that only the nice parts are discussed. It’s an important part of ‘The Dream’ there in the Beltway: getting out of town with your reputation burnished.
Alas, history may prove as implacable as God was formerly. Or perhaps still is, once you wind up rather immediately in His presence. Oy gevalt and Ach.
Saul ends with observations that Sugrue has been unable to grapple with the failure of so much of the civil-rights movements’ initiatives. He tries to save the day with the thought that even while individual whites are no longer so racist, they are willing to countenance much institutional racism.
Here, Saul is trying to save ‘The Nation’s’ bacon as well as the entire post-1965 record. What else can be Correctly identified as a source of the failure? You can’t ‘blame the victim'. You can’t actually start going after pols – the Dems are the official hope of ‘liberals’ and to blame it all on ‘the Republicans’ or ‘the Right’ would be ludicrously tendentious. You can’t acknowledge that there were far more profound complexities than the heady revolutionaries and advocacies and the addled Beltway pols were willing to take into account before they pressed their assorted launch-buttons. You most surely can’t note that the anti-family and anti-male and anti-morality schemes of the radical and ideological feminist elements utterly undercut with scythe-like accuracy the fabric of black community and even individual identity and maturity. And it’s just too little of a bang and too much of a whimper to observe that it was one of the great and sad ironies of American history that the civil-rights movement arrived at such fruition as it achieved just at the point where America’s postwar economic world-hegemony was beginning to fail, starting what has now proved itself to be a probably irreversible and irretrievable decline.
And what self-respecting ‘liberal’ nowadays can blame it on ‘God’ with a straight face?
Saul nicely concludes that Sugrue deserves “much credit for forcing attention on the hard questions that the Northern civil-rights movement asked of American society. He deserves even more for forcing attention on the arduous questions that the movement’s disappointments reflect back on us.”
Those arduous questions have been around since at least Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s time, since Watts and Black Power. They were ignored; in their scramble for votes the Dems – and not long after the Republicans – neither asked them nor provided the type of moral leadership or at least example that would have helped American society look at itself carefully in the mirror.
Who is in a position to ask them now?
*Fred Strebeigh, in his book “Equal: Women Shape American Law” . See also my Post and Notes “Their Ranters, Our Advocates” of June 3, 2009.