Civilities and Civil Rights

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William H. Chafe. Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press. (1980) Pp. 304; $19.99. Paper: ISBN 0195029194.



In Civilities and Civil Rights, the city of Greensboro, North Carolina serves to tell a typical and a-typical story of the civil rights movement, these are stories of irony, hostility, hatred and resentment but more than anything else, it is the story of public and private actions. In this work, Chafe sets the stage for Greensboro as a new south city and one that self describes as ‘progressive’. In this work, ‘civility’ means the outward appearance of acceptance and action, and, “the extent to which civility was or was not compatible with the promise of racial justice.” (9) Chafe explores the relationships between Blacks and whites from the 1930’s at the 1960’s looking at education, politics, social factors and most importantly Black protest and actions.

Greensboro was home to several Black colleges and small business and while many of its Black citizens lived in poverty, there was also an established Black middle class that would become increasingly radicalized. By the time of Brown the racial hierarchy had been well established and some small efforts at desegregation had taken place, however, school desegregation brought crises for all sides. Chafe reminds us that there moderate ‘white liberals’ willing to challenge the status quo and there were also moderate Black leaders, unwilling to push too hard for radical actions. The white power structure used the term ‘rednecks’ to claim any action less than Klan violence was ‘moderate’. (p.69) Chafe argues that the deliberate delays in implementing Brown and the lack of jobs or advancement caused a turning point in race relations. The state of North Carolina used a variety of legal and regulatory changes, such as the Pupil Assignment Act to block desegregation and therefore stall integration. For Greensboro Blacks, this issue paralleled desegregation efforts and the NAACP became a major organizing force following the 1958 visit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Significantly, there was an economic aspect to the civil rights movement and the role of business leaders and the Chamber of Commerce in resistance is an important part of this work. In the 1950’s Greensboro had a thriving economic base in mils and the city still had a thriving downtown with many important businesses, not the least of which was the infamous Woolworth’s lunch counter. When the sit-ins began, the students from NC A&T gained national attention and Greensboro reacted by forming a committee to investigate ways in which integration might be achieved. The Zane Committee ultimately failed in its attempts to move beyond the status quo. The fundamental turning point was was ‘frame of reference’ or the idea that Blacks and whites saw the world in very different ways. As Chafe notes, the whites still held on to civility and Blacks to civil rights. After 1960, “the forms of communication between white and black would never be the same.” (p.101) [ The lunch counter sit in:]

As the battle for civil rights spread throughout the South and following the election of John F. Kennedy, Greensboro Blacks had been joined by members of CORE, SNCC and had found a voice in peaceful protests and arrests. By May of 1963, violence escalated as what had been non violent demonstrations were met with increasingly violent responses. What was different by 1963 was the participation and leadership of many middle class Blacks and church leaders, no longer were protests strictly being conducted by students. Despite gains in desegregating some facilities and a peaceful mass arrest at Jefferson Square in the city center, there were deaths and escalating tensions. Mayor Schenck announced that desegregation would begin and some businesses began the process, however, it was the schools that remained a decisive division point. Whites claimed that residence boundaries were the issue, not discrimination, an older argument that had long since been abandoned in many districts.

Chafe devotes an entire chapter to explaining how housing was linked to education which in turn was linked to lack of political representation. Crosses were burned on the lawns of Blacks trying to desegregate neighborhoods and the City Council staled any attempts at dialogue and change. This swing issue became the new question, how to challenge institutional racism? (p. 171) The answer came from both the Black Power Movement and the events of 1968, when Greensboro saw shooting break out on the A& T campus and tensions and confrontations escalated. The killing of A & T student Willie Grimes was a flashpoint and the National Guard arrived in full force. Once it was obvious that violence could not be sustained, the two sides began to find alternative paths to negotiations. Greensboro which had heralded itself as such a progressive city was one of the last holdouts for school desegregation and once that issue was overcome, a new era in race relations began. Ultimately, civility and civil rights turn out to be irreconcilable and Chafe’s local history of Greensboro, NC argues that race relations are based upon long standing behaviors, expectations, broken promises and mistrust that simmer beneath the surface.


