Northern Freedom Chronicles
— Dianne Feeley
Sweet Land of Liberty
The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
By Thomas J. Sugrue
Random House, NY, 2008, 588 pages, $20 paperback.
“WE MUST COME to see that the de facto segregation in the North is just as injurious as the actual segregation in the South.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr., from his talk at Detroit’s Walk to Freedom March, June 23, 1963
WHILE MOST HISTORIES of the civil rights movement are set in the South, Thomas J. Sugrue’s book outlines its Northern trajectory. He examines the movement’s struggle against wide-ranging discrimination in employment, public education, housing, public accommodations — including restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, amusement parks — as well as issues around police.
The author, whose first book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, documents the history particularly of job and housing discrimination that led to the 1967 Detroit uprising, provides a powerful synthesis of work by a variety of new historians that document the Northern struggle for racial justice.
In his introduction to Sweet Land of Liberty Sugrue notes that at the beginning of the 21st century, the 15 most segregated metropolitan areas were in the Northeast and Midwest. (xiv) Inspired by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s conception of a “long civil rights movement,” the author provides an overview of key 20th century African-American struggles for justice and equality in north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Overcoming Racism: Two Approaches
Sweet Land of Liberty is divided into three sections, with the first section a prologue of three chapters that set the stage by presenting two approaches on how to overcome racism.
Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy (1944), a comprehensive two-volume study, contrasted the national rhetoric of equal opportunity with the reality of racial inequality. Although primarily describing life in the South, the book detailed how a racially divided labor market functioned and outlined the repressive system under which Southern Blacks lived.
In Myrdal’s view, the disparity between myth and reality was a stain on the American character that could be overcome by “social engineering.” Myrdal saw Americans as a moral people rooted in a Judeo-Christian understanding of the unity of all God’s children. This trait could be the lever by which they could overcome prejudice and irrationality, by a twofold process of education and breaking down economic discrimination through unionization, legislation and national planning.
If America was “imperfect,” its people possessed the ideals of liberty and freedom that could transform the country. It was a hopeful vision, which assumed that the agents of social change were scientists, educators and political actors, certainly not the Black population. But the concept did dovetail with an element within the Black community that saw moral uplift as the way forward — individualistic yes, but an approach also based on a belief in racial solidarity, of well-off Blacks helping their disadvantaged brethren.
One example that Sugrue mentions was the National Association of Colored Women, which had more than 100,000 members in 1924. They pushed for laws against lynching, discrimination and racially inferior education and for social welfare policies that would benefit poor and working women, regardless of race. Their motto was “Lifting as we climb.”
In contrast, Marxist intellectuals such as Oliver Cromwell Cox and Herbert Aptheker scoffed at the idea that changing individual attitudes would break racism’s hold. Instead they demanded that the social system be held responsible, and that structural impediments stood in the way.
Organizers like A. Philip Randolph mobilized the Black community to make demands on the political establishment. As he wrote, “nothing counts but pressure, more pressure and still more pressure.” (32) His projected March on Washington Movement during World War II forced president Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which forbade discrimination on the basis of “race, creed, color or national origin” by defense contractors and created a committee to monitor compliance.
Although the DC march was called off after the order was issued, clearly the Black community had mobilized all that summer—with a rally in Madison Square Garden followed by a march of 25,000, with rallies of 16,000 in Chicago and 9,000 in St. Louis.
Northern Housing Apartheid
After outlining these seemingly divergent perspectives, Sugrue moves on to the second section, with four chapters outlining the discrimination Blacks in the North faced. While they did not live in rigid racially segregated cities in the 19th century, North or South, by century’s end the Midwest was dotted with “sundown” towns where Blacks were not welcome after sunset. Additionally, every housing development between 1920 and 1948 had restrictive covenants that forbade the sale of property to any person who was not “white.”
New Deal legislation maintained the segregated housing market. Central to FDR’s social policy was the creation of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1933 and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) the following year. Along with the mortgage program of the Veterans Administration, the federal government guaranteed mortgages from default. Sugrue underscores how central public policy created home ownership:
Without federal intervention in the housing market, massive suburbanization would have been impossible. In 1930, only 30 percent of Americans own their own homes; by 1960, more than 60 percent were home owners. Home ownership became an emblem of American citizenship. (204)
However, this emblem was exclusionary — federally backed loans were rarely available in racially mixed neighborhoods. HOLC itself would map and label a neighborhood with even one Black family as “actuarially unsound.” This provided real estate agents with the tools by which they could defend “freedom of association.”
