U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Towards a Black Intellectual History of the Age of Reagan

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]  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.[6] 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.[7] 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.

[1]   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.

[2]   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).

[3]   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.

[4]   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).

[5]   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)

[6]   White, 6.

[7]   White, 7.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful piece. I was wondering if you had looked into Jesse Jackson’s writing and speeches as part of his 1984 Presidential campaign? Jackson’s views came of age in the early 1970s and gained momentum throughout the decade. I have long wondered about how Jackson’s campaign and the National Rainbow Coalition may have galvanized the New Right and how some NRC plans – particularly universal health insurance – have been consistent liberal rallying points since the 1980s while remaining New Right bugbears. Thanks for the thought-provoking essay.

  2. I’ve looked at reaction to Jackson in his 1984 campaign from both conservative and liberal publications (namely The National Review and The Progressive). What’s interesting about The Progressive going into the 1984 election cycle is that they devote an entire issue to who should be the Democratic nominee for president. While there’s no consensus on who it should be, it’s clear they don’t want it to be Mondale. And with Jackson, everyone’s hoping he can really pull together the Rainbow Coalition into a viable force. But after the infamous “Hymietown” incident, a lot of soul searching is done within the pages of The Progressive. And, while it’s easy today to dismiss Jackson’s run, I think his idea of building a cross-racial coalition has, in many ways, come to fruition with the two Barack Obama campaigns. I wonder if Jackson was just too far ahead of his time?

    One element I forgot about while writing this piece, but I’ve thought about in the last few days, is the class versus race debate raging among liberal intellectuals at this time. How, they’d ask, do we best win votes and try to solve the issues of poverty in the inner city? Well, such luminaries as William Julius Wilson are arguing for the use of class over race, to make a broader based appeal. Something I’m going to look at soon is how people such as Jackson and other African American intellectuals respond to that critique.

    Above all, I want to make sure we avoid ignoring intellectuals on the Left during this time period, because I think it’s often easy to do so in the fact of the rise of the New Right. And, by the way, I think the relationship between African Americans and the Right is very interesting during this time period too. Working within a new intellectual framework of the 1980s, when the Great Society is seen by many in Washington as a well-intentioned mistake, at best, Black intellectuals know that they have a difficult road ahead of them.

    Lastly, thanks for the kind words. I wonder now if I should add this response to my #graftonline word count…..

  3. Oh, one more thing: I’m definitely going to look at Jackson closely beyond just those magazines. It’s interesting to examine this era, because honestly I think that the left-liberal coalition in this era was fighting both the GOP and the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s. Ultimately, you can examine African American intellectuals within both this framework, and understand how they had to find their own path during this era.

  4. And, while it’s easy today to dismiss Jackson’s run, I think his idea of building a cross-racial coalition has, in many ways, come to fruition with the two Barack Obama campaigns. I wonder if Jackson was just too far ahead of his time?

    Absolutely–the real key is 1988, where Jackson doubles his 3 million primary votes of 1984, picking up some whites. And the black vote becomes not just a reliable resource in November, but a cohesive bloc in the Democratic primary as well.

    The Democratic Leadership Council is founded in 1985 as a reaction to Reagan’s success and the Democrat drift towards McGovernism, eventually getting their man in. However, although Bill Clinton wins 2 terms as a DLCer, he’s a disaster for the party, losing their half century-long domination of Congress.

    The Dems continue in the wilderness until 2006 when they sweep Congress from an inept GOP, and although any Dem is a lock for president in 2008, it’s [ironically?] Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson who become the key for Barack Obama in the tide-turning South Carolina primary. It’s time to collect.

    And the man once called the “first black president” remains deeply wounded by allegations that he made racially insensitive remarks during the campaign, like dismissing Obama’s South Carolina win by comparing it with Jesse Jackson’s victories there in the 1980s.

    “None of them ever really took seriously the race rap,” he told me. “They knew it was politics. I had one minister in Texas in the general election come up and put his arm around me.” This was an Obama supporter. “And he came up, threw his arm around me and said, ‘You’ve got to forgive us for that race deal.’ He said, ‘That was out of line.’ But he said, ‘You know, we wanted to win real bad.’ And I said, ‘I got no problem with that.’ I said it’s fine; it’s O.K. And we laughed about it and we went on.”


  5. Indeed. Great points! I was leaning towards doing more on 1988 but this spurs me to get to that faster.

    • Cheers, RJG. Epilogue: The DLC closes its “doors” in 2011. Its records are sent over to the Clinton Foundation. Whether it was literally to the basement of the Harlem office, I don’t know, but figuratively they did–Hillary ’16 will pass straight through Jim Clyburn’s office, not around it.

      I stayed home that key day in 2008, transfixed, and watched as the river of history changed from one inevitable course to another.


      “If you tell me that Obama cannot win if he can’t get white votes in Ohio, but Hillary can win even if she doesn’t get black votes in New York, I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I would add Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, which was originally published in 1983 and reissued in 2000, to the excellent list above. In many ways, Marable wrote the book in response to the ascendancy of the neoconservative movement. But in other ways, he was also responding to the shifting ideological fault lines of black politics. The book exhibits the highly charged debates raging among black organic intellectuals, especially in regards to the political transformations that Civil Rights leaders such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young underwent from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. It was also during these years that many young African American scholars with an interest in black studies began graduating from PhD programs. It would be interesting to explore the peculiarities and political formation of this cohort of intellectuals contra that of the generation of 1969 (please see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/weekinreview/26cooper.html?_r=0) Once again, I enjoyed this post very much. Thanks.

  7. Thanks for the kind words. I’ll definitely check out that Marable book (among several).

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