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Race in America: The Struggle for Equality.

Writing in 1970, Pierre van den Berghe said of racism that it is "the theory that there is a causal link between physical traits on the one hand, and social behavior, character traits, and intelligence on the other hand." He went on to add that what makes a society multiracial was "not the presence of physical differences between groups, but the attribution of social significance to such physical differences as may exist." Gunnar Myrdal put it more simply when he wrote about racism in the United States: "The 'Negro race' is defined in America by white people."(1)

Race has remained no less prominent in American society since the publication of these books by van den Berghe and Myrdal, but African Americans are no longer defined only by white America. As much of the extensive literature on race and the civil rights movement has made clear in the past two decades, African Americans have redefined the place of race and civil rights in American society. Indeed, segregation is no longer the defining marker in race relations; full equality and opportunity are the ways by which scholars now judge racial progress.

In the three books under examination, the role of African Americans in redefining American society and their place in it are examined from historical, legal, and sociological perspectives. If there is a theme that runs through the three, it is that, despite the prominence of African American agency in the era since World War II, race remains as Myrdal described it fifty years ago - a fundamental dilemma for this nation. It is the issue upon which the nation's commitments to democracy and equality are ultimately tested and still found wanting.

Jack Greenberg's study of the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) provides a personal and highly insightful, narrative history of the legal struggle against racism in the United States. It is a dramatic and wonderfully told story of the men and women involved in the legal effort to dismantle Jim Crow, to remove other economic and social barriers, and to ensure opportunities in all areas of life that had long been denied black Americans.

From its earliest days, the standards at LDF, according to Greenberg, were rigorously set by Charles Houston, who conceived of the idea of the litigation campaign and insisted that staff members commit to the highest standards of professionalism. His successor, Thurgood Marshall, gave Houston much of the credit for the direction and achievements of LDE but Marshall's contribution was no less significant in Greenberg's view. Greenberg writes admiringly of Marshall, "Thurgood's way of presiding [at staff meetings] was to listen a lot and challenge virtually everything everyone said, often fiercely. If someone suggested that a certain course of action had to be taken, he'd often respond: 'There's only two things I have to do: stay black and die"' (p. 163). According to Greenberg, both Houston and Marshall understood the stakes involved in the legal campaign against racial injustice and realized that their preparation had to be much more thorough than their opponents if they hoped to succeed.

There is very little new in Greenberg's recounting of the various cases that LDF pursued in the heyday of the desegregation battle. Most historians know the history of these cases and the issues that LDF raised that were ultimately confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. This in no way lessens, however, the drama of the events or the legal ingenuity of the LDF staff as they sought and developed new approaches to persuade judges of the inequities of segregation in schools and in society. It is this section of the book that is particularly fascinating and well told.

The last part includes an examination of the tensions between LDF and the NAACP and the intergenerational conflicts that occurred within LDF in the 1970s. Greenberg shares these developments fully with readers. He believes the confrontation with the NAACP was in part structural, based on the historical link between the two organizations and their quite different roles in civil rights reform. He traces the origins of the difficulties back to the late 1950s and notes that, despite the close relationship between the NAACP during Roy Wilkins's tenure as executive director in the 1960s, relations worsened as LDF began representing other civil rights organizations in the early 1960s and as its financial status improved significantly, while the NAACP's began to decline. He writes too that NAACP leaders resented the credit LDF received for many of the civil rights advances in the post-1964 period. Even if one does not agree with Greenberg's assessment of the conflict, the legal efforts by the NAACP to form its own legal department and then to strip the Legal Defense Fund of its use of NAACP in its title seemed a bit silly and indeed tragic.

Greenberg's analysis of the intergenerational conflict at LDF provides a fascinating glimpse at the role of the black culture movement in shaping the attitudes of a younger generation of lawyers at LDF and how this influenced policy matters and personal relations at LDF. These relations broke over disagreements about how to represent Angela Davis and Greenberg's subsequent decision not to represent Julian Bond following his dismissal from the Georgia legislature for his anti-Vietnam War views. In the wake of these decisions, younger members of LDF demanded that individual lawyers be permitted to exercise their own judgment in taking cases, "with the provision that they inform the Director General" (p. 409). The proposal led to an emotional meeting of the LDF Board in November 1970 at which Greenberg's tenure as director general was at stake. But board members, nearly all of whom were of Greenberg's generation, gave him a strong vote of confidence and reaffirmed the powers of the director general. Most of the younger lawyers left LDF shortly after this decision. The confrontation within LDF reflected in microcosm the struggle taking place within the black community and in the larger society between supporters of the black liberation movement on one side and advocates of integration on the other.