White homeowners argued that they had sound economic reasons to keep “undesirables” out: Black homeowners undermined the value of their homes. Although the author mentions extralegal actions in cities such as Detroit in the 1920s, he points to the escalation of physical attack in nearly every major Northern city as official segregation was banned by the late 1940s. Between 1945 and 1965, over 200 white neighborhood associations were formed in Detroit alone, most with the explicit purpose of defending neighborhoods against Blacks.
While not all whites moved to the new suburbs to avoid Blacks, their access to the suburbs, with a network of roads underwritten by federal funds and their ability to secure federally-backed mortgages, dramatically altered urban America. Sugrue points out that “the most salient feature of postwar suburbs was their political isolation from the increasingly heterogeneous central cities.” (205) He goes on to say:
“Suburbia represented the merger of identity and interest. Group membership — race — shaped where you live and your self-perception. Whites saw their neighborhoods as the antithesis of the black ghetto — neat, orderly, well funded, and well run. By contrast they viewed black communities as filthy, lawless, run-down, and poorly managed. Whites kept up their properties. Negroes did not. In a society that emphasized housing and real estate as a matter of free choice and explained the movement to suburbia as the consequence of hard work, the commonsensical explanations of racial inequality emphasized individual success and individual failure. The political mechanisms that made possible massive white home ownership and discouraged black home ownership were largely invisible.” (206-7)
This perception explains how much of white America can look at decaying and segregated urban schools without concern. Official and “intentional” segregation (de jure) was ruled illegal in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. In fact, by the early 1950s relatively few Northern school districts still had separate schools for whites and Blacks.
Grassroots boycotts, often led by mothers, combined with legal action, had already forced cities such as Chicago, New York and Philadelphia to desegregate the schools. Even more significant were the successful boycotts in a range of suburbs and industrial towns — Hillburn and New Rochelle, NJ; Benton Harbor, MI; Toms River, NJ.
While celebrating these successes, Sugrue outlines what was a Pyrrhic victory. In 1949 Black parents in Hempstead, NY kept their children out of the all-Black Prospect Street School, demanding that it be closed and their children distributed among the remaining schools.
Constance Baker Motley, a young NAACP lawyer, won the case brought against the school board. Blacks were then able to attend the elementary school closest to their homes. As Sugrue explains, however:
“As long as school district boundaries followed neighborhood boundaries, it would just be a matter of time before whites took advantage of their freedom to move, exploiting the fact that blacks had few choices about where to live. Hempstead quickly resegregated…. By 1962, two of Hempstead’s elementary schools were over 95 percent white, but Franklin and Jackson were nearly 75 percent black. At the nominally desegregated Prospect Street School, 85 percent of the students were black. Jim Crow had risen again in a new form, this time legitimated by a seemingly race-neutral principle that even the NAACP had endorsed.” (181)
The chapters in the second section of Sweet Land of Liberty, on housing and public education, are particularly excellent in laying out the challenge that faced the Northern civil rights movement, and frankly that faces us today. If de jure segregation has been outlawed, de facto segregation flourishes.
Sugrue introduces readers to two longtime, and relatively mainstream, civil rights activists. The first is Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who starts out as one of the people W.E.B. Du Bois termed the “talented tenth,” a college-educated religious woman who saw her mission as helping the poor. Yet Hedgeman did not always stay within the confines of the “uplifting” perspective, but signed onto Randolph’s March on Washington Movement.
Hedgeman had a top-down style and definitely preferred lobbying to grassroots organizing, but came to understand that ending racial discrimination required making demands.
The second mainstream figure Sugrue discusses is Henry Lee Moon, a reporter for the Amsterdam News, labor organizer and NAACP publicist. Sugrue entitles one of his chapters after the title of Moon’s 1948 book, Balance of Power. Moon noted that as early as 1936 the Black majority in the North had shifted their votes to the Democratic Party — although many ministers and businesspeople remained in the Republican Party.
He called for voter registration drives and pointed out that African Americans already held the balance of power in 75 Northern congressional districts. (90) NAACP director Walter White made sure president Harry Truman got a copy of Moon’s book, and Sugrue outlines the steps Truman took to court Blacks during the 1948 presidential campaign.
