Category Archives: civil rights

97: Penny Von Eschen’s Race Against Empire

In Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957, Penny Von Eschen locates radical black American thought within the larger tradition of politics of the African diaspora, and she traces the rise and fall of the relationship between the two in the decades surrounding WWII.  The international politics of the African diaspora (or the Black Atlantic) combined local struggles against racism and colonialism with a broad critique of imperialism.  International black leaders found support in Pan-Africanism, the Popular Front, labor movements in the US and the colonies, and a very vocal independent black press in the US; they viewed WWII as a unique opportunity to pursue their anti-colonial activism because they felt the racism and imperialism of the Axis powers would force the Allies to recognize and join their mission.  This international context for radical black American thought provides context for the Civil Rights movement while detaching race from its American context and reconfiguring it as the internal contradiction in global capitalism.

Von Eschen traces the rise of this international movement in the decade before WWII as an internationally coordinated project that was at once dedicated to eradicating local racisms and to fighting global capitalism.  After WWII, however, the movement began to decline.  In the US, the 1947 decision by the NAACP and major African American periodicals to stop criticizing Cold War policy because of anti-Communist sentiment dramatically reshaped the movement.  Critiques of US imperialism were replaced by a narrative of American exceptionalism, where the US was the legitimate leader of the “free world” and racism was an aberration, not a constituent element of capitalism or imperialism.  Further, the Americans replaced their international diasporic solidarity with paternalism toward “primitive” Africans, effectively erasing international ties with Africa.  The Cold War thus impeded decolonization efforts, disrupted black radicalism, and hindered the Civil Rights movement, all with devastating effects on black politics worldwide.

While Von Eschen might have overstated the dominance of radicalism in black American political thought, her integration of domestic thinkers and activists with an international movement to end racism by ending imperial capitalism provides much-needed context for the Civil Rights movement and the development of black American thought more generally.


82: Clay Carson’s In Struggle

Clay Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s uses the trajectory of SNCC’s radicalism in the 1960s both to analyze the black civil rights movement as a historical struggle and to draw conclusions based on this struggle about social movements more generally.  He divides SNCC’s history into three broad segments: formation of a grassroots organization around the dual foci of non-violent protest strategies and socioeconomic programs to help poor rural Southern blacks; organizational centralization and internal strife related to a deepening understanding of the extent of structural racism in the United States and conflict over whether separatism or interracial collaboration would best address it; and a turn toward generating black power ideology and away from social programs that resulted in the failure of SNCC and a dissipation of the civil rights movement more generally.  As Carson assembles oral histories, meeting transcripts, newspaper accounts, and other sources into this general narrative, several historically contingent conclusions emerge.  First and foremost, Carson argues that the black civil rights movement (as SNCC) was most successful at effecting social change early in the movement, when it was able to balance individual interests with collective rights – hence Ella Baker’s “group-centered leaders” instead of “leader-centered groups.” Further, developing an ideology is important for sustaining a mass movement, but this ideology has to come from the ground up, not from the top down.  Hence, SNCC lost its constituency when it moved away from localized social and economic programs and toward flashy Black Power rhetoric.  And finally, Carson argues that radical separatism will not achieve social equality as well as interracial cooperation or cooperation with more liberal groups, both because it overemphasizes individualism and because it has little basis in the material reality of most potential constituents.  Carson’s history thus makes a compelling argument for grassroots activism and a federated structure as two characteristics of a successful social change organization.

Carson’s careful construction and interpretation of SNCC’s history is thus in many ways a strong analysis of the complicated historical relationship between a single civil rights organization and the larger civil rights social movement.  Although it is written partly out of a personal investment in SNCC, it is NOT a celebration of SNCC, but rather a critical approach to a complex organization with an even more complex reputation and legacy, and an attempt to explicate its historical import, both for better and for worse.  As its title suggests, In Struggle focuses on conflict and exposes the messiness of a particular organization in a particular historical moment.  Thus, Stokely Carmichael is at times brilliantly perceptive (the HUAC investigated civil rights activists as a way to dissipate the movement, 105) and bizarrely misogynist (the proper place for a woman in SNCC is “prone”, 148); SNCC workers both need and reject wealthy white volunteers from the north for the Mississippi Summer Project; nonviolence is variously interpreted as no violence at all to carrying weapons for self-defense to “just a tactic,” and so on.  Further, although Carson’s (and SNCC’s) primary focus is on the black civil rights movement, Carson also pays ample attention to other social divisions, particularly those of class, and shows how SNCC dealt (or could not deal) with the tangle of structural inequalities associated with race, class, and gender.  And perhaps most fascinating to me, he downplays the “great man” narrative of the civil rights movement in favor of a more subtle contextual analysis, which allows him to more fully address the “social” aspects of the movement and to examine links between MLK, SNCC, the rural South and the industrial North, Black Power, the HUAC, the Vietnam War, and the Feminist movement.

