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Feb 28, 2005 8:47 pm

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Black Power

Ralph Luker’s farewell to Nathan Wright, Jr. emphasizes the paradoxical thought of this lifelong Republican, who challenged racial segregation in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation and his leadership of the National Conference on Black Power in 1967, during which he termed racial integration “an insult on its face.” Without underestimating the complexity or sincerity of Wright’s ideas, the twenty-year gap between the two actions might just as well be a century, given the drastic evolution that so many in the black movement underwent in a very short time. Many of the leaders of the Black Power movement, from Stokely Carmichael to James Forman during the latter 1960s, had after all been activists in the interracial non-violent movement only a few years earlier.

The radicalization that the civil rights movement worked on the ideas of political thinkers, and the calling into question of the practicality or desirability of integration, was not restricted to those inside the movement. A notable example was the historian and liberal spokesperson Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Schlesinger was not closely identified with struggles for racial equality during the first two postwar decades. Although he spoke in general terms of the importance of racial justice, he considered it as a subject of liberal reform like others, and his identification with the question was largely intellectual. He also demonstrated a certain naiveté about the issue. In the brief passage on civil rights in his 1949 liberal manifesto THE VITAL CENTER, Schlesinger stated that the South accepted in principle President Truman’s civil rights program, as could be proven by Truman’s victory over Dixiecrat Candidate Strom Thurmond in most of the Southern states. Conversely, in the face of massive resistance by the South to the Supreme Court’s BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION decision and desegregation of schools, Schlesinger expressed support for gradualism and commented that it might have been better if the Supreme Court had continued the “Fabian” policy of the Vinson Court in BROWN rather than directly overruling Jim Crow. As late as 1965, Schlesinger insisted that the chief historical cause of racial inequality, beyond widespread sentiments of white supremacy, were overly narrow views of federal authority.

However, by the mid 1960s, Schlesinger was catalyzed by the Black movement, which he called the “moral core” of a new liberal coalition. He compared the heroism of Blacks fighting for equality with the cowardice and complacency of white America. Under the influence of the movement (as well as Robert Kennedy’s thought, and also his frustration over American intervention in Vietnam) Schlesinger moved away significantly from his emphasis on rational governmental reform towards advocacy of a radical (if democratic) restructuring of American society. For instance, while he supported the Great Society’s antipoverty programs, he expressed concern that top-down reform could exacerbate dependency. In a conference in 1968, he asserted, ”Only as the poor take over the leadership of the war against poverty, as the Negroes have taken over the leadership of the war against racism, will the war against poverty achieve its full momentum.”

Meanwhile, while he remained philosophically in favor of integration, Schlesinger took a more positive view of Black Nationalism than many of his colleagues. Nationalism, he pointed out in an article for the Journal of Negro History, was the strongest force in Twentieth Century History, and a dynamic engine of progress. It was therefore understandable and even praiseworthy that Blacks were moved by nationalist notions. The important element was to ensure that this nationalism so that it became a strengthening force, a “transitional nationalism which seeks to strengthen Black purpose as a prelude to integration” and not a permanent or “mystical separatism.” In an interview with John Garraty for Columbia University’s Oral History program that was conducted during the controversy in 1968 over “local control” of schools by community representatives in New York’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and published shortly afterwards, Schlesinger expressed approval for the experiment as part of this enlightened trend:

“A strong and rather persuasive case can be made that the present rhetoric of integration implies total acceptance of white values, and therefore is demoralizing to the Negro; and that genuine integration will be impossible unless it’s preceded by separatism, because integration will be meaningless unless it takes place from a base of racial equality…Indeed, there is a strong argument for giving blacks their own communities, their own schools, their own police forces. In effect, that’s what happened with white immigrants around the year 1900 in Boston. The Yankees decided they would let the Irish run the city.”