In the end, 69% of all African American votes were cast for Truman. Their votes would be decisive in the elections of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. (502)
Although Moon was overly optimistic about the pivotal role Blacks could play in national politics during this period, between 1945-’65 fully 29 states adopted fair employment practices laws. Even if relatively toothless, these laws and even more importantly, the opening up of municipal employment opportunities to Northern Blacks, provided a baseline from which to attack employment discrimination. While other African-American organizers and spokespeople of the time opposed the logjam of the two-party system, Moon’s perspective is clearly a strategy most Blacks see as practical, even more so today than in 1948.
Fighting for Justice
The book’s third section, “Freedom Now,” comprises seven chapters outlining the struggle to win justice and equality through a variety of approaches. These cover a range from community organizing developed by the Black Panthers and welfare rights organizations, through the demands for Black businesses, community-controlled schools, affirmative action, reparations and ending police brutality.
Sugrue discusses government responses, from the Kennedy administration through president Johnson’s “war on poverty” and president Clinton’s ending “welfare as we have known it.”
The author’s account weaves studies, public policy, stories and the changing nature of cities and suburbs. There is Whitney Young of the NAACP demanding a “Marshall Plan for the Negro,” Audley “Queen Mother” Moore raising the demand for reparations on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, CORE’s confrontational campaign for open housing, the attempt to build a Freedom Now Party in Michigan and run African-American candidates for public office, school boycotts, sit-ins and freedom schools, and demonstrations demanding the inclusion of Black workers in city-sponsored construction projects and pickets against police brutality.
The Kennedy administration, alarmed by growing protest North and South, attempted to respond by drafting a civil rights bill. As the president stated in his June 11, 1963 speech, “It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets.” (296)
At that same moment, urban police departments were being given crash courses in how to deal with “mob violence,” and the military hardware to enforce what they learned.
Sugrue delves beneath the unity of forces that put together Detroit’s Walk to Freedom March in June 1963. Somewhere between 125,000-200,000 marched down Woodward and heard King remark on the “magnificent new militancy” and rehearse what would become the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. (299)
But beneath the surface the unity was paper thin, with Rev. C.L. Franklin planning to build a Northern Christian Leadership Conference that would be bolder than the Southern version and Rev. Albert Cleage, Jr. increasingly drawn to mass disruption of the system as the only way whites would be forced to dismantle discrimination.
The urban riots of 1963-67 were certainly not the consequence of Cleage’s perspective, but rather the result of pervasive racial discrimination:
“Urban, working-class men, those who made up the majority of rioters, were also those hit hardest by the tidal wave of economic restructuring that swept through urban America after World War II. To a generation of northern black men who had come of age in the decaying cities and the stagnant urban economics of the 1950s and 1960s, the economic outlook was not helpful. Their fathers and brothers may have looked wistfully on the wartime boom. But for men coming of age in the 1960s, that was remote history….And, finally, the urban uprisings manifested a sense of the importance of honor, of respect that permeated black culture and politics — with a particular masculine sensibility.” (349-50)
Both FBI’s COINTELPRO and the local police force responded in force to this resistance, particularly so whenever a group framed their stance with the call for Black Power. Sugrue isn’t sympathetic to arguments for Black Power, but I appreciate his recognition of it as a “series of experiments, attempts to envision a political alternative to the racial liberalism that had prevailed through most of the postwar years.” (355)
Women Leading in the Struggle
Although the 1960s is perceived as having a “masculine sensibility,” whether in the civil rights or antiwar movement, Sugrue includes women in his history. That is true whether he is talking about Black women who led the school boycotts or Johnnie Tillmon, a woman from Los Angeles and shop steward in her local of the Laundry Workers Union who became disabled by arthritis and applied for welfare. Finding the process degrading, she organized welfare recipients and co-founded the National Welfare Rights Organization in 1967.
NWRO combined its tactics, from grassroots protest to lobbying and building broad alliances, but its vision was one that saw welfare mothers as the agents of social change. Sugrue also recounts the welfare rights work of Philadelphia’s Roxanne Jones and Boston’s Doris Bland.
Women are introduced not just as organizers, but also as thinkers. Perhaps most important is the figure of Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, who, at a Black Power conference in 1968, raised the call for reparations. A decade later she explained that the concept of reparations is “not to make one or two or three or ten little people a little wealthier. The idea was give some form of recompense even unto our fourth generation to come, because we’ve been four generations injured and it’s going to take four generations in order to heal….” (434)
Sugrue notes that “the two civil rights issues that mattered most in the North were housing and employment.” (359) His chapters on housing detail both struggles for open housing in the developing suburbs as well as the tenant housing and public housing struggles in urban settings — and that while some of the leaders were male, most of the struggles were built by a largely female rank and file.