Despite these strengths, the book does suffer from a few weaknesses.  First, for those readers who are not as familiar with the civil rights movement, Carson’s chronology is sometimes difficult to follow, especially as his emphasis on contextualization downplays the more canonical events of the time period.  Second, while I generally agree with Carson’s thesis that historical struggles produce leaders and that leaders don’t incite struggles, his attempt to fit historical events into this framework are sometimes a little thin – particularly with respect to Carmichael (his transition from an integrationist to a vehement black power advocate/ press magnet/ black panther is handled somewhat awkwardly.)  Also, I would have liked a little more exploration of the feedback loop between leaders and movements, or at least a clearer acknowledgement that leaders influence history even as they are produced by it.  Third, and somewhat more problematically, he tends to downplay the violence espoused by SNCC and the Black Panthers  – yes, he obviously mentions guns and bombs to show that non-violence became complicated, but grappling more directly with violence and agency would have deepened his discussion of the ideological disagreements behind it.  And finally, although he often cites a lack of clear ideology as a problem for SNCC, and although he generally argues that ideology is good as long as it is produced from the ground up, he remains ambivalent as to the role ideology should play in an organization attempting to effect social change.  Further elucidation of these points would greatly clarify both his analysis and his political position regarding an organization’s role in effecting social change.
However, despite these relatively minor weaknesses, this book is well-regarded for good reason and connects (for me, at least) to several other works.  Carson identifies a tension between individualism and the greater good that is discussed at length in Hardt & Negri’s Commonwealth, though he would likely disagree with their call for exodus as a solution to society’s problems.  His discussion of black power as an empty signifier that articulates differential demands resonates with Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason, especially as Laclau doesn’t require individuals to subsume their identities into a single undifferentiated mass, though Laclau doesn’t fully address the problem of media co-optation and restructuring that Carson sees in the Black Power/ Black Separatism articulation.  The idealism and militancy Carson ascribes to SNCC throughout its history relates to more recent studies of fanaticism, and I keep thinking in particular of Toscano’s Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, where Toscano argues that single-minded pursuit of a goal is a key element of a successful social movement.  Carson, however, argues that what is actually key is a balance between single-minded fanaticism and careful attention (a la Judith Butler’s “Competing Universalities”) to economic and social issues at the local level.  As SNCC discovered, that balance is a hard one to maintain; whether (and how) anyone could do it successfully is one of the central questions of Carson’s book.

80: Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town

In Wide Open Town, Nan Boyd argues that San Francisco’s bar-based queer culture was just as important to the development of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement there as were the city’s more mainstream activist groups.  The book relies primarily on some 40 oral histories with San Francisco bargoers, owners, and LGBT rights activists, as well as tourist guides, periodicals, clippings, photographs, and public records to construct (in often meticulous detail) a narrative of how the development of San Francisco’s gay scene swelled into a fight for civil rights.  Although the writing style is a bit heavy-handed at times, Boyd’s innovative research and methodology create a narrative that is anything but closed or canonical.  Rather, by limiting her scope to San Francisco before 1965 and structuring the book in terms of community formation rather than strict chronology, Boyd is able to open up the development of San Francisco’s gay civil rights movement and analyze (or characterize) it in terms of a variety of local contextual factors.  As she moves through topics as diverse as the gay male community, tourism, and female impersonation; the lesbian community, prostitution, and the female body; policing and the construction of homosexuality as behavior- versus desire-based; homophile activism and class-based differences over separatism and assimilation; and coalition-building, she explores the relationships between economics, use of space, police and media oppression, and the development of a community into a class-for-itself.  The result is a narrative that characterizes San Francisco’s gay civil rights movement as a multi-class, space- and place-dependent grassroots movement.  Boyd’s work thus argues that, for this movement in this place and time, “the politics of everyday life were every bit as important as the politics of organized social movement activism.” (242)