Where Greenberg's study provides insight into one of the major organizations of the civil rights movement, David Chappell's examines the movement at the grassroots level and particularly the relationship between black civil rights leaders and white moderates in the South during the civil rights movement. In Inside Agitators, Chappell contends that southern black leaders realized that there were fundamental divisions within the white community over segregation, and that they could exploit these divisions in their effort to end segregation. As Chappell describes it, "Those white southerners needed to be prodded, but they were there and could make valuable allies" (p. 49). Black leaders also realized, however, that these white dissenters would not act on their own. They needed to be pushed, and black leaders understood that they had to take "the initiative with organizations of their own" (p. 49). It was this awareness that led them to mobilize the civil rights movement in the post-World War II era.

A few historians of the modern South and the civil rights movement, most notably J. Mills Thornton and Elizabeth Jacoway, have long argued that whites were not unified in their approach to southern race relations. Both have criticized the work of other scholars of the movement which, they believe, has tended to lump all whites together as if they were an undifferentiated mass. In doing so, according to Thornton and Jacoway, they have distorted and misunderstood developments in the region.(2) Much like Thornton and Jacoway, Chappell has sought to capture the subtleties of southern white society while also not losing sight of the role of black southerners. He contends, for example, that southern black leaders understood the nuances of southern society and the differing attitudes of white southerners better than the white militants did.

Chappell's argument is insightful and worth serious attention. It makes particularly fascinating reading from the perspective of the 1990s, but is this really what happened in the 1950s and 1960s? In contrast to Chappell, William Chafe finds in Civilities and Civil Rights that, while white moderates in Greensboro, North Carolina sought to avoid racial confrontation and violence, they had little interest in furthering the cause of desegregation or racial equality. These white leaders, Chafe argues, gained a reputation for being progressive, when compared to the likes of Orval Faubus and George Wallace, but they stymied racial progress at every turn.(3) It is this irony that Chafe captures so effectively in his book and which challenges fundamentally Chappell's contention that these white moderates could be manipulated by sophisticated black activists. Moreover, Chafe's study, as well as work by Steven Lawson, Neil McMillan, and others, casts serious doubt on Chappell's argument that these white moderates were "inside agitators" who sought to overturn the racial structure in the South.(4)

A second major problem with Chappell's argument is that it gives little consideration to the timing of the Albany campaign relative to the other movement campaigns in Birmingham, St. Augustine, and Selma, which followed Albany. As David Garrow points out, Albany was the first civil rights campaign for SCLC and was thus a learning experience for King and his ministerial colleagues.(5) By the time the St. Augustine movement occurred two years later, the organization had grown dramatically in experience and in its strategic preparation for such campaigns.

The movement succeeded in communities like St. Augustine and Selma not because of white moderates but because the federal government and federal courts chose to intervene. At the time of the Albany campaign in 1962, President John Kennedy and his brother Robert viewed the movement as a threat to their domestic agenda. They were hardly inclined to send in federal forces, even if there had been divisions within the white community that Chappell believes were so crucial to outside intervention. By late 1963 and 1964, President Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson had made civil rights reform a central part of their domestic programs.

Chappell's study is still well worth the read, and his analysis is always thoughtful, even where one might disagree with it. Although this reader questions the validity of his thesis, the author's assessment of the Albany campaign, which forms part of the book, is right on the mark. And his understanding of Police Chief Laurie Pritchett's role in blocking the civil rights movement in Albany is shrewd and perceptive. Chappell writes, "It is a strange and illuminating coincidence that Pritchett could save a racist system only by rejecting racist assumptions about the protestors: he was smart enough to see that they were smart enough to win. Therefore he was able to organize a strong enough force to defeat them" (p. 223).