Action on Jobs
On the other hand, Sugrue’s sections on employment don’t reflect the variety of direct actions around jobs or the depth of rank-and-file rebellions of the 1960s and ’70s. Instead they summarize activist struggles that lead to governmental response. Most importantly, he outlines a series of protests at construction sites in Philadelphia, Newark, New York, New Rochelle, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Oakland and St. Louis.
This led president Johnson to issue, in 1965, an executive order that gave the newly created Office of Federal Contract Compliance the power to terminate government contracts with firms who did not practice affirmative action in hiring. Although the lily-white building trades opposed this policy, activists continued to push. What “affirmative action” and “compliance” would mean developed out of four plans that were created from on-the-ground struggles in St. Louis, Cleveland, San Francisco and Philadelphia. (362-4)
Despite the fact that the post-World War II period was close to a full-employment economy, Sugrue points to the fact during most of that period Blacks suffered unemployment rates more than double that of whites. It was still “a deep recession for blacks.” (256) During World War II Blacks had been able to find work in heavy industry, but then plants were relocated to suburbs and rural towns where the population was almost all white.
Every major northeastern and midwestern city lost jobs — both with the closing of factories and with commercial disinvestment. Between 1947 and 1977, twelve of the largest northeastern and midwestern cities lost a total of 2.1 million manufacturing, wholesale and retail jobs, while gaining only 316,000 service jobs in their place. (518)
He also notes that by 1980 40% of Black women and 20% of Black men were employed in the public sector — the sector that is currently being cut to the bone.
What strategy might work? Affirmative action was under attack from the very beginning. Black mayors in what had become increasingly Black cities tried keeping plants within the city by granting tax abatements and subsidies to corporations.
Sugrue summarizes Detroit Mayor Coleman Young’s destruction of the thriving and racially diverse Poletown community in order to keep General Motors in Detroit. In the end, the Poletown plant today employs only a couple of thousand workers, many of whom transferred from other downsized plants. Downtown development was another strategy urban mayors pursued.
But by 1980, the combination of suburbanization and the tough on crime policies, particularly around possession of drugs, meant that “a quarter of all black men were wholly unattached to the formal labor market.” (514)
Was There an Alternative?
Sugrue argues that only a comprehensive program could have tacked the inequality that lay beneath the massive restructuring in American. In the face of the urban unrest of the period, Sugrue describes Johnson’s “war on poverty” and particularly its job training programs as piecemeal “riot insurance.” (375) He contrasts it with A. Philip Randolph’s call for a “freedom budget,” which would tackle urban poverty and unemployment “even at the cost of a hundred billion dollars.”
Randolph’s program of job creation, a guaranteed annual income for poor families, and increased federal spending to eradicate slums, improve schools and build public works was an implicit critique of Johnson’s approach. Despite the fact that the plan had broad support from civil rights and labor organizations, and a layer within the Democratic Party, as a legislative agenda it was dead on arrival. (376)
I was particularly drawn to the material Sugrue presents on the struggle of the Black community for quality education, whether that took the form of integration or community control. Between 1962-’66, nearly 50 Northern public school districts took what June Shagaloff, a sociologist working for the NAACP, described as “substantial steps toward desegregation.”
These took diverse forms, whether implementing the Princeton Plan, which merged Black and white schools, closing Black schools, redrawing districts to remix the school population or allowing students to transfer out of racially imbalanced schools. But the problem was that even if whites “approved” of desegregation in principle, “most northern whites opposed it in practice.” (464, 465)
Thus whatever the tactic used to desegregate, many white parents withdrew their children or moved to the suburbs. Despite the fact that nearly half of all American children in 1970 were bused to school, if children were bused for purposes of desegregation, white parents decried the practice and demanded “neighborhood schools.”
In 1971 Verda Bradley signed onto a NAACP lawsuit challenging segregation in the Detroit Public Schools. Regardless of the school board’s intention, the NAACP attorneys argued, the state real estate code and realtors had created a segregated housing market in Detroit.
