Likewise, Sweet Land of Liberty pushes the narrative of modern Civil Rights—which now typically begins in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education—back in time to the “Great Migration” of the 1920s and up, across the Mason-Dixon line, and into the small towns and big cities of the North. In the book’s introduction, Sugrue argues,
The exclusion of the North—or its selective inclusion as a foil to the southern freedom struggle—comes at a cost. It ignores the long and intense history of racial violence and conflict in northern towns and cities. Though the differences between North and South were real, our emphasis on southern exceptionalism has led historians, journalists, and political commentators to overlook the commonalities across regions. The long and well-publicized history of racial atrocities in the South gave northerners a badge of honor, a sense that they were not part of America’s troubled racial history.
Sugrue goes on to trace the path of people, organizations, and events, alliances and political pressure, geography and perception across 70 years of boycotts, deals, double-talk, idealism, riot, disillusionment, policy, and politics—from boards of education to the calculations of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. The story moves across the vast north, at times to California, and often stopping in small towns and suburbs, where Jim Crow-like conditions endured in meager black schools. All along, he is careful to account for the evolution, interpretation, and deployment of ideas across the world and the American political spectrum, a complex feedback loop of opinion, analysis, events, hope and reaction, fear and assertion. With terrifically still and restrained prose, he makes the dynamic tumbling forward apparent and alive.
From the chapter “Long Hot Summers”:
Acts of resistance and rebellion usually have unintended consequences. Black revolutionaries hoped that they would destabilize the political system; black rioters hoped to stick it to “the Man,” whether brutal police officers or white shopkeepers. The fear of rioting led white elected officials, from the Johnson administration on down to local mayors, to fashion policies to try to buy off black discontent, what sardonic observers called “riot insurance.” But riots also fueled urgent demands for law and order and enhanced police power … The Kerner Commission warned of the “indiscriminate use of force against wholly innocent elements of the Negro community” during the riots. The vast majority of riot-related deaths came at the hands of law-enforcement officials.
Sweet Land of Liberty was published on November 4, 2008, a day marked in places like Germantown by a kind of surreal stepping forward, one voter at a time, and a night—from Chicago and out across the North and South—steeped in tears of melancholic joy and magical disbelief. It was a colossal moment in Civil Rights, surely, a time to stare back, long and derisively, and to gaze forward with still more hope and terrible uncertainty. There are some who call it the start of a different, much less racially polarized America. But Sugrue can’t see it that way. “The conventional wisdom says, ‘This is proof positive we have overcome.’ I think it’s a wrong interpretation. Well, you only need to go 10 blocks from Barack Obama’s house on the South Side [of Chicago] to see that racial history is not over in the U.S. We’ve got a lot of overcoming to do.”
As the day grows colder, Sugrue and I descend farther down Germantown Avenue. We pass the home of 19th-century novelist Owen Wister and a tiny park named for the early portraitist Gilbert Stuart. There are vintage 1940s storefront signs and there’s the crumbling mill of the Samson Pattern Company. One store advertises imported Muslim oils. Another sells Islamic books. Men—every one of them African-American—wear beards and calf-length robes. Women have covered themselves in black headscarves and long dresses. A block later, we come to Freedom Square; here, in 1688, Daniel Pastorius and other German Quakers, who had sought in William Penn’s colony religious freedom, declared their opposition to slavery. In 1992, hoping to catalyze economic development, the Germantown Housing Development Corporation turned the corner into a strip mall called Freedom Square. Today, it feels lifeless and dangerous. As we walk through the large parking lot, Sugrue observes, “Even the beer distributor is closed. The screen is down on the windows. This is sad.”
When I return, alone, a few weeks later, this lower section of Germantown Avenue is being reconstructed. A new street bed will be laid, new trolley tracks, curbs, and cobblestones. Construction workers, union employees of a local contractor, swarm the street. Not one, of perhaps two dozen in all, is African-American. It is a bewildering scene, tension palpable. But Sugrue is my steady, and relentless, companion here.
Ten years after the onset of the national civil rights movement, and eight years after Michigan passed a statewide Fair Employment Practices act, blacks remained effectively shut out of well-paying, skilled, and unionized jobs in the construction trades.
That was 1963, Detroit. This is Philadelphia, 2009. “You can’t help but feel the force of segregation, notice it at every level,” observes Sugrue. “At least let’s be honest about it.”
Nathaniel Popkin C’91 GCP’95 is a 2009 PA Council on the Arts Fellow.
May|June 09 contents