Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for
Civil Rights in the North
By Thomas J. Sugrue
Random House, 688 pages, $35
Thomas Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North was published on Nov. 4, 2008. Imagine toiling more or less monomanically for the better part of a decade in minor libraries, provincial archives and the “field”—that’s 688 pages and roughly 1,100 endnotes of toil—only to watch one seismic event send your doorstop opus crashing into apparent obsolescence. Barack Obama’s election is a historical fact—how still exhilarating and disorienting to type those words!—whose aftershocks may take generations and centuries to play out. But it’s not hard to imagine Mr. Sugrue, a professor of sociology and history at Penn, as collateral victim No. 1.
Out of date on the day it came out, Sweet Land of Liberty can’t help but seem guilty of a certain deficit in vision. Its focus is decidedly astigmatic, converging on no single point of resolution. The president-elect appears only once in the text; this appearance, moreover, is deflationary. Whites, Mr. Sugrue notes in an epilogue, “regularly cite the prominence of blacks such as Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Cosby, and Barack Obama. America has come a long way, in their view, since the grim days of Jim Crow. … By contrast, blacks are generally gloomy about the state of race relations.” The potential and potency of a single transformative racial moment, now incontrovertible, is simply never considered.
But pity for Mr. Sugrue may yet prove premature. As it turns out, by being so conspicuously untimely, his book achieves an uncommon, otherworldly relevance: Sweet Land of Liberty will forever be the last major work on race relations published before the astounding uplift of The Change. It thus becomes perhaps the most authentically uncompromised of histories: explanation unwittingly written before the fact.
MR. SUGRUE’S NARRATIVE opens with the quixotic integration efforts of Y.M.C.A. churchwomen in the 1920s—a time when most black voters still supported laissez-faire Republicans out of Lincolnian “inertia.” It trails off, more or less, with the Clintonite Democrats transmogrified into the party of welfare “reform.” All the while, Mr. Sugrue faces fixedly North.
Why examine civil rights as a Northern phenomenon? In recent weeks, few have resisted the temptation to string a single American race history over the posts of Emancipation, Rosa Parks, Reverend King, Obama. The Southern orientation of this story is no accident, but it’s not terribly helpful, either (slavery was banned in Illinois in 1787; during the Civil War, Hawaii was an independent kingdom; and an Arab slave trade, not a European one, was shaping Kenyan history). As Mr. Sugrue writes, “The story of the southern freedom struggle is fundamentally a morality play. … It is a story of suffering and redemption, with larger-than-life martyrs and prophets.” When turned to at all, the North is where it all went bad, where Southern stoicism devolved into the excesses of Black Power, sometime around 1968.
Sweet Land of Liberty does little direct arguing; its rhetorical tool is the vignette, and its polemics are largely curatorial. This can be frustrating: Like gases, anecdotes and profiles fill the space they’re given, and it’s at first unclear what compound exactly they’re supposed to be forming here. By page 415 and the year 1964, however, Mr. Sugrue’s measured passage through the nuances of postwar urban education and housing policy have adroitly set the scene: Dr. King wishes to “bring the movement” North to urban America’s “unled Negro communities,” and the reader understands intuitively why so many Northern activists would reject him as not merely an “Uncle Tom” but worse, a carpetbagger or even, in ironic echo of the Southern segregationist’s retort, an “outside agitator.” Nonviolent protest to win hearts and minds, a primary focus on de jure equality and integration (as opposed to actual economic or bureaucratic power)—those were quaint tactics for a different war.
Mr. Sugrue doesn’t endorse such views himself till the epilogue, and then only in the careful, thoughtful terms that are his wont. But the preceding march of facts has been definitive. “The most sweeping political changes,” he concludes, “resulted from disruption or the threat of it,” not “a shift in white attitudes.” As a corollary, we might say the backward grotesqueries of Southern Apartheid—totalitarian, economically irrational, well adapted to the language of Christian eschatology—made for the perfect enemy; you can see nostalgia for the same moral clarity in the attempt to turn affirmative action into a celebration of “diversity.” Righting past wrongs benefits all; the white reactionaries that resist do so out of pure prejudice. The South, in other words, was easy.