While Wide Open Town’s main argument effectively breaks down any “great man” narratives that might plague this particular social movement, the more fascinating elements of the book (by far) are the methodological tools and sub-arguments it uses to achieve its purpose.  Methodologically, Boyd’s emphasis on space and economics allow for an incredibly thorough analysis of the development of bar-based (grassroots) activism.  Her emphasis on space affects her argument in two ways: first, because she limits her analysis (and her conclusions) to a single city, she is able to include city-specific factors like the Gold Rush, local resistance to anti-prostitution and anti-liquor laws, the presence of the military (and the AFDCB) during WWII, and local politicians and court cases in her analysis.  She can thus investigate relationships between local factors that would be invisible at a national level but that would arguably (and demonstrably) have affected the character of local communities more than national or Federal laws and events might have.  Emphasizing space also allows her to consider particular spaces within the city, especially gay bars and clubs, and to show how the physical construction and concentration of these spaces (and their relationship to non-queer spaces) helped build community.  Her emphasis on economics also has profound effects on her analysis: by constructing bars and prostitution in terms of economics (as well as in spatial and moral terms) she is able to explain queer culture in San Francisco as persecuted socially but necessary economically – and thus, eventually, powerful politically.  The sub-arguments that develop from Boyd’s creative use of these methodological tools are, accordingly, powerful arguments in themselves.  She argues, for instance, that sex and race tourism protected gay spaces and gay economies even as they exploited them; that military targeting of gay bars in the 1950s actually fostered the development of separate gay spaces (and thus gay communities) rather than eliminating them; and that the development of lesbian social and geographic spaces was intimately bound up with prostitution and thus with  the policing of the female body (which explains, at least somewhat, the myth that lesbians do not concentrate geographically.)  Thus, Boyd’s innovative methodology and sub-arguments work to open up the narrative of the movement to a multitude of possible causes and implications.

While Boyd’s extensive research and innovative methodology definitely construct a new narrative of the beginnings of San Francisco’s gay rights movement, the book does face some organizational and methodological challenges.  Although Boyd clearly portrays a grassroots movement that does not rely on top-down activist groups, her writing style often paints a different picture.  She begins each chapter with an oral history that touches on some of the main themes of the chapter – thus indicating that her chapters are, in fact, organized around her data and not around her own theories – but the strong organizational tools and clear statements of thesis and conclusion at times seem to indicate a mistrust of the reader.  I can’t remember the last time that I complained about strong thesis sentences and conclusions, but sometimes Boyd seems to be so focused on driving home her point that the vast primary research on which that point is based takes a back seat to exposition.  Often, I found myself paying more attention to the structure of the book than to its content, which I think does Boyd a great disservice.  In addition, while Boyd’s decision to bound her study geographically and temporally really allows her to hone in on local bars, politicians, drag queens, regulatory bodies and activist groups, in some ways this boundedness does her a disservice as well.   Although she is able to pinpoint local factors affecting a movement, these boundaries keep her from providing much information about the movement in other cities or about its interaction with other civil rights movements.  The lack of this wider context is particularly evident with respect to the homophile movement’s emphasis on representation and assimilation.  I realize that the national stage is not the focus of her book, but stronger emphasis on connections to national movements (or even national media) could help the reader understand both the wider context her subjects would have had access to and the importance of investigating San Francisco’s bar-based culture.  

