Sweet Land of Liberty

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Thomas J. Sugrue. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. (New York: Random House, 2008) p. 533 ISBN: 978-0-679-64303-6.



This is a survey of the civil rights struggle in the North in the second half of the twentieth century. Many civil rights histories focus on the South and the defeat of Jim Crow and segregation but there was also a huge struggle in the North as well. Dr. Sugrue looks at the constant struggle of the everyday person as opposed to the more famous incidents in the civil rights movement. Although there were no blatant Jim Crow laws, there was enough unofficial discrimination to make the plight of blacks bad. There were practices such as those listed in the National Association of Real Estate Boards brochure, telling agents not to sell to blacks so as to not lower property values. This book tells about all of the various roadblocks blacks had on their way to economic and social success. Many of these roadblocks were hidden, many happened as a result of natural processes that were backed by government policies. Some of the unofficial problems were things like being shut out of rich suburbs, and since local schools were based on local taxes, black neighborhoods and schools were underfunded. Northern whites may have not openly championed white superiority but they did enforce a de facto segregation they claimed just occurred as the natural results of the marketplace.

Blacks migrated in force to the North during the nineteen-forties. They had a struggle there as de facto segregation was as times as big a roadblock as codified segregation was in the South. African Americans were not passive victims but active fighters for what they believed to be their rights.Dr. Sugrue looks at many of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement like Roxanne Jones, the first woman elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature, who championed increases in welfare, and staged protests, and Anna Hedgeman, one of the many churchgoing grassroots activists. They pushed through victories such as the YMCA integrating. There are many profiles of such grassroots people such as Morris Milgram, a socialist who worked to integrate housing in the Philadelphia area. This is a story of all of the segregated hotels, and movie theaters and complete neighborhoods throughout the North before the nineteen-sixties. Dr. Sugrue emphasizes the big task was getting economic equality. That required equality in education and that required equality in housing. White flight left black neighborhoods ghettos. Public housing was not enough. African Americans grew deeper into poverty. Dr. Sugrue finds the link between the early years of the struggle and the years that black power and militancy came to the fore in the streets of the cities. He claims there was a long, continuing ascent to greater militancy as time went by. He shows how early, more sedate activists such as Herman Ferguson had their early orderly protests mature into militancy. He also shows that the civil rights movement continues today following in those same footsteps.

Despite relocating the civil rights struggle north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Sugrue follows the familiar arc tracing the struggles ideological change from racial liberalism to black militancy. Sugrue identifies the non-revolutionary nature of early civil rights ideology (its radical elements stifled by Cold War politics), writing how black leaders shortly after World War II "believed that racial equality would come about ultimately on the individual level--not through protest or disruption but rather by moral suasion, education, and conversion."(84) These leaders, such as Martin Luther King, sought to make civil rights an argument centering around the meaning of freedom and equality in America, particularly in comparison the fascism of the Communist threat. However, over time black leaders began to embrace the not necessarily new ideas of self-defense, racial pride, and international solidarity with others of African descent. Sugrue describes the shift away from racial liberalism toward an idea "that there was a true, identifiable, authentic form of black racial expression and that movement energies should be directed toward the production and reproduction of it."(355) This marked a stark departure for the America-centric integrationist ideology of the 1950s and early 60s.


Chuck Crum Fall 2009

Dr. Sugrue has attempted a work that is rather huge in its scope. It is an extremely well-researched work, covering many little stories of struggles to open up theaters or lunch counters. It does a good job of displaying there was a civil rights struggle in the North as well as the South and a good job of showing that the struggle just didn’t emerge wildly into the streets in the nineteen-sixties. He also shows that the movement is not over. The book is valuable for these contributions.

KA Fall 2009

Sugrue follows in the footsteps of many recent scholars of the civil rights movement who have sought to extend its history beyond both the two decades following World War II and the American South. By examining the pre-war backgrounds of many civil rights activists and leaders and the continuation of the fight for equality into the 1970s and 80s, Sugrue stretches his period of study to more than sixty years. Perhaps even more importantly, Sugrue manages to effectively investigate and situate the struggle for freedom taking place in the North during this time within the broader national civil rights movement. In blending biographical sketches, narratives, and case studies Sugrue attempts, and largely succeeds, in creating an extensive (if at times sprawling and unwieldily) account of civil rights activism in the North. One wonders however, if the efforts to extend the examination of the civil rights movement past the 1960s should be included here, or deserve a work of their own. One does not necessarily expect a discussion of the Cold War in a history of World War II, though it was a direct outgrowth of that event. Similarly assessing the long term effects and failures of the civil rights movement might be better served as its own story. Finally one must question his assessment that "The postwar effort to change the hearts and minds of white Americans worked,"(540) simply because it has become taboo to publicly express racist attitudes. Rather the continuation of poor housing, education, and jobs among African Americans, belies the truth. The continuation of de facto segregation shows the hearts and minds of white Americans have changed little if at all.