IT’S BECOME FASHIONABLE again in liberal circles to question whether the intractable problems of urban inequality have more to do with class than race. If nothing else, Sweet Land of Liberty refocuses the historical discussion toward the perverse symbiosis of the two. That is to say, in the North, the black struggle was always embedded in the clamorous—and decidedly zero-sum—ethnic politics of large cities. The rub is that, unlike “hardworking” immigrant Italians or Irish or Jews, black participation in narrowly self-interested local negotiations could always be shut off via the safety valve of absolute difference. Whichever came first, it’s the coagulation of racial hysteria and economic anxiety that defined an adversary as entrenched as, and far craftier than, the baroque hatreds of Dixie.
Thus the National Association of Real Estate Boards—trademark-holder of the term “Realtor” and more central a character in Mr. Sugrue’s history than any flamboyant bigot—barred its members, well into the ’60s, from showing black home buyers property in white areas; it did so as part of “ethical guidelines” against professional actions that would be “detrimental to property values in a neighborhood.” (What goes unsaid is the possibility that a truly open housing market, given pent-up demand in the overcrowded inner cities, would have meant middle-class blacks pricing marginal whites out of desirable suburbs.) The reversion to the market, to others’ preferences, is classic: In the Jim Crow South, whites had to subscribe to a history of racial panic in order to support the prevailing system; in the enlightened North, they only had to believe in the manifest fact of it.
There’s a strangely charming scene early in Sweet Land of Liberty, part of a passage detailing the de facto segregation faced by black travelers in the North during the ’40s and ’50s. A “troupe of actors,” Mr. Sugrue writes, tired of substandard accommodations, “donned turbans and spoke in ‘stage gibberish’ to gain entrance into white-run hotels.” Exotic tourists were welcome; homegrown blacks were not. What peculiar progress we’ve made: During the presidential campaign, John McCain ruefully reassured supporters that his opponent was a “family man,” not an Arab.
Mr. Sugrue’s narrative reverberates with curious echoes of the campaign. When Thurgood Marshall led a 1943 N.A.A.C.P. general strike against unequal schooling in Hillburn, N.Y., local officials derided him as a “celebrity” leading astray the town’s otherwise “fine colored people.” Sarah Palin’s logically strained dismissal of community organizing as both ineffectually “elitist” and implicitly subversive of true government finds its parallel in none other than Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who attacked the Johnson administration’s Community Action Program as “denying the legitimacy of those institutions of electoral representation … which nominally did provide community control.”
And anti-racists everywhere faced disqualifying charges of “socialism.” In fact, Mr. Sugrue chronicles extensively (and controversially) an early civil rights vanguard dominated by communists and fellow travelers. (If the South’s moral catastrophes demanded Old Testament deliverance, perhaps the industrial North’s caste system required Das Kapital.) The superseding point is simply the messiness involved, the inevitability in the North of unsavory alliances and fragmented motives.
Mr. Obama’s victory—in spite of code words such as “celebrity” and “socialist,” in spite of Jeremiah Wright and ACORN—is finally a cautionary triumph. Thanks to the curiosity of his Kenyan-Kansan background, a Chicago neighborhood activist and civil rights lawyer was miraculously exempted from the historical contentiousness of Northern race relations. Abstracted from any particular racial milieu, his race could indeed become an electoral asset, proof that the Southern struggle for equality before the law had achieved its final perfection. But the very success of that struggle means we’re all Northerners now, and, in point of fact, the Obama story—made possible by open housing, financial aid and affirmative action—is directly indebted to Northern civil rights, an unruly and unfinished street war, waged by community organizers and crackpot preachers, Black Nationalist and Marxist-Leninists, for control of resources, privileges and ideas.
How can an administration elected through an appeal to racial transcendence understand—and combat—the tenacity of racialized injustice? Superbly outmoded, Thomas Sugre’s book might be the timeliest place to start.
Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Brooklyn, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.