Despite these issues, Wide Open Town reads as a well-researched, well-thought-out book, and I really enjoyed Boyd’s analysis of a movement I previously knew little about.  And despite its relative disconnect from other social movements, the book does relate to several other works.  In its organization and methodological complexity, it bears a strong resemblance to Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization, which is not surprising as both authors had Mari Jo Buhle as their dissertation advisor.  In its carefully bounded scope and focus on letting the sources develop the narrative – not to mention its emphasis on the grassroots element of a social movement – it aligns closely with works like Clay Carson’s In Struggle.  And in political theory, it likely relates to many works, but the one book it consistently reminds me of is Chantal Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox – not because Boyd advocates some abstract utopian political project, but because the tension Boyd sets up and resolves between bar-based and homophile cultures, where the bar-based communities want to be left alone to develop their own communities-in-themselves while the homophile societies speak in the assimilative language of individual civil rights, resonates so clearly with Mouffe’s concept of liberal democracy.  This book is an interesting contribution to the study of social movements, both in its subject matter and in its construction.

74: David Levering Lewis’ Biography of a Race

David Levering Lewis’ W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, is a massive popular biography of Du Bois and one of two planned volumes on his life and work.  Lewis takes “biography” in two different directions: as a writer who focused on recovering African American voices and reconstructing their agentive participation in their own history, Du Bois was a biographer of a race; as a person who was born right after the Civil War and who died during the Civil Rights movement, his life can also be used to trace the trajectory of an oppressed group from slavery to freedom (and, for Du Bois, on to Africa.)  Therefore, the book is both a deeply contextualized biography of Du Bois’ life, career, and work, and an attempt to recreate the massive political, social, and economic changes impacting the lives of black Americans during his lifetime.

Biography of a Race belies a huge amount of research, and Lewis spends a great deal of time reconstructing Du Bois’ rather “prickly” personality and his tendency toward separatism as he got older. Working from Du Bois’ personal papers, he works to humanize him, so that we see his troubled childhood, his difficult relationships with his wives, and his philandering tendencies in plain relief.  And he includes a full 8 chapters on Du Bois and the NAACP, including his frustration with Booker T. Washington and the “accomodationist” Tuskegee Institute.  He also traces the shift in Du Bois’ thought around the turn of the century from a “naive” faith in science’s ability to solve racial inequality to the more political route of the NAACP.  And he ends – rather precipitously – during the “Red Summer” of 1919.

While this book really helps humanize Du Bois, Lewis’ strategy seems to be to keep in every detail, no matter how small, and he often includes several versions of the same story rather than working to figure out which pieces seem the most well-supported.  Further, his chatty speculations and asides sometimes detract from his larger point, as when he offhandedly suggests that a white woman living with him and his wife might have been a boarder – or perhaps the three were involved in a menage a trois.  He also apparently went to a psychoanalyst in the guise of Du Bois by way of interrogating his psyche.  I appreciate the humanization of the subject, but I do wish Lewis or his editor had been a little more careful.


24: Laura Pulido’s Black, Brown, Yellow and Left

Laura Pulido squeezes several agendas into this book.  As an LA activist who worked with an antiracist, anticapitalist group called the Labor/Community Strategy Center to organize a multiethnic left, she is interested in learning from the history and mechanics of previous multi-racial organizing attempts; she is also interested in fostering a class-based leftist politics among her readers.  As a scholar, she is fascinated by the sixties and frustrated that histories of radicalism in that period are either mostly white or centered around the Black Panther Party, so she wants to expand the history of racial/ethnic activism to incorporate more of LA’s racial and ethnic groups; and she wants to complicate racism by breaking down the black white binary and investigating racial hierarchies and collaborations (or not) in the people she is studying.
Therefore, Black, Brown, Yellow and Left is part history of the Third World Left, part empirical study of what she calls “differential racism,” and part analysis of the growth, development, and decline of a social movement.  Pulido accomplishes all of these goals via a comparative analysis of left-leaning activism among three racial/ethnic groups in LA in the late 1960s and early 1970s, using three organizations as stand-ins: the Black Panther Party for African Americans; East Wind, a Japanese American group, for Asian Americans; and CASA, a Chicano/a group, for Latino/as.

Although the details of each case make for good reading, her historical conclusions about the relationship between race/ethnicity, racism, and Left activism reveal the complexities of the Third World Left.  Her study of the Black Panther Party suggests that their two main concerns of self-defense and community service were directly related to African American racialization (as the ‘Other’ to whites, they were at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy and over-policed) and their class position as urban poor.  CASA, by contrast, focused on labor organizing and immigration issues reflected Chicano/as position as a ‘problem minority’: their racial status and particular historical experiences as immigrants and low-wage workers meant that they were a needed part of the economy, but only as subordinated and exploited workers.  And as a Japanese American group in a multiethnic, multi-class Asian American community, East Wind focused on issues of identity, community service, and solidarity work; their activities reflected their mixed economic position and their status as a ‘middle minority.’

