The Forgotten History of Civil Rights

Tom Sugrue talks about his upcoming book, Sweet Land of Liberty.
February 28, 2008
While Tom Sugrue, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology, was researching his award-winning book The Origins of the Urban Crisis, he found the inspiration for yet another untold American story. In Origins, Sugrue offers an important new perspective on the economic decline in Detroit and other industrial cities since World War II. One of the major issues he explores is how residential segregation, economic transformation and discrimination in the workplace constrained opportunities for African Americans in Northern cities in the mid to late 20th century. He realized, however, that the history of how African Americans and their allies challenged and resisted these developments was largely unknown.

“I decided to look at the ways in which these major changes that were transforming mid-20th-century America didn’t go uncontested,” Sugrue says.

The result is his upcoming book, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. Sugrue, a self-acknowledged “archive hound,” exhaustively researched a variety of sources including African-American newspapers, government investigative reports, records of civil rights organizations and letters “to put flesh on the bones of this forgotten history.”

Scheduled to be published by Random House this fall, Sweet Land of Liberty depicts a fight for civil rights in the North that was as complex and ferocious as the highly publicized battles in the South. He also argues that to understand the continuing legacy of the fight for civil rights, it’s vital to look at the North’s as well as the South’s successes and failures in addressing racial inequality.

Sugrue says, “We really need to put the North front and center in terms of understanding the situation of America today.”


Q: Why do you think the Northern struggle for civil rights has been ignored?
A: The story of civil rights in the North has been ignored in part because the Southern story we tell is a very compelling one. It’s a story that follows a traditional narrative framework that is easy to tell and retell again, which is the story of immorality, of nonviolent struggle, of suffering and of redemption. In that story, the history of the North is largely an afterthought, or it’s the tragic denouement of what happened in the South.

The argument goes that when the movement went north it faced resistance, the skepticism of a rising Black Power movement and the urban riots of the late 1960s, and the tumultuous politics that followed. The problem with this story is that it ignores or downplays the long roots of civil rights, both in the South and in the North, that go back much further than the mid-1950s and that involved all sorts of activists whose stories are more everyday and more prosaic. These people were dealing with issues that simply couldn’t always be defined in black/white moral binaries.

Q: What types of activities were Northern activists involved in?
A: During the 1930s and 1940s grassroots activists really saw the question of civil rights as a question of economic rights as much as anything else. Activists saw the questions of racial economic inequality or racial class as fundamentally intertwined, and promoted an agenda to improve wages and to push for trade unionization, as well as an agenda to end discrimination.

I also discovered a remarkable history of grassroots black-led boycotts of separate and unequal schools in the North that really forced me to rethink the whole meaning of Brown v. Board of Education. There was also a really important and largely unknown Northern story of grassroots battles against segregated hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, swimming pools and amusement parks.  This was a real eye-opener for me. Up until the 1950s, in many parts of the North, African Americans were systematically excluded from public accommodations. Many of the activists in the South, in the famous sit-ins in the early 1960s, were inspired by the activism of Northerners who, in the 1940s and 1950s, were engaged in civil disobedience to challenge segregation.

Q: The timeframe you cover in your book goes back to the 1920s and comes right up to the present. Why did you choose that scope?
A: The Northern story forces us to push the chronology of civil rights back and forward in time, and it makes us focus on many of the issues that were left unresolved in the so-called “classic” phase of the civil rights movement, including economic inequality, persistent segregation in where people live and in education and educational equality.

My book begins during the enormous migration of African Americans from the South to Northern cities, which changed the demography and the politics of the North in serious ways. During the 1920s and 1930s, in the midst of this migration, you have currents of nationalism and black self-determination and a very strong current of black anti-imperialism that’s really influential. You’ve got activists who are putting together trade unionism and the black freedom struggle and who are making arguments for black-white alliances. You also have the coming of the New Deal and the rights consciousness that it unleashed.  This whole period is one of real ferment and of exploration and experimentation, and you can follow many of those currents through the struggles of the next several decades.