Surprisingly, Judge Stephen J. Roth agreed and held Detroit and over 50 suburban school districts responsible for devising a comprehensive desegregation plan crossing district lines. For the first time, Bradley v. Milliken saw that public policy, not simply individual decisions, had determined a pattern of segregated schools.
This created a storm of white protest, including mob violence. The following year the Michigan state legislature passed a law forbidding the use of state money for busing. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roth’s decision, leaving local school district boundaries unchallenged. Detroit’s problems were its own, and certainly not the responsibility of the nearby suburbs.
This decision provided the legal escape hatch for white parents with means and created a framework where inner-city whites with fewer resources fiercely battled desegregation orders. Boston was the most well-known case, and Sugrue quickly summarizes the battles that took place there. (One of our ATC editors, Malik Miah, was a leader in the Boston struggle.)
With the legal block to school integration firmly in place by the mid-1970s, the Black community turned to other strategies in their attempt to obtain a quality education for their children. This took the form of community control in districts that were majority Black or Latino as well as the demand for the equalization of funding between school districts.
Of course, with legal housing segregation eradicated, many Black families chose to move to the suburbs themselves.
Since Sugrue’s story stretches only to the end of the 20th century, he doesn’t take up the neoliberal restructuring of urban public schools with charterization, school closings, an emphasis on testing and the demonizing of teachers. Once again, the communities with the least resources are starved, this time in the name of austerity.
But in the last chapter of the final section, the author measures the grassroots social movements against the changing world economy and the “triumph of the market.” (527) In this restructured terrain, as poverty is on the rise, racism remains a systemic problem to be dismantled.
In his Epilogue, more than 500 pages into this history, Sugrue points out that public opinion surveys since the 1960s reflect “real ambivalence” about the state of race relations in the United States, with most whites believing that the American dream of equality and opportunity “works for everyone,” while Blacks see it only works for whites.
In fact, whites resent the fact that Black folks don’t agree with them, and continue to blame Blacks for not overcoming whatever obstacles remain. In my experience, many whites from a range of ethnicities point to how their ancestors were able to overcome discrimination by hard work — the underlying assumption being that Blacks have not done so. Whatever “remaining” difficulties African Americans might face, white Americans see as the result of individual failing — and point to prominent Blacks such as president Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
Sugrue summarizes the most important gains of the Northern civil rights movement as being the growing of a Black middle class and hiring practices in private- and public-sector white-collar positions. Today more employers see a diverse work force as an asset.
On the other hand, Sugrue cites higher rates of unemployment, greater levels of poverty, higher infant mortality rates, lower life expectancy and rates of home ownership among African Americans. As a consequence, he states:
The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference. It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined, limits the access of many minorities to employment opportunities, and leads to racial polarization in politics. (540)
Of course the civil rights movement in the North mattered, and changes occurred because of activism that Sugrue summarizes as “boycotts, pickets, agitation, riots, lobbying, litigation and legislation. The most sweeping political changes resulted from disruption or the threat of it, whether the March on Washington, the ‘Negro Revolt’ of 1963, or the urban uprisings of the mid- and late 1960s.” (540-541)
Through the pages we meet a variety of organizers, from the “Northern” Ella Baker who, in 1935, co-authored “a searing exposé of the Bronx ‘slave market’” (domestic workers) with Marvel Cooke, to Clarence Funnye’s and Jessie Gray’s differing perspectives on urban housing and jobs.
Malcolm X, James Foreman, Jessie Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr. share the stage. It’s clear that de facto segregation is harder to uproot than its de jure cousin, and organizers were aware of the strategies and campaigns on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line.
There were a range of strategies and perspectives, with some decidedly inside the Democratic Party while others were socialists, communists, nationalists, Maoists. Some worked together across those boundaries while others did not. Most, but not all, of the actors and organizers in Sweet Land of Liberty are African Americans, although a few are strong allies.
Sugrue’s final paragraph points to the obstacles that remain — largely as economic and social restructuring undermined the power of civil rights victories. It is a summary of globalizing market forces that have left cities, disproportionately Black and poor, “hemorrhaging capital, population, and tax revenue.” (543)
We know that austerity, privatization, charterization and other such “fixes” are being proposed. Like the earlier struggles against inequality, it will take a movement to oppose these draconian and seemingly neutral, but racialized, policies.
Although I have some historical differences with the author — mostly about his positive assessments of politicians including FDR and JFK — I am grateful for his excellent summary of the long civil rights movement of the North.
January/February 2013, ATC 162