Towards a Black Intellectual History of the Age of Reagan
by Robert Greene II
Recent American historiography on the 1970s and 1980s has taken seriously the rise of the American Right. Ever since the clarion call issued by Alan Brinkley in his landmark 1994 article in the American Historical Review, (and some historians, such as Leo Ribuffo, would say well before then), American historians have tried to uncover when, exactly, the “New Right” movement takes off, and takes hold, of the Republican Party. Nonetheless, since that 1994 article, the number of monographs and journal articles on the rise of the New Right has exploded. Of course, many of us are familiar with the debates about what fueled the rise of conservatism, such as race, the Cold War, culture wars, economics, or a combination of all the above.
More recently, some historians have begun to switch focus from the New Right towards American liberals of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The questions they’ve begun to ask are no less important than those being asked about the rise of American conservatism in the same time period. Those questions include: how did American liberals adjust to a political landscape in which they were viewed with suspicion by a variety of political constituents? What explains American liberals’ defeats in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s? On the other hand, what explains the liberal victories in this same time period, holding off conservative attempts to turn back liberal victories such as abortion, affirmative action, social security, and Medicare? In other words, historians are examining liberals, liberalism, and the Democratic Party during the Age of Reagan to understand how a political force that was often disparaged as being weak during this time period was, instead, active in trying to defend the gains made during the New Deal and Great Society eras of reform.
While these recent “turns” in American political and intellectual history are welcome and much needed, another area of American intellectual history still could use some fleshing out. The ideas and strategies formulated by African American intellectuals, and their allies, during the Age of Reagan are also of critical importance if we’re to understand how Americans of various backgrounds grappled with the rise of American conservatism, and the retreat (but not total defeat) of American liberalism. In order to do this, it would be wise to interrogate not just the historiography of the rise of the New Right, but also historiographies in the “Long Civil Rights Movement” and Black Power. For instance, in Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s landmark piece on Civil Rights historiography, she argued that conservatives came to embrace civil rights after fighting against it so long because “the conservative movement reinvented itself in the 1970s, first by incorporating neoconservatives who eschewed old-fashioned racism and then by embracing an ideal of formal equality, focusing on blacks’ ostensible failings, and positioning itself as the true inheritor of the civil rights legacy.” Meanwhile, writings on Black Power, such as those by Peniel Joseph and Devin Fergus, have sought to save Black Power from simply being seen as the eccentric aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, and as a key participant in the battles between conservatism and liberalism in the 1970s.
However, it would be a mistake to leave the story of the post-Civil Rights era just as a story of continued activism, the rise of a Black political class, and tensions over desegregation and affirmative action. Within the debates about race, class, and political participation in the 1970s and 1980s can also be found continued ferment among African American intellectuals. In short, those intellectuals were asking the question first put forward by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here? In other words, what were African Americans to make of the shift to the Right for a majority of white Americans? And where did African Americans fit within this new Age of Reagan (as it would become known)?
A new, nascent scholarship is emerging that will try to answer these questions. Derrick E. White’s The Challenge of Blackness is a step in the right direction in regards to these questions. White’s work addresses the creation of a Black Think Tank which became a “poorly funded counterbalanace to the conservative Heritage Foundation” and also a forum in which to mediate disagreements and arguments among African American intellectuals and activists. The Institute of the Black World, based in Atlanta, eventually saw contributions from a wide variety of African American, and African, intellectuals, such as Margaret Alexander Walker, C. L. R. James, Lerone Bennett Jr., John Henrik Clark, and many others. White’s focus on three key leaders within the IBW, Vincent Harding, Stephen Henderson, and William Strickland, also shows the diversity of thought and action behind the think tank.
This book addresses the 1970s, the Age of Reagan, and Black Power scholarship in a fresh light. More, of course, is needed in terms of how African American intellectual thought withstood the challenge of conservatism and liberal retreat during this era (and my own study is trending in this direction, partially stoked by reading works such as White’s). While their biggest contribution may have been to nourish fledgling Black Studies departments at various universities in the 1970s, the IBW also played a role in fostering radical Black thought that helped it to survive and prepare for later ideological battles in the 1980s and beyond. It also points to the myriad ways in which recent American history took plenty of twists and turns, and how intellectual participants in the 1970s responded to a time period which has come to shape our own in many ways.
 Brinkley, Alan. “The Problem of American Conservatism” in American Historical Review, Vol. 99, No. 2, April 1994, pp. 409-429. Ribuffo’s critique of Brinkley’s argument, that there was a lack of a conservative historiography, is in the same issue, “Why is there so much Conservatism in the United States and Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything About It?” pp. 438-450. A more recent update, Kim Philips-Fein’s “Conservatism: A State of the Field”, Journal of American History, December 2011, pp. 723-743.
 Just a few of the books that come to mind here include: Bell, Jonathan and Stanley, Timothy, Making Sense of American Liberalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012); Stanley, Timothy, Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2010).
 Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past” in Journal of American History, Vol. 91, No. 4, March 2005, pp. 1233-1263, quote on pp. 1237.
 Joseph, Peniel. Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. (New York: Henry, Holt and Company, 2006) and Fergus, Devin. Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980. (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009).
 White, Derrick E. The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011)
 White, 6.
 White, 7.