My story goes forward to the present because I resist the simplistic division of 20th-century America into the civil rights era and the so-called post-civil rights era, as if all the questions of the civil rights movement were solved and now we’re in a period that is qualitatively different. To cut off this story, as so many books do, circa 1968 would not do justice to the ongoing struggles for racial equality that build on previous generations of civil rights activism.

Q: You grew up in Detroit, a city that figured heavily in your last book, Origins of the Urban Crisis. Did you bring experiences or observations from your childhood into Sweet Land of Liberty?
A: Yes — I started thinking about Detroit and thinking about issues of race and inequality in part because of my childhood and my growing up in a city that was intensely racially divided in a period of enormous contestation over race and politics.

But in this book I also ended up realizing that lots of places, not all of them big cities, were important in the history of civil rights in the North and in the South. Much of what I write about, to my surprise, happened in suburbs and happened in small towns. These places, as much as big cities like Detroit or Chicago or New York, were real crucibles of grassroots activism and places where African Americans formed a civil rights consciousness and struggled to make change. Sweet Land of Liberty really looks at the diversity of the civil rights struggles in different kinds of communities.

Q: What can the Northern struggle tell us about the current social landscape in the U.S.?
A: One of the paradoxes I confront in this book is that the places that are the most racially segregated and polarized in the United States are disproportionately in the North. If you look at the top 25 most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States, most of them are in the North.  If you look at the states with school districts that are the most racially separated or segregated, they’re also disproportionately in the North and the West.

Patterns of racial separation and segregation and division in the North resembled those in the South in ways we don’t acknowledge. There weren’t always the black and white drinking fountains, the kinds of visible signs marking racial segregation, but in the North there were practices in the workplace, in public accommodations, in housing, that were every bit as effective as a “Whites Only” sign in terms of keeping blacks and whites separated and unequally distributing resources between them. White Northerners, however, shrugged their shoulders and said the racial segregation that’s here is not the matter of our individual racist intent — it’s rather the result of the inexorable workings of the free market.

The history of the North is one of choices constrained. This has lessons for today if we want to understand how it is that we’ve achieved, in certain arenas, significant progress over the last half century, yet simultaneously and paradoxically, we’ve had stasis or even setbacks. 

Q: So you’re exploring the idea that racial inequality is about institutions and not only
personal attitudes?
A: That’s one of the major themes that run through my book. Since the mid-20th Century, Northerners and Americans in general have framed the question of civil rights as a moral question or a psychological question — a question about individual motivations and individual intentions.  But the story of the North is a story of the ways in which racial separation and racial privilege are created and replicated through institutions. Ultimately it’s a story of the ways in which the taking for granted of how we organized our workplaces, how we organized where we live, became the foundation for deeper and more pernicious forms of racial inequality.

By explaining away racial inequality as a problem in the hearts and minds of white Americans, we also dodge having to grapple with the larger issues about the ways in which racial inequality is the result of exploitation--the result of asymmetrical power relationships. That fundamentally, as civil rights activists have highlighted, is a political problem which requires pushing the political system to demand a different allocation of power and resources. 

Q: What do you think is the current state of civil rights activism? 
A: We’re in a moment, I think, of real confusion in terms of how we talk and think about questions of race and racial inequality and in terms of the strategies that we’re deploying to try to challenge it. In part it’s because discursively we still frame the history of civil rights in terms of the Southern story, in terms of the civil rights and the post-civil rights era.  So it’s a commonplace argument that any remaining racial inequality is not the result of racism, but rather it’s a result of the market or it’s the result of African-American culture and differences. On a national level, too, issues of race and racial equality have fallen off of the political agenda. 

Also, too many people involved in civil rights activism still focus on rooting out individual-level racism or transforming the psychology of white America or black America.  Too many of our efforts were shaped at a moment when we focused on the most obvious kinds of personal racism and not on the institutional forms that they took.

The most creative civil rights activists of the 20th Century tried to work on both the personal and institutional fronts simultaneously.  One clear lesson of the movements and struggles I write about is that changing hearts and minds is necessary but never even close to sufficient.  It needs to be accompanied with thinking about inequitable power relationships and thinking about the organization of our political institutions. Those are bigger and knottier and more difficult questions.