Freedom North

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Freedom North

Jeanne Theoharis and Komzi Woodward, editors. Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. 326 ISBN:0312294689


Freedom North is a collection of essays that focus on the civil rights movement outside the South. In the editor’s introduction, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard argue that “since scholars first began writing the history of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, black activism in the urban Northeast, Midwest and West has largely been cast as secondary to the real struggle taking place in the South.”(3) They claim that this is largely the result of historians focusing only on voting rights, instead of looking at the broader movement for social change. The logical conclusion of such thinking is that the movement climaxed with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Theoharis and Woodward rightly state that there was much more to the movement than voting rights. This collection is therefore an effort to expand the traditional notion of what the civil rights movement was about.

The majority of the essays are regional studies that show the similarities and differences between civil rights movements. Beth Bates’ “’Double V for Victory’ Mobilizes Black Detroit, 1941-1946” chronicles the rise of the black power movement in Detroit. The slogan “Double V” symbolized “the need to fight for victory over fascism abroad and second-class citizenship on the home front.”(18) Bates argued that in Detroit, a city that was no stranger to political unrest, African Americans (often times working with union allies) cast aside the politics of civility and demanded action. As evidence of this, Bates suggests that Roosevelt only issued Executive Order #8802--that forbade discrimination in defense industries and established the Fair Employment Practices Commission--because he hoped to stall the March on Washington Movement. Jon Rise’s essay “The World of the Illinois Panthers” argues that the unique political and social conditions of 1960s Chicago led to a Black Panther Party unlike any other. The Chicagoans eschewed violence and was “integrationist in its ultimate goal.”(41) They optimistically worked for a future free of racism and were less concerned with ideas such as Pan-African unity that other Black Panther Parties supported. Other essays focus on Boston, New York and Oakland.

Besides the regional studies, many of the essays probe different aspects of Black activism. Angela Dillard explores the relationship between Christianity and civil rights. Although there has been plenty written about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its role in the movement, Dillard focuses on Reverend Albert Cleage, Jr. from Detroit. In 1967, Cleage rechristened the Central Congregational Church as the Shrine of the Madonna and launched the Black Christian Nationalism Movement. Though Cleage was an early supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, he quickly became disillusioned with King’s vision of black/white cooperation. Cleage reinterpreted Christianity in a way that advocated “nationalism, cultural separatism, and self-determination.”(155) King’s Social Gospel, which viewed human nature in a positive light and argued for social unity, did not fit with Cleage’s vision. What was needed, Cleage claimed, was a dose of “realism.” “There can be no ‘beloved community,’ no interracial brotherhood, in a world where social groups clash and individuals create a hell for each other.”(156)

Ula Taylor looks at a different religion deeply involved in the civil rights movement. Taylor’s essay “Elija Muhammad’s Nation of Islam: Separatism, Regendering, and a Secular Approach to Black Power after Malcolm X (1965-175)” looks at the motivations for joining the Nation of Islam. While Malcolm X was the most prominent follower of the religion, the Nation of Islam grew in larger numbers after Malcolm X had left the movement and been assassinated. Although some of this can be attributed to the publicity of Malcolm’s death, Taylor argues that the primary motivation for joining the Nation of Islam was the promise of power and wealth. It was “sold” as a religion of empowerment that taught African Americans how to succeed. “Muhammad promised to provide material symbols of power and wealth for people who had been discarded from the American populace and disinherited from the ‘American Dream.’”(190) The Islam part of the movement was a secondary benefit.

The book also includes essays that look at welfare, the US organization, and Black Power in general. Felicia Kornluh explores the movement for rights for welfare recipients. Led mostly by women, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) used boycotts, “shop-ins,” and other forms of political action in an attempt to ensure welfare recipients were not discriminated against when applying for credit. Scot Brown’s “The Politics of Culture: The US Organization and the Quest for Black ‘Unity’” chronicles the establishment and growth of the US Organization. Mostly known for its Kwanza holiday, the US Organization promoted cultural nationalism. They sought to establish a separate and distinctive African American community that would empower black Americans. Like Rev. Cleage, the US Organization rejected King’s calls for biracial unity. Brown makes it clear that while US may be remembered for its cultural programs there certainly was a political side to the organization.


David Houpt, Fall 2008

Because this is a collection of essays there are certain inherent difficulties. First of all, there is a lack of background. Each author has only a limited amount of space to make his or her argument and has to assume the reader knows a fair amount. Delving into the nuances of the Black Power Party or the US Organization requires a background that not everyone has. A few of the essays were therefore difficult to grasp and the author’s argument hard to parse. Another issue raised with such a collection is that authors are not always able to support all their statements. Some authors, such as Scot Brown, clearly laid out their thesis and stuck within the bounds of their basic argument. On the other hand, Angela Dillard made sweeping claims that may have been true but were not fully proven. Some of the essays, like Dillard’s, may have been condensed from a larger work but this was never stated. The result is that some of the essays read much better than others.

The editors could also have done a better job at tying the essays together. Either they made some poor decisions when selecting the pieces to include in the collection, or they should have focused more on the common themes in the introduction. There was a brief summary of what was to be expected in the pages to follow, and an argument for a change in the way the civil rights movement is addressed, but no real explanation as to why these particular authors were selected. If these are recognized experts in the field it should be stated.

There are plenty of benefits to a variety of different perspectives. Having different authors address different parts of the civil rights movement coveys the sense that it was not a coherent and easily definable set of events. It was complex and nuanced. Theoharis and Woodward are correct that the civil rights movement is all too often defined in terms of Martin Luther King. Sometimes texts will delve into the Black Panthers, but often it is only to provide a counter to King’s nonviolent resistance. While the reader may be left with questions after reading Freedom North, this is not necessary a bad thing.

The combination of macro and micro history, though jarring at times, demonstrates the regional nature of civil rights movement. It comes across as a local, rather than a national movement. Even such national groups as the Black Panthers differed from city to city. This is a much more believable (and interesting) form of history.

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