Race Work

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Matthew C. Whitaker.Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. xvi, 382 pp. $35.00, ISBN 0-8032-4821-0


Matthew C. Whitaker provides an interesting case study of the civil rights movement in the urban West in his case study of Phoenix, AZ, Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West. Whitaker uses biography as his primary method of investigation, highlighting the lives, efforts, achievements, and failings of Phoenix's premier African American leaders, Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale. Whitaker traces the two through their childhoods and educations where both learned from an early age "that professional and middle-class blacks must seek excellence and achievement in education, must devote themselves to a skilled occupation, and must commit themselves to race work in the interest of improving the overall status of African Americans."(48) These ideals led the Ragsdales into leadership positions in Phoenix's African American community, and informed their integrationist model for civil rights. The Ragsdales were able to end the practice of discriminatory housing covenants in Phoenix and played key roles in a 1952 legal challenge to the segregation of the Phoenix school system; a ruling which "provided the basis for one of the most important court cases in American history, Brown v Board of Education."(130)

Race Works ultimately presents a picture of Phoenix as both mirroring the national struggle for civil rights, and also having a unique character particular to its western venue. Whitaker deftly leverages his biography of the Ragsdales to illustrate the different circumstances of the West. Establishing their style of activism as unique to the West, Whitaker quotes Phoenix resident John Barber, who described his city as not "much different than in the South. The difference here was that they didn't lynch you."(60) Both Eleanor and Lincoln exhibited bold and assertive behavior that likely would have resulted in more serious consequences in the American South. For example, Eleanor circumvented housing covenants for her and her friends by using white friends as a purchasing proxy. Similarly, Whitaker also recounts how Lincoln's "bold and confrontational leadership exploited the uniquely fluid racial relations in the West to fashion a career that was both unabashed and creative, when many of his southern contemporaries were under constant threat of terrorism and a more violent version of massive white resistance."(172) While Whitaker is clearly reverential toward the Ragsdales, he balances his study by admitting and addressing criticisms of their leadership as out of touch with the majority of black Phoenicians.


KA Fall 2009

Though Whitaker's subtitle indicates his work will examine The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West, it really is a case study of Phoenix that largely isolates that city from the rest of the West. Whitaker does provide an excellent comparison of Phoenix with civil rights activism nationally, particularly in the South, but there is little to no discussion of other urban areas in the West. Whitaker claims "the history of African Americans in the West is a story of urban life and 'the struggle for racial equality,' for black Americans in the West have lived primarily in cities that discriminated against, subjugated, and sometimes terrorized them."(10) However, there is little effort to present the Ragsdales and Phoenix as representative of similar experiences in other Western urban centers. This reservation aside, Race Works provides a compelling inspection of the civil rights movement in Phoenix, and is an excellent example of how biography can be leveraged in historical studies.

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