In The Origins of the Urban Crisis

and now Sweet Land of Liberty, Penn historian

Thomas Sugrue has shattered the conventional narrative

about the struggle for Civil Rights in this country.  

The new book was published on the same day a black

man was elected president; still, says Sugrue,

“We’ve got a lot of overcoming to do.”

 

May|June 09 contents
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BY NATHANIEL POPKIN | The sky on this mid-January day is opaque, the color of gauze, and large snowflakes are falling. From time to time, a wind slashes, but for two hours of walking, Tom Sugrue, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology, and I have ignored it.

We had met at a buzzing Mount Airy café, InFusion, whose back room was given over to young parents and small children. Sugrue, who lives nearby in a grand, wood-paneled house with a thick garden, is 46. He has a round, boyish face, a small mouth, and dimples. His hair is white and eyebrows black, an owlish composition.  Two months earlier, his highly anticipated and narrative-altering new book—Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North—had been published by Random House to immediate acclaim.

The book was named a finalist for the 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History (to be announced after the Gazette went to press).  Writer and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who directs Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, called it “revelatory, daring, and ambitious.” Penn colleague Steven Hahn, the Ray F. and Jeanette P. Nichols Professor of History, whose A Nation Under Our Feet, on Southern Civil Rights, won the Pulitzer Prize, said it’s “one of the most important works on modern American history to appear in recent memory.” Not surprisingly for such groundbreaking work, Sweet Land of Liberty has also been met with uncertainty. Historian David L. Chappell  wrote in Newsday:

Sugrue’s lavish attention to extreme rhetoricians only occasionally distorts his story. More often, it spices it up—and his notes will lead skeptical readers to a more balanced view…The book covers more fresh ground than any history of race has in many years. Despite its occasional cheerleading tone, it opens up a lot of complexities and hard questions.

Because the book is so thoroughly researched—it occupied Sugrue and some of his graduate students for a decade—most often these questions don’t relate to content, but rather to issues of emphasis and impact. Which political movements deserve the most careful attention? Whose voices, yet unheard, require emphasis?

COVER STORY:
The Vital Thread of Tom Sugrue By Nathaniel Popkin
Photograph by Chris Crisman

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©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette


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