U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Growing Post-Civil Rights Movement Literature (Guest Post by Robert Greene)

(Editor’s Note: this is the sixth, and last, in a series of weekly guest posts that Robert Greene will be doing for us. I expect, however, that he will be appearing on this blog in the future… — Ben Alpers)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve written on a wide variety of subjects related to the Black American Experience and American Intellectual History. Now I think it’s time to look towards the future, and look at several books that will be released in the next several months that deal with Black Americans and the era that Daniel Rodgers referred to as an “Age of Fracture.”

First, I quickly want to address how Rodgers wrote about race in that book. His chapter, “Race and Social Memory,” is a brilliant interpretation of how the United States dealt with race, and was divided over memory of the Civil Rights Movement, in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. His mixture of the rise of Black politics, Black intellectual ferment, and the conservative reaction to arguments over affirmative action, provide an excellent panoramic of the last forty years in terms of race relations.

Of course, there’s so much more being done on this era and Black American history. For example, I mentioned months ago the book The Challenge of Blackness, an intriguing intellectual history of a Black think tank in Atlanta during what Derrick White calls the “Long Seventies”. It seems that the growing sentiment for new American historians doing the 20th century is to focus on the 1970s and 1980s. Consider Lora Burnett’s work on the Great Books debate at Stanford—during the 1980s. Or Ray Haberski’s book, God and War, which features long sections on civil religion from the post-Vietnam War era until after 9/11.

Increasingly, the post-60s literature that Americanists are churning out is beginning to look at the continued battles over race in the United States. Inspired by Lora Burnett’s creation of a bibliography of books on the 1980s, and my own research into the time period, I’ve begun keeping a close eye out for new books on the 80s.  For instance, this Tuesday two new books about race and recent American history are coming out. One is a long-awaited (for me at least) look at the Republican Party and race, Timothy Thurber’s Republicans and Race: The GOP’s Frayed Relationship With African Americans, 1945-1974. Here, Thurber tries to show how the Republican Party convulsed over issues of race from the end of World War II until the end of Richard Nixon’s term in office. It’s certainly not a clear cut story to tell, as Thurber will no doubt deal with both liberal and moderate Republicans’ support for many Civil Rights bills, as well as divisions among conservatives over what to do about civil rights. For instance, there’s Barry Goldwater, who was active in his local NAACP chapter in Arizona yet voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act for libertarian reasons (And who, later on, also admitted this was a terrible decision for him to make). Robert Taft, hopefully, will make an appearance in this book. So-called “Mr. Republican” for his conservative stance on a wide variety of issues, the Ohio Republican was often forced to react to Tom Dewey’s appeals to Black votes in the late 1940s and early 1950s.[1]

Hopefully, Thurber’s book can move the discussion about the Republican Party and Black Americans beyond the standard, modern-day partisan arguments about which party deserves more credit for civil rights legislation. While that book is a political history, Michael Foley’s Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s also promises to rescue from historical amnesia the various protest movements that arose during an era of conservative ascendancy. I’d assume that the movements covered in this book will include the nuclear freeze campaign, the anti-Apartheid movement, and more than likely early forays into battles for gay rights.

It will be interesting to read both of these books and consider an intellectual history component to both. Who were the intellectuals providing ferment for protests movements in the 1970s and 1980s? It’s very likely they were veterans of the 60s campaigns, and they certainly had a great deal to teach younger activists. But the era in which they found themselves, an age of conservative reaction to the “excesses” of the 60s, also created a situation in which their messages had to be massaged and revised for a new time.

Perhaps, though, that intellectual history of race and the “Age of Fracture” is coming our way. David L. Chappell, best known for his intellectual history of the Civil Rights Movement, A Stone of Hope, is now turning his attention to the 1970s and 1980s. In January (at least according to Amazon) he’s releasing a new book titled Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ll be honest, when I learned of this book I was both thrilled—and a bit worried. Considering that I’m planning my dissertation to be a study of American memory of both the Civil Rights and Black Power, and how that affected political discourse in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, I’m curious to see what both this book and Jonathan Holloway’s newest work (out in October) Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America Since 1940 have to say about the intellectual response to the gains, and retreats, in the post-Civil Rights Era.

[1] Bowen, Michael. The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party, Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Another great post!

    My memory of the 1980s and early 1990s, as both a typical young Jewish African American culture obsessive, and amid the roiling African American-Jewish tensions of the Koch era in New York (I lived in Canada, but my extended family was in New York)–leads me to think that African American thought of the time was characterized by real internal epistemological antagonisms. These fractures were both deeper and more productive than those identified by Rodgers. I’ll lay my cards on the table… I think that “fracture” has always characterized African American thought vis-a-vis its majoritarian other–didn’t Du Bois say something about this?

    In the 1980s, Afrocentric thought really was taking on the epistemological foundations of the West–positing the “Western intellectual tradition” as inherently fictive and ideologically overloaded. Black Muslim theology–which drove many of the most interesting and potent political and aesthetic revolts against Reagan-era racism, including huge swaths of hip hop culture– really was incommensurable with the broad Judeo-Christian humanist synthesis then regnant.

    Of course, since I am thinking about intellectual property and race, I can’t help but think about the epistemological revolution initiated by DJs and hip hop producers–one of the only genuinely postmodern, rather than modernist-by-other-means-development of the late 1970s.

    What would interest me greatly–perhaps this overlaps with some of John Jackson’s Real Black and Cathy Cohen’s work–would be a sustained thinking-with some of the alternative bottom-up epistemologies that took the form of what white establishment intellectuals would call “conspiratorialism” or paranoia.

    Can’t wait to read your research!

  2. As always, you’ve made some excellent points about African American intellectual thought in the 1970s and 1980s. Again, I’d highly recommend “The Challenge of Blackness” because you can see that some intellectuals in the early 70s were trying to put as much Black intellectual thought into one think tank to gird it for what they saw as coming ideological battles in the post-civil rights era.

    Trust me, I can’t wait to get my research out there. I’m presenting at a couple of conferences this fall (sadly no USIH, but I’ll submit something for next year for sure), and I’m trying to look at both intellectuals on the Right and Left and how they deal with race, and how African American intellectuals respond to both. Right now, for instance, I’m working on a paper about the anti-Apartheid movement as a cultural proxy war between Left and Right over race in the United States.

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