The Black Freedom Struggle of the North (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: historiography, racism, civil rights, segregation, housing

Historians have produced a remarkable body of literature reappraising the civil rights movement in the last two decades. And still, contemporary popular interpretations of the civil rights movement are flawed and incomplete, if not deeply misinformed. Public education may even make matters worse, as suggested by a study of the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2014 that found that most states’ “expectations for teaching the civil rights movement remain woefully inadequate.” Prevailing accounts tend to focus on a handful of charismatic civil rights leaders at the expense of a mass movement; overemphasize dramatic, highly publicized events and downplay methodical, grassroots organizing; push women at the center of the movement to its margins, except perhaps for a sanitized Rosa Parks; and frequently minimize white resistance to the movement, both in its violent and so-called civil expressions.

And this is just how many Americans misunderstand the Southern civil rights movement. When it comes to the history of the Northern movement for racial equality, we encounter a different problem—not widespread misinterpretation, but rather profound ignorance of centuries of racial exclusion and discrimination that has thrived in the United States outside the South, as well as the many movements that struggled against such discrimination beyond the eleven states of the former Confederacy.

How many Americans, for instance, realize that every one of the original thirteen states enslaved people of African descent? How many understand that Northern states were pioneers in disenfranchising free Blacks and in developing customs and laws that racially segregated public transportation, neighborhoods, and jobs before the Civil War? And how many, by the same token, realize that the single-largest one-day civil rights protest in the 1960s was by most estimates not the March on Washington, but a student boycott of New York City’s public schools in February 1964?

Jeanne Theoharis and Brian Purnell, along with Komozi Woodard—the editors of The Strange Careers of Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside the South (2019)—have been among the leading scholars in the last two decades to demand both researchers and the wider public confront this forgotten history of racism and anti-racism in the North. Theoharis and Woodard’s 2003 essay collection, Freedom NorthBlack Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980, as well as their and Purnell’s respective monographs, represented a historiographic call-to-arms at a time when a Montgomery-to-Memphis framework of a short civil rights movement with a narrow focus on Southern segregation and federal legislation enjoyed outsized influence on interpretations of the Black freedom struggle.

In their introduction, Purnell and Theoharis glance back at the literature on civil rights and Jim Crow in the North that has emerged in the past two decades while looking ahead to address major unresolved historiographic questions in the field. Three understudied themes of racism and anti-racism in the North loom large in this volume’s essays, the editors tell us.

First, a number of the book’s essays critique the “language, practices, and ideologies of northern liberalism” with an eye to explaining how Black thinkers and activists “developed theories about the limits of the North as the ‘promised land” (30). Second, the book’s contributors connect the uprisings of the 1960s to the northern Black freedom struggle. Instead of treating the former as a corruption of the latter, several essays regard the decade’s uprisings as an expression of deep frustration with the civil rights movement’s failure to undo the North’s de facto racial caste system. Third, the book’s essays seek to expose and historicize lingering myths that a culture of urban poverty resulted in Northern Blacks being disinterested in, or even incapable of, forming their own movements for racial equality as southern Blacks did.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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