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

With “Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North” Thomas J. Sugrue created an incredibly readable and dynamic account of the long civil rights movement in the urban centers of the North and Midwest. Combining bibliographical, political, legal, and social sources a great strength of this work was its ability to focus on the leaders of various factions of the movement for racial equality, from open housing to black power, without neglecting the impacts on the generations of African Americans who experienced these changes on the ground. Another great strength of the book was its ability to track themes and organizations throughout. Being such a large text, the consistencies of the movement could have gotten bogged down in the details. But clear writing meant that themes such as the changing roles of the black press, street demonstrations, community organizations, and the federal government could be easily tracked throughout. Perhaps the greatest strength however was in bringing the often overlooked struggle for full racial equality in America not only beyond the South but also into the present.

While strong overall, the book did have a minor weakness which emerged because of its thematic setup. Covering such a broad period of time and so many diverse topics within the struggle for equality, Sugrue chose to base each chapter off of a biography. Using an individual as a jumping off point to discuss the issues of their time and the areas of the movement which they were a part of was a useful strategy overall, but at times it led to large jumps in the time frame of the narrative. For example, moving through the late 1960s during chapter ten which focused on Herman Ferguson and the rise of black power it was jarring to find yourself back in the early and mid 1960s two chapters later when dealing with the dueling opinions of New York City activists Jesse Gray and Clarence Funnye. While a minor criticism, this inconsistency could lead to confusion about which social and political changes had already occurred.

Alex Bradshaw; Fall 2012

Sugrue offers a tremendous volume of work that incorporated a great deal of research into varied aspects of the fight for civil rights in the North. In this volume, he presents stories that effectively counter traditional assumptions and beliefs about the regional nature of civil rights movements in the twentieth century. Primarily, he challenges the pervasive idea that segregation and discrimination only occurred, and thus were only fought against, in the South by describing different movements and protests that took place in the North. These fights were similar to, and sometimes models for, the fights that were carried out in the South, with many leaders and participant of the southern struggles getting their start in the North. Sugrue effectively argues that, as a nation, the United States needed to ignore all race-related issues outside of the South because that way the leaders and citizens of northern America could point to the South as an aberration, a part of the country that had not yet fully recovered from its past, a backwards region with which the rest of the country did not share beliefs or practices concerning race. This was most particularly important during WWII, when the U.S. military and government were fighting fascism abroad, and during the Cold War, when the U.S. government badly needed to be able to represent the country as wholly free, contrasting with communists’ lives of limitation and restriction. Through the book, Sugrue traces the realities of nationwide discrimination as manifested in restrictions on education, employment, housing, consumerism, travel, and many other important elements of daily life for African Americans. During the Civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, northern whites and the government proclaimed that they were not guilty of the same troubles facing the South, claiming that their goal was to change the ways of whites southerners, causing them to evolve into the paragons of fairness and equality that most Americans already were. Through a number of stories that have been left untold, partially told, misrepresented, and taken out of context, Sugrue demonstrates that both regions suffered the same troubles and the same fights; that equality in the northern U.S. was not something benevolently provided by white northerners, it was fought for in battles sometimes just as long, difficult, or violent as those in the South by those to whom rights had been denied.

Beth Garcia, Spring 2015

In Sweet Land of Liberty, Thomas Sugrue detaches the civil rights narrative from the South, turning his attention to the lesser known struggles for civil rights that occurred in the North. Unlike the South, de jure segregation did not exist in the North, but, as Sugrue demonstrates, a de facto segregation persisted across northern states, encouraging the participation of northern blacks in struggles for racial equality. Though Sugrue’s stories of protest are centered in northern cities- from the legal challenges against segregated housing in Deerfield, Illinois to Philadelphia’s more radical protests against racial exclusion from city-sponsored employment projects- these stories could easily refer to any city in the South. The battles that blacks waged in Sugrue’s northern cities – against segregated public accommodations, workplace inequality, inadequate housing- were the same that blacks confronted in Brown-Nagin’s Atlanta (See Courage to Dissent).

While north and south both battled against racial inequality, Sugrue also demonstrates how events in the South (where white supremacy and racial violence reigned on a much grander scale) frequently influenced those in the North. For example, media images of officials using violence against nonviolent protestors in Birmingham in 1963 united northern activists and encouraged them to engage in protests that took on an increasingly radical tone. However, while Southern events sparked the Negro Revolt of 1963, Sugrue argues that local circumstances also played a role. “The Negro Revolt was a fusion of hope, frustration, and solidarity…in Northern cities in the 1960s, all these ingredients were present” (290). In particular, Sugrue argues that the mass migration of blacks to northern cities after the second World War helped to create a common identity among northern blacks who found themselves isolated, confined to the city’s poorest neighborhoods and relegated to its most menial jobs. This is perhaps the greatest strength of Sugrue’s work: throughout, Sugrue demonstrates that northern blacks participated in a larger struggle for racial equality and civil rights. But, the battles that they waged and the form that their protests would take were consistently shaped by local circumstances and local concerns.

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