Civil Rights and Political Uses

  • Essay 1 response for PS 1010, Wayne State, Fall 2012.
  • Example of teaching mechanism: compare your essay to mine.
  • Niche audience: behavioralists, structuralists, and American Political Development (APD) researchers.

Review of: The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past (2005) The Journal of American History, V. 91, N. 4, pp. 1233-1263.**

Author: Jacquelyn Dowd Hall

Point of interest: Our remembrance of the civil rights movement “distorts and suppresses as much as it reveals” (1233).

Overview: King believed that America faced a national problem, not a sectional (i.e., Southern) problem. This movement was not just about civil rights, but inequality, workers’ rights and equity.

There is a dialectic (which is a historical movement of progress and regress), and the backlash by the New Right was entrenched in economic concerns. The New Right is made of corporate power brokers, old-style conservative intellectuals and neoconservatives (1237). The Old Right—the state’s rights, property rights Americans whom believed in the God-given inferiority of Blacks gave way to the new “color-blind” (i.e., elimination of racial classifications) New Right, who ignored the “structural inequality” in America altogether (1237). The American creed of free-market individualism (i.e. classic liberalism) made color blindness the war of ideas. Would they win?

The Long Backlash: The New Deal programs actually helped to create racial barriers (1240). The welfare system was rooted in the family wage, which was based on male bread-winners (1241). Women were wholly excluded from the New Deal. White men disproportionately benefited from the GI Bill. The New Deal “predisposed white urbanites to fear Black migrants” (1241). “Black” became associated with “blight” (1241). The Federal Housing Administration “practically mandated racial homogeneity” (1241)… “racial valuation of neighborhoods translated into enormous inequalities” (1242). It is thus visible: Blacks act as the “miner’s canary”—as the first sign of danger that threatens us all (1235) and provide the research material in light of discrimination, segregation and civil rights.

Southern Strategies: “racial capitalism” was really racial domination through economic practices (1243). The South got a disproportionate share of defense spending while demanding local and state control of federal programs for housing, hospital construction, education, etc. White collar jobs required qualifications which were denied to Blacks. So as the South prospered, racial disparities widened (1244). Low corporate taxes, low environmental policies and low wages helped move corporations to the South, was helped by Nixon’s “southern strategy,” which attacked busing, welfare and affirmative action.

The Long Civil Rights Movement: “racism has been bound up with economic exploitation” (1246). In the civil rights movement, defeating fascism was coupled with defeating racism…and turning “world opinion against Jim Crow” (1247). In 1944, the Supreme Court brought political exclusion to an end when it declared the “White primary” unconstitutional (1248).

The Chill of the Cold War: The long backlash was accelerated in the 1940s when northern business interests joined conservative southern Democrats to push back labor’s war time gains, to protect the cheap labor in the South, and to stop the expansion of the New Deal. Their weapon was the anti-communist crusade (1248). For America was about “local self-government,” not a “federal police state” like the Soviets (1249).

The Classical Phase of the Movement: Political languages played a large role in the theme of “justice now.” The leaders called for radical change to the system, because “nothing as minimalist about dismantling Jim Crow, a system built as much on economic exploitation as on de jure and de facto spatial separation. “True integration…[is] a process of transforming institutions and building an equitable, democratic, multiracial, and multiethnic society” (1252).

Beyond declension: The progress made by Feminists, black political power, and other organizations for social change created “new, integrated institutions where none had existed before” (1254). There were deeply rooted grassroots struggles, and sometimes the Supreme Court best revealed the government policies that created de facto [and de jure] segregation (i.e. Brown, 1954). However, the New Right continued to fight against societal transformation in order to accomplish political and economic equity by insisting that “color blindness” was the only remedy necessary (1255). Reagan, in the 1984 campaign, argued against busing as “a social experiment that nobody wants,” yet social scientists have produced evidence that [West Charlotte High] new integration programs did help to “dissipate[d] ‘the hostility and hate’ of early years” and did help activate real diversity in the society (1256). Thus, even though the era of segregation was being dismantled in education, class and political activities, there was a movement to erase its existence and the change in society. By the 1990s, many of programs to dismantle segregation and economic justice had been abandoned (i.e. beginning with Milliken v. Bradley (1974) and San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973)).

The fight for economic security has also been [partially] mindfully dismantled. Johnson’s attempt to attain economic justice often fell short, and so Republicans charged that the government cannot solve the problem by throwing money at it. Stagflation in the 1970s gave reason for corporations to dismantle the “union democracy” which had helped workers of all colors make gains in economic security (1259). Moreover, Reagan’s administration attempted to “gut antidiscrimination enforcement based on ‘hidden preferences and stereotypes’” (1260). Feminism and other social justice organizations were attacked by the New Right as antifamily or an elitist plot (1260). After the battle, progress towards citizen equity on all fronts was accomplished, yet the tactics of the New Right also did much to cause many stumbles and stops in progress.

Conclusion: Remembering the long civil rights movement and the political uses of the past; or the goals of economic and political justice, is the first step in continuing to follow the ongoing fight in America for racial and economic justice. To do so, “we need modes of writing and speaking that emphasize individual agency, the sine qua non of narrative, while also dramatizing the hidden history of policies and institutions—the publicly sanctioned choices that continually shape and reshape the social landscape and yet are often invisible to citizens trained on not seeing and in thinking exclusively in ahistorical, personal terms” (1262-1263).

** this is my answer for students in my PS 1010 course who wrote on this essay article.

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