Matthew Countryman: Digging into Philadephia's forgotten racial history

Historians in the News

There are obvious places that jump to mind when talking about America's civil rights history: Selma. Montgomery. Greensboro. Birmingham. Detroit. Philly ain't one of 'em.

But Matthew Countryman's new book Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia lends new light to the local battles waged here. The Germantown native, born into a biracial family of civil rights activists, rethinks previous notions about black power, which conventional wisdom has dictated was external and disruptive to the civil rights movement. Instead, as Countryman argues in this thorough and engaging tome, black power was a natural step beyond civil rights liberalism, and was necessary to get at the fundamental questions of racial oppression that had till then gone unaddressed.

Q. Why does Philly get forgotten in the history of civil rights?

A. "Part of it is that Philly sort of stands in the shadows of New York. But also the movement in Philadelphia was very much a community movement about a local struggle. People were deeply engaged in and believed in the possibility of social and racial transformation in Philadelphia."

Q.Was black power in Philadelphia just a step beyond civil rights liberalism, or was it more influenced by the national movement?

A."These weren't new ideas. It wasn't that Malcolm X appeared and nobody had ever thought of this before. Young black activists had grown up under this, for lack of a better term, civil rights liberal regime, which said that racial inequality and discrimination will disappear once we pass antidiscrimination laws. By the mid-1960s they saw that, by themselves, these legal structures didn't fundamentally address the structural questions and the power issues at stake-the ways in which institutionalized white privilege wasn't prepared to give those privileges up in order to give opportunities to African-Americans."

Q.When did black Philadelphians begin to lose faith in civil rights liberalism?

A."In the period from the late '50s through the mid-'60s you have the boycotts of retail employers, which really attempted to hold up to the city and say, 'We've passed these laws that ban discrimination, and yet black workers remain disadvantaged in the workplace. What are you going to do about it?' That was followed by the protests led by Cecil Moore and the NAACP against the construction industry for locking black workers out of skilled construction jobs. Those protests revealed the extent to which these liberal institutions either couldn't or wouldn't address these structural questions that kept most black workers disadvantaged in the workplace."

Q. And then there's the complacency of the Democratic machine.

A. "Exactly. And the machine's inability or unwillingness to address these conflicts within its own constituency. The machine becomes increasingly dependent on black voters, but is unwilling to address the ways in which unions and the school system are organized to privilege white working-class voters." ...
Read entire article at Jeffrey Berg in the Philadelphia Weekly

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