Civil Rights and Political Space

Civil Rights and Political Space

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
by Thomas J. Sugrue
Random House, 2008, 688 pp., $35.00

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Sweet Land of Liberty is a survey of the northern civil rights movement. Thomas Sugrue, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has read a rich, secondary literature and added much research of his own. His definition of civil rights is broad, as is appropriate. He begins in the wake of the Great Migration of World War I, when significant numbers of southern blacks migrated to northern cities and ends in the present. If not the “forgotten struggle” that he advertises, it is the fullest one-volume history we have of northern civil rights activity. He arranges the narrative chronologically, although this organization is cloaked by expressive chapter titles that suggest mood more than subject or time—“God Have Pity on Such a City,” “Unconditional War.” Sugrue tells many fascinating stories of challenges to racial barriers in housing, public accommodations, employment, and schools. But the book lacks a structure that can sustain 543 pages of text.

Because his purpose is to record the long history of black activism and demonstrate that there is still much to be done today, Sugrue slights assessments, non-racial sources of change, and the structure of power that activists faced. He rarely evaluates strategies that transformed institutions and social relations and those that did not. He privileges the confrontation over the outcome, the revolutionary manifesto over mundane politics. He rarely explicates the activists’ ideas, and when he does, they seem too simple and contemporary. And, remarkably, we never meet an activist who had bad politics.

Sugrue begins by telling us that we know only one civil rights story, the “morality play” that eliminated the two signatures of southern racism—Jim Crow and black disenfranchisement. In this script, the northern movement, which did not confront the legalized proscriptions, does not exist. True enough. But Sugrue goes further, stating that the “North was never a place of primeval racial innocence,” as if anyone seriously made that claim. One does not need to idealize the North to conclude that southern proscriptions were different and, yes, more comprehensive than those in the North.

Quoting northern blacks who called Cleveland “Alabama North” or Philadelphia “Up South,” does not expunge distinctions. Such expressive proofs make it unnecessary to ask how race and racism functioned in the North. And, if Cleveland was Alabama, one wonders why Alabama blacks traveled to Cleveland from World War I until 1970. Although racism existed in the North, race was never the organizing principle of northern society the way it was in the South. Characterizing colonial America in Many Thousands Gone (1998), Ira Berlin wrote that the North was a soci...