Though Pulido found enough connections among groups to indicate a relatively coherent Third World Left, she quickly discovered that these connections were rather thin.  All three organizations were interested in the connection between their own identity as a racial or ethnic ‘nation’ and anticolonial struggles worldwide, and all three were fighting racism and economic exploitation at home, but they were unsure how to work with other communities in LA.  This uncertainty had a lot to do with the complex racial hierarchies in LA at the time: African Americans, for instance, were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but through the millitancy and visibility of the Black Panther Party they were at the top of the social movement hierarchy. Uncertain positioning, as well as uncertainty regarding the status of one’s own group, made lasting coalitions difficult.

Pulido argues that despite a strong need for a multiethnic left today, the situation is much the same as it was in the 1960s and 1970s: strong ethnic groups with weak connections among them, and a weak Third World Left as a result.  Despite some issues with scope (using a single organization to stand in for all ethnic/racial organizing, for instance), Pulido’s book provides a thoughtful analysis of the intersections between race and class in LA that may well be a useful guidebook for folks trying to build political capital today.


16: McAdam, Tarrow & Tilly’s Dynamics of Contention

Dynamics of Contention is not the easiest to get through (ok, so it made me want to put an ice pick through my head), but it’s a pretty important book in social movement theory, so here goes.

Back in the day (like, before the 1960s), social movement theory was a lot closer to social psychology, or crowd theory, or theories of contagion: basically, scholars knew that social movements could and did form and that they could be really dangerous for the social order (see the French Revolution, for instance), but they blamed them on mob mentality and temporary insanity.  And in the 1960s and 70s, when all that social unrest was going on, social scientists did develop more complex theories, but these were still relatively simple: people join organizations which in turn build a mass following and put enormous pressure on the government and the rest of society.  (So claim the authors of this book, anyway.)

Dynamics of Contention builds on the theories from the 60s and 70s, but it updates them for the Postmodern era in three ways:

  • combines lots of different kinds of uprisings – revolutions, strikes, wars, social movements, and so on – under the more general umbrella of “contentious politics,” so that the things scholars have learned about these different struggles can be pooled together in hopes of finding commonalities among them
  • shifts the thing being studied from organizations and individuals to relationships between different organizations and actors, and looks at these relationships as being unstable, shifting, and “dynamic” rather than fixed
  • systematizes the study of political struggle from holistic histories to systematic analyses and a search for “processes” and “mechanisms” that all political struggles share.

Basically, they make things more complicated, since it’s a lot harder to keep track of a bunch of individual people who are all parts of different political organizations and friends with different people at different times than it is to just talk about, say, battles between SNCC and the Black Panthers.  And a more complicated model means that whatever they come up with with look more like real life, right?

Having made things more like real life, then, they spend the rest of the book poking around in 15 different political struggles from all different points in history and all different parts of the world, and they come up with three – yes, three – processes that most of these struggles share.  These are:

  • Actor constitution, where contentious groups form by developing a shared vision and then doing something unusual to get their demands heard and make their presence known
  • Polarization, where all the moderates head to one or the other of two political or social poles, and the vacuum in the middle keeps the two sides from talking to each other and coming to peaceable conflict resolution
  • Scale shift, where a local contentious group grows into a translocal, national, or international group by linking up with other groups who have similar interests or grievances

Thinking about the development of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, this model makes sense to me.  I’m not a huge fan of giant, transhistorical studies that don’t collect their own data, though, and I’m also a little weirded out by two holes in their model: it doesn’t seem to differentiate between successful and unsuccessful movements, and it only seems to account for the growth of movements, not their functioning or their decline.  But these guys are bigwig sociologists; perhaps these concerns are addressed somewhere else in their work.