Alan S. Brody, Spring, 2011

The Civil Rights era is always upon us and historians can and do argue that a pernicious form of racism has defined the American experience. From the vantage point of thirty years later, Chafe’s manuscript seems overly careful and fussy. That is not to say that this is not useful and near contemporary history and that he does not give voice to many players, rather, it suggests that he is careful to balance coverage and to try and look for the origins of Black Power in education, politics and economics. However, with his training in Oral History, even more voices of the actors would have immensely improved his narrative. In fact, his inclusion of economics is critical to making his point that the balance of power turned to Blacks once they had asserted themselves through revolutionary terms. His essential argument is that appeared for the Blacks and whites in Greensboro, the past is a powerful legacy and no one was sure if or how it could be overcome, assuming that is what some people wanted to do.

The framing of the essential question, civility versus civil rights is brilliant because it sets up the duality on many levels, the racial ‘code’ of the South opposes the new tactics and the resulting engagement is unchartered ground for all citizens. This is the story of ordinary people who do extraordinary things, like take over a lunch counter and it is also the story of extraordinary people who do ordinary things, like hire the most qualified workers, regardless of race. Chafe looks at Greensboro and sees that almost all interactions between Blacks and whites are always seen first through a racial and then an economic lens and that the institutions behind them will have to be rebuilt to affect real change. His is not an optimistic book and its story is also the story of the national movement in many ways. Greensboro worked hard to project an image of progressivism and that was ultimately its undoing. This is an important book, not because it is well written and from an important historian, its importance stems from the details and the sense of character that develops. Many of the players are tortured by choices or actions they will face and they and others will live with the consequences of their actions for many years to come.

Lastly, it is clear that the various Black colleges are of endless fascination to Chafe and they serve as a wonderful metaphor for progress and hope while providing literal tensions between generations. If such does not already exist, this avenue of inquiry could lead to some additional insights in to the ways that these schools operated within the framework of the community. The Presidents and leaders of these institutions also have a story to tell and one that is not fully developed in this work. At the end of this narrative, there are more questions than answers and it appears that for both Blacks and whites, Greensboro almost self selected its role in history because its power structure and interactions were ideal for a challenge to the racial status quo.

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

In constructing his narrative about the victories and failures of Greensboro’s Civil Rights Movement “Civilities and Civil Rights” had several strengths. One was in choosing Greensboro, North Carolina as a case study. In selecting a city which was known for its moderate race relations and overall lack of violence, with the exception late 1960’s flare ups with the Claude Barnes controversy and subsequent riots (chapter 7), Chafe helps descriptions of the Movement move beyond the more extremes in racism. By moving beyond the kind of intense racial violence of places like Birmingham Chafe helps to show the ways in which more subtle social controls, residential segregation patterns, and “freedom of choice” school integration policies (pp 222) are also powerful forms of racial control.

Another strength of the book was in showing the roots of the sit-in movement. This tactic which came to revolutionize the Movement and sparked student campaigns across the country first began in Greensboro in February of 1960. While the action of the four young men who first sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter was somewhat spontaneous, Chafe holds that their actions were nonetheless based on long standing patterns of African American community organization, education, and demands for respect in Greensboro. In this way he is able to contextualize the sit in movement. (chapter 3)

While this book did have several strengths, overall it fell short. This was due in large part to Chafe’s insistence on weaving the ideas of “progressive mystique” and “enlightened civility” throughout the book. While I understood that Chafe was attempting to use these terms to help show the ways in which Greensboro’s white power structures remained dominant and pervasive despite attempts at reform from a often politically and economically divided black community, I felt that overall this was a weakness because it seemed like an unnecessary insistence on making his own unique vocab words. By giving Greensboro and North Carolina’s political and social power structures their own unique terms that are based on their individual histories it means that this narrative, its structure of analysis, and its terms cannot as easily be used to make statements about the nation more broadly. Had Chafe been more willing to work within existing terms and frameworks of seemingly moderate forms of racism then his narrative would have been much stronger and more useful to future historians of race in other times and places.