The third book, Race in America by Herbert Hill and James Jones, is a compendium of essays that grew out of a conference at the University of Wisconsin in 1989, marking the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Brown decision in 1954. The conference brought together a group of distinguished social scientists, legal scholars, and judges to weigh racial developments since 1954. The sixteen essays blend the personal and the academic, ranging from Kenneth Clark's perspective on his encounters with racism in American society throughout his career to essays assessing the legal struggle after Brown, the persistence of racism in the economy, education and workplace, and prospects for the future. As with collections of this sort, coherence is often a problem, and this is indeed the case here. Section 4, in particular, "Perspectives: Past and Future," appears to be a grab bag of essays on such unrelated subjects as affirmative action, sociology, and the Japanese and African Americans.

Although the conference was in part a retrospective on Brown, many of the essays focus on the last twenty years and the difficulties that have been encountered in using traditional legal and political approaches to facilitate black equality. While the authors believe that the courts and the Constitution continue to offer the main avenue of hope for African Americans, they remain deeply pessimistic about the chances for progress. Reynolds Farley's essay sheds light on the fatalism of his coauthors and others by highlighting economic developments since Brown. While noting the impressive level of economic advancement by black two-parent families up to 1970, he points out that much of that progress has slowed since and that the economic plight for many blacks has actually worsened because of the dramatic increase in single-family households.

Despite the sense of futility that runs throughout the volume, James Liebman calls for the development of an innovative legal strategy to further the goals of Brown. Acknowledging that desegregation and affirmative action have been limited in their effectiveness by white flight from the cities and by public and legal resistance to affirmative action, Liebman proposes "that poor and minority communities use the enactment into law of minimum educational performance standards as a basis for compelling public authorities to supply children with the educational means necessary to satisfy the standards" (p. 124). And Gary Orfield argues forcefully that the campaign to desegregate the nation's schools constituted a radical goal because it established "a system that is intentionally integrated and treats minorities and whites equally, in publig institutions nested near the core of a society that is profoundly segregated and unequal" (p. 238).

Despite the strengths of these and other essays, the volume lacks historical perspective on the racial developments of the past half-century. Although black economic progress has slowed and in some cases worsened since 1970, Robert Carter's contention that the civil rights prospects are "bleaker than I can ever recall" is a stunning comment in a conference on the anniversary of the Brown decision. His assessment and those by many of his coauthors suggest that the world has changed little for African Americans in the past forty years. Compare this volume to Greenberg's book, which covers the period from the late 1930s to 1990, and one can see the pronounced difference that each of these books brings to its subject matter. Greenberg finds, for example, that the shift from the struggle against segregation to affirmative action and economic opportunity has been a profound one, and while race remains significant, African American agency and the changing racial climate in the nation have been instrumental in enhancing the lives of African Americans.

The chapter by Eddie Williams and William Morris is unique among the other essays in recognizing that most of the "policies and practices that once sustained a segregated society have been eliminated and the quality of life for the black population has improved markedly in both absolute and relative terms" (p. 418). While noting the ravages of renewed racism, drugs, and the deterioration of the family, they are more optimistic about the future for African Americans than are their other coauthors. We can only hope that they are right.

While the three books add to our understanding of racial developments since World War II, they also point out the fundamental difference in interpretation that results from one's perspective of the past. Those, such as Greenberg, who view developments from the beginning of this era see progress, while those examining race from the 1990s see little more than persistent problems. It is this dichotomy that has led to such widely divergent judgments about the nature of black progress and the role of race in American society during the past fifty years.

1. Pierre L. van den Berghe, Race and Ethnicity: Essays in Comparative Sociology (1970), pp. 11, 10; Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), p. 113.

2. J. Mills Thornton, III, "Municipal Politics and the Course of the Movement," in Armstead L. Robinson and Patricia Sullivan, eds., New Directions in Civil Rights Studies (1991); Elizabeth Jacoway, "Introduction," and "Little Rock Business Leaders and Desegregation," in Jacoway and David R. Colbum, eds., Southern Businessmen and Desegregation (1982), pp. 1-14, 15-41.

3. William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil$Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom (1980).

4. Steven F. Lawson, Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969 (1976); and Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (1990).

5. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986).

David R. Colburn, Department of History, University of Florida, is coauthor of "Race, Ethnicity, and the Evolution of Political Legitimacy" in David Farber, The Sixties: From Memory to History (1994) and coauthor of The African American Heritage of Florida (forthcoming).
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Author:Colburn, David R.
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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