7: James Miller’s Democracy is in the Streets

What with the dance lessons on Saturdays and working on Sundays, it’s kinda hard to get a lot of reading done on the weekends.  I did manage to get through a book on Saturday and another today, though!

I had high hopes for Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago, and thankfully it didn’t disappoint, but it was not at all what I expected.  Most of the stuff I’ve read about social movements so far has been heavy on the Marxism, or staunchly materialist, or at least incredibly modest about the roles individual people play in creating social change.  Clay Carson’s In Struggle, for instance, is a critical history of SNCC that slowly and carefully maps out every person, event, and location Carson could get his hands on.  Reading through Carson’s slow accumulation of thousands of tiny pieces of evidence, you get a sense of both the magnitude of the Civil Rights movement and the incredible ordinariness of the people who were coordinating it through SNCC.  And really, that’s what I want in a history of a social movement: the creation of a big picture through close attention to details, so that I can see exactly how social change happened and how, precisely, the movement grew, acted, and fell apart.

James Miller is not Clay Carson.  And this book is definitely not that book.

Like In Struggle, Democracy is in the Streets is a history of “the Movement” from the perspective of a single organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  Also like In Struggle, it stretches the political and cultural ferment of the 1960s back to the late 1950s and forward to the early 1970s, so that we can see the truly original origins on one end and make sure it’s really dead on the other.  But where Carson is carefully constructing a large body of evidence to support his critical interpretation of SNCC, Miller is telling a story, capturing a moment, making the Sixties come alive.  His history thus reads like a novel, with main characters – Tom Hayden, Sharon Jeffrey, Dick Flacks, Al Haber, and the rest of the early members of SDS – psychological analysis, anecdotes, and plenty of drama and foreshadowing throughout.  Seriously: he spends the first 20 pages or so talking about how Tom Hayden was destined for greatness even as a freshman newspaper editor at the University of Michigan.  And the book follows a classic narrative arc, from the first time Al Haber laid eyes on Tom Hayden, to the Port Huron summit where the Port Huron Statement was drafted, to SDS’ rise to power, and finally to the (anti)climactic Chicago 1968 riots, when Hayden, shouting into the megaphone in front of thousands of people in Grant Park, suddenly realized that the Movement’s philosophical underpinnings had been lost, and this mass protest could never become the “participatory democracy” SDS had envisioned at Port Huron.  And he disappeared, silenced.

Miller is writing as someone who was there – he was a member of SDS in the late 1960s, and he was at Chicago in 1968 and at the last SDS meeting in 1969 – and he is writing for a reader who was there, too.  But even though I obviously wasn’t there (my parents hadn’t even met yet), Miller’s excitement is infectious, and while his novelistic strategy may not lead to the most factual telling of events, his characters do come alive, as do the issues that animate them.

In particular, one of Miller’s central questions concerns the legacy of the Sixties.  As Tom Hayden put it in 1977, “We ended a war, toppled two Presidents, desegregated the South, broke other barriers of discrimination.  How could we accomplish so much and have so little in the end?”  In other words, for all the short-term success of the Movement, why are we not living out long-term social change?  

Miller’s answer to this question is complex, so I’m probably missing a few pieces, but it goes something like this.  In 1961, the SDS students gathered in Port Huron and drafted the Port Huron Statement, a theoretically-informed document that itself informed the Movement, at least before 1965, with its universal respect for human freedom and its call for “participatory democracy” (rather than the closed institutional system we call democracy in the United States.)  But after 1965, the escalation in Vietnam swelled protest participation and turned the earlier theoretically-informed movement into a mass movement.  This could have been awesome, but while all of these people were united in their protest of the war and in their critique of the American political system, they were not necessarily united on what true democracy might look like.  And frankly, SDS had no idea either.  And so the movement (was) fragmented, and the 70s became the decade of increasingly individualized pursuits of pleasurable consumption.

The analysis applied to the Movement in this book feels very similar to the analysis applied to more recent movements, like Occupy: having a complaint is great,  but you need to have a plan for change if you want the change to actually happen; and furthermore, refusing or being unable to unite behind a single program makes it easy for powerful opposing forces to divide and conquer the individual people in the protest.

Really, though, is there only one effective way to protest power, even still – by putting an ideologically unified mass of bodies in the streets?