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Chafe’s use of the duality of the polite discourse of civility against the disorder of civil unrest provides an interesting approach to the social dynamic of a city in transition. Using a microstudy of one town’s social growth over half a century shows the changes in student attitudes due to progressive educators and dynamic leaders. Chafe also shows how white community members could appear progressive, yet also unwilling to change the social hierarchy status quo. His discussion of the politics of moderation and how the majority of white residents could probably react favorably to strong positive leadership shows how even one person could influence a city, but of course, Chafe has the benefit of historical hindsight and statistical analysis to determine that “the white elite was simply not ready to move beyond paternalism into a new relationship with blacks” in the mid-1950s (p. 64).

His “two traditions of caution and activism” form the basis for the miscommunications between white and black community needs and goals and his discussion of the white paternalistic attitudes and black traditions of accommodation and subservience reveal a deeper conflict in expectations (p.22). This discussion does provide critical insights into community ties and the strength of social order networks over time, but his reliance on oral history sources for making these generalizations poses some problems. Interpreting motivations based on oral interviews always poses challenges based on the credibility of memory. Including information from interviewees representing opposing viewpoints of the sit-ins and committees and community response may provide additional insights to balance out the perspective of the events and to corroborate general community feelings beyond the close knit circle of activists or town council members. By following the leadership of the black colleges and the town over time, Chafe can draw comparisons to the types of leaders residents respected and how expectations for leadership were altered during the crisis of 1960s.

Chafe raises an interesting point about integration of schools and the fears of some black parents that elimination of black schools would hinder racial pride and represent a loss of a “core of strength from which to engage the white world outside” (p. 243). This point could have been explored further in terms of the symbolic and cultural meaning of integration in an era not yet schooled in multiculturalism. As with many of the opinions and viewpoints presented in the work, the dominant white and dominant black perspectives are given preference while the hesitant or opposing perspectives are often silent. Yet this may reflect the availability of sources more than the analysis of activism.

Despite these lingering questions and desires for additional information, Chafe’s work presents a dynamic study of a city in transition and the many forces that helped bring about change.

Alex Bradshaw; Fall 2012

Chafe offers a cynical, if not hopeless interpretation of the history of struggle for civil rights in Greensboro. Throughout the book, he proclaims that Greensboro’s reputation as a more enlightened, less discriminatory southern city amounts to nothing more than what he calls the “progressive mystique,” an image born of white residents and leaders’ smug assurance of black acceptance of the racial status quo and ignorance of black lives and culture. The mystique, which had been disseminated nationally, served as a prop for the maintenance of white dominance and control of Greensboro society. This is evident in the Greensboro school board’s early proclamation of abiding by the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which was taken by whites and blacks in the city and outside of it as a symptom of Greensboro’s progressive nature, but was in reality the token desegregation of one school that allowed the white people of Greensboro to appear to comply with Brown, while continuing segregation in most of the schools of the city. The progressive mystique hampered efforts to achieve real changes to black life in Greensboro because many times it disguised what appeared to be accession to civil rights demands turned out to be either token gestures or outright lies. Chafe states that the progressive mystique, rather than challenging the city’s southern conservatism, was actually the cornerstone of that conservatism. Chafe ended the paperback edition with an account of six white KKK/Nazi members who, in 1980, were acquitted of murdering five Communist Worker’s Party members who were part of a demonstration against white supremacy and control of financial resources. Part of the prosecutor’s presentation to the jury was a videotape that showed one of the white supremacists shooting a demonstrator who already lay on the ground, but, as in the past, the all-white jury acquitted all six men. Although this book was written in 1980, and the paperback version was published in 1981, Chafe’s ultimate indictment of the status of contemporary civil rights issues remains accurate. One can only hope that his expectation of future movements is also accurate. This book inspired the reflection that, after the long oppressive and mind-numbing years of the omnipresent conservatism that began with the election of Ronald Reagan, it may be true that Americans who most need it have had the power and potential for effectiveness of direct action wiped from their consciousness. A current movement would, of course, have to assume different characteristics that those of the 1950s and 1960s, but Chafe’s claim that Greensboro could provide models for future action, sounds correct, but perhaps overly hopeful at a time like this, in which Americans have suffered oppression disguised as benevolence for so many years that direct action tends to sound like a naïve and lost ideal.

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