African American Civil Rights Movement

Thomas Sugrue, in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, examines Detroit in the 25 years following World War II. The work examines issues of housing, segregation, industrial relations, racial discrimination, and deindustrialization. Sugrue argues “the coincidence and mutual reinforcement of race, economics, and politics in a particular moment, the period from the 1940s through 1960s, set the stage for the fiscal, social, and economic crises that confront urban America today.” He finds that the postwar urban crisis in Detroit is a consequence of capitalism creating economic inequality, which is disproportionately borne by African Americans. Sugrue describes in detail the discrimination African Americans faced in the housing market, and analyzes African American neighborhoods in the city, the housing shortage, urban redevelopment plans, low-rent housing, black homeownership, and public housing. He also gives a thorough analysis of labor discrimination against African Americans in various industries, most notably the automobile industry, and the ways in which automation, federal policy, and decentralization led to significant job losses throughout the city. While I found the entirety of this book to be fascinating and incredibly well-written, the portions of the book I found most interesting were those that detailed white resistance. Blockbusting brokers, for example, would use devious techniques, such as paying an African American woman to walk her baby through a white neighborhood, to fuel suspicion of a “black residential takeover” in that neighborhood. The analysis of the homeowners’ movement was also fascinating, as was the distinction between defended and undefended neighborhoods.

Danielle McGuire, in At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement, argues that the Civil Rights Movement began decades before the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, and was rooted in African American women’s resistance to sexual violence and appeals for the protection of black womanhood. “If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African Americans’ daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret it, if not rewrite, the history of the Civil Rights Movement. At the Dark End of the Street does both,” McGuire writes. (xx) Each chapter of her work focuses on a particular moment of the Movement, including the rape of Recy Taylor, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, white backlash, the rape of Betty Jean Owens,  Fannie Lou Hamer and Freedom Summer, Bloody Sunday, and the Joan Little case. There were several themes within this work I found interesting, including the notion of “respectability” and how important it was for black women to be seen as such. One of the reasons the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in December of 1955 was because Rosa Parks was seen as “respectable” by both African American and white communities, but by the time of Joan Little’s trial in 1975, respectability was no longer the defining trait supporters looked for before rallying to the cause. McGuire effectively traces the evolution of this idea throughout her work. She also successfully repositions the Movement in such a way that demonstrates the role of ordinary women and men–much of the extant historiography of the Movement focuses on (typically male) leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the ways she does this is through detailing the importance of African American women’s testimonies. At times I did feel like the work sensationalized the rape and lynching of black women and men in ways that made me uncomfortable, but I think that was due mostly to the narrative structure of the book. At the Dark End of the Street ties in very well with other works on race and gender from earlier time periods, like Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, Hannah Rosen’s Terror in the Heart of Freedom, and Amy Wood’s Lynching and Spectacle. The book also responded to other works we’ve read for this course, including Thomas Borstlemann’s The Cold War and the Color Line.

The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland is Robyn Spencer’s history of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in which she analyzes their political evolution from the early 1960s through its dissolution. The BPP was began by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Their early efforts focused on police brutality of African Americans and they advocated armed self-defense. Panthers theorized about the need for strong manhood but did not counter that with the idea of submissive women, and women who joined the Panthers had come to political consciousness in the context of a growing women’s movement. The Panthers lived collectively and members had to participate in education courses. Spencer details the ways in which the FBI attacked the group, caused conflict within the organization, manipulated the Panther’s public image, and undermined its relationships with other Civil Rights organizations. Spencer also effectively demonstrates how the Panthers worked to effect change within the Bay Area community, both in the social and political spheres, particularly after their move away from militancy. McGuire describes the tensions among the leadership of the Panthers, and the issues the Party faced in later years, such as low morale and expulsion of prominent members. One thing I would have liked to see more of, especially for a book with gender in the subtitle, is gender. Spencer does discuss the role of women within the BPP, and details the work of Elaine Brown, who assumed leadership of the Panthers after Newton, but the majority of  work discusses the history of the party in general. This work also pairs nicely with Borstlemann’s The Cold War and the Color Line.

Discussion questions

  1. What role does the federal government play in this works? How do they exert agency and what are the consequences of that?
  2. What affect does the Panthers’ adoption of militaristic tactics have on the organization itself, the audiences they appealed to, and the state?

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