U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Long Civil Rights Movement and Intellectual History

The historiography of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States has, in the last decade, undergone some serious revision. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s landmark essay, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,”(Journal of American History, Vol. 91, No. 4, p. 1233-1263, March 2005) argued for both lengthening the time period of the Civil Rights Era (making it a struggle from the 1930s until the 1970s) and spreading out the movement spatially (going beyond the American South and seeing it as a problem with various fronts all over the country). Since that essay appeared in the Journal of American History, additional arguments by Peniel Joseph have pointed to the complex and varied relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power ideology. For both Hall and Joseph, and other historians (such as Robert Self, Jeanne Theoharis, and Thomas Sugrue, as three key examples) it has become imperative to show the Civil Rights Movement as a struggle that went beyond the Mason-Dixon line and lasted from the New Deal era until the rise of New Right conservatism in the late 1970s.

As with any new and provocative thesis in history, the Long Civil Rights Movement thesis has encountered some push back by scholars. Clarence Lang, among others, has pointed out the spatial and temporal issues with the Long Civil Rights Movement argument. In two articles Lang has argued his case for understanding in greater detail the “heroic” portion of the Civil Rights Movement (1954-1965/1968) and centering the struggle back in the American South. In his piece co-written with Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies” (Journal of African American History, Vol. 92, No. 2, p. 265-288, March 2007) and more recently in a solo piece titled “Locating the Civil Rights Movement: An Essay on the Deep South, Midwest, and Border South in Black Freedom Studies” (Journal of Social History, Vol. 47, No. 2, Winter 2013), Lang has made clear his vision for the present and future of Civil Rights historiography.

In both pieces, Lang showcases a need for scholars to be specific about the Civil Rights era. I’d argue that this is especially important for intellectual historians. Anyone writing about race relations, the 1930s and beyond must take into account the relationship between African Americans, intellectuals, and federal and state government officials in that era. Understanding the similarities, as more importantly, the differences between movements north, south, east, and west is critical to acknowledging the unique conditions in which intellectuals, black and white, were writing. Intellectual historians are already quite familiar with regional, even city, differences between intellectuals. Books about New York intellectuals, or Southern agrarian intellectuals come to mind. The similarities and differences between African American intellectuals across the country, however, strikes me as a topic ripe for discussion.

Lang’s second piece, in particular, speaks to this issue of region and intellectual (not to mention political and social) history’s diversity during the Civil Rights era. In “Locating the Civil Rights Movement” Lang argues that Northern civil rights battles in major cities, such as New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia were of a different sort of conflict than those in Selma, Birmingham, or Albany, Georgia. The political, cultural, and economic climate was just too different in Northern cities from the rural Southern regions. Even the cities of the South, most notably Atlanta, offered a different method of agitating for public accommodations and other rights than urban centers in the Northeast or Midwest. Lang locates the “border states”, places such as Maryland and Kentucky, as being examples of not only similarities, but major differences between Northern and Southern struggles for civil rights.

Some African American intellectuals noted these regional differences among themselves. Ralph Ellison, and especially Albert Murray, would point to the unique characteristics of the South in their non-fiction and fiction work. That they did this was also a testament to their search for an American literary tradition that embraced a diverse array of writers, both black and white. While I’ve written about the two men before, the origins of Murray (Alabama) and Ellison (Oklahoma) are also important when considering their contributions to intellectual and literary history.

The limitations of talking about African American intellectuals without taking into account space is also important when talking about Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. I’ve also written about this before, but it bears repeating: in the late 1960s, some reviewers (while otherwise praising the book) believed it was important to note that Cruse’s work only talked about a few Black intellectuals in Harlem. Where were, historian Vincent Harding noted in a 1968 review, the Black intellectuals situated in the American South, the heart of the Civil Rights struggle?[1]

The value of thinking about where ideas are generated is important to the continuing scholarship of American intellectual history. This is not to suggest that intellectuals in, say, Atlanta had no idea of the writings and debates of intellectuals in New York or Boston. But when considering where else we can go in the realm of African American, or more broadly American, intellectual history, such contrasts in regional political and intellectual climates can be a great way to generate more questions (and hopefully answers) about the role of intellectuals in African American history.


[1] Harding, Vincent. “Beyond the Black Desert,” in Motive, March 1968, pg. 45-48.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert–this is a terrific, generative, useful essay. Thanks so much for it. Spatial politics will be absolutely central to the way we tell the story of the CRM in the coming years.

    I would suggest George Lipsitz’s How Racism Takes Place and Laura Pulido’s work on environmental racism as crucial texts in any bibliography of race and space vis-a-vis the CRM. I would also point to the work of Nathan Connolly as a very important provocation towards rethinking the politics of space and CRM history… can’t wait for his book on Florida to come out!

    Excellent stuff, RG!

  2. Thanks so much for the great comments. Connolly’s book will be a must-read; ran into him at the SHA in 2012 and enjoyed his paper there. His essay in the anthology “What’s Good for Business” entitled “Games of Chance: Jim Crow’s Entrepreneurs Bet on ‘Negro’ Law and Order” is also an interesting piece to consider in terms of space, economics, and African American history.

    As for the other works, I’ll definitely check those out. I’m glad you mentioned environmental history and race. Currently the environmental history course I’m taking has a few weeks devoted to ideas of environmental justice.

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