At first glance, it is difficult to reconcile Schlesinger’s position on Black Nationalism with his later attack on multiculturalism, most famously expressed in THE DISUNITING OF AMERICA (1991). It may be that he ultimately decided that racial politics were not a transition to integration but a danger to it, even as he disparaged identity politics. Nevertheless, Schlesinger remained a consistent advocate of Affirmative Action, and was acerbic in his critique of “color-blind” conservatives as opponents of actual equality. His contact with the Movement and the struggle for the dispossessed may have made it possible for him to retain a concern for racial justice and a faith in liberalism long after many of his neo-conservative contemporaries had abandoned both.

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Van L. Hayhow - 3/1/2005

Thanks again.

Greg James Robinson - 3/1/2005

Yes, it is true, we see suspicion of big government, for different reasons, at different ends of the ideological spectrum. It is interesting to hear how these arguments play out in Canada, where provinces whose powers would be the envy of U.S. state governments constantly thunder about the leviathan in Ottawa.

Ed Schmitt - 3/1/2005

In re-reading what I wrote, I didn't mean to suggest the New Left hailed RFK (most distrusted him except Tom Hayden, and only privately), but that the New Left conception of participatory democracy was not far from Kennedy's conception of the need for community control.

Ed Schmitt - 3/1/2005

This is an interesting discussion on what I think is one of the more compelling political developments of the 1960s and beyond. As New Deal liberalism came under siege from both the right and the left, both conservatives and those inclined toward the New Left came to see it as too much federal government, too "top-down," and too unresponsive to new social and economic realities. If anyone had been a defender of the New Deal order, Schlesinger was, but the fact he became so disillusioned with Johnson's presidency did leave him more inclined to reassess his position. And you're right, RFK's emphasis on bottom-up solutions (which the New Left hailed as participatory democracy) did influence Schlesinger (who later called Kennedy the most creative political leader of the time). What gets very interesting is the similarity between the participatory democracy of the New Left and the emphasis on local control and the potential of market-based attempts to draw capital into poor areas emphasized by concerned conservatives of the time. I've always been fascinated by the number of former student radicals and New Left leaders who later became conservatives (such as Dana Rorabacher, among many others), and while there are many potential reasons why, I think this similar emphasis on disillusionment with federal solutions and the potential of local controls is one reason why. Of course Schlesinger later went down neither of those roads, seemingly emphasizing a communitarian liberalism over rights-based or identity politics-based liberalism. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive, however, as I intend to share if I can ever finish my manuscript on Robert Kennedy and the issue of poverty...

Greg James Robinson - 3/1/2005

I read Polsgrove's book a long time ago, and do not remember specifically her take on Schlesinger. I do recall that my reaction was similar to yours--that it was good to have such a book but that I thought there was much more to be done (I was in a good position to know, especially as I had done some research myself on the subject). The sharpest examination of Schlesinger's position on race relations that I have seen is in Walter A. Jackson's essay “White Liberal Intellectuals, Civil Rights, and Gradualism, 1954–1960,” in Brian Ward and Tony Badger's anthology THE MAKING OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. One of the most interesting takes I have seen on Schlesinger's
"presentist" liberalism is Italian historian Marco Mariano's recent intellectual biography of Schlesinger, LO STORICO NEL SUO LABIRINTO, which greatly deserves an English translation.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/28/2005

Greg, I'd be interested in knowing how well you think Carol Polsgrove got Schlesinger's position in re race relations in her book, _Divided Minds_. I reviewed the book for conservativenet and thought that, while she'd raised an important subject -- the attitude of the American intellectuals toward the Movement -- for examination, there was a whole lot more work to be done on it.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/28/2005

Van, You can find it in print at You can probably get a good, less expensive used copy at

Van L. Hayhow - 2/28/2005

I have wanted to read this book for some time but have never seen it in a local library or in a used book store in my area. I don't believe it is in print. Am I wrong about this? Could it be ordered somewhere? Thanks for any suggestions.

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