News coverage of Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 was dominated by one word: historic. As if newsrooms around the country had suddenly been seized by a bout of Hegelianism, headlines trumpeted the ‘unfolding’ of history before our eyes. Obama’s victory, it seemed, was the next step of the Absolute Spirit. Yet as overwrought as such rhetoric appears now, after two years of unremarkable managerial liberalism, it hints at a deeper truth about Obama’s campaign. Both Obama’s supporters and his detractors, after all, grounded their vision of the candidate in prominent narratives of American history. One thinks, for example, of the shirts prominently displayed by Harlem street vendors that read “Rosa sat so Martin could walk so Obama could run.” For his supporters, Obama embodied the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. For those opposing him from the right, however, Obama was the product of a different historical saga: the perfidy of the American Left. For these critics, Obama was the protégé of Black Communist Frank Marshall Davis1, the parishioner of Black Liberation Theologian Jeremiah Wright, the friend of Bill Ayers. If for his supporters Obama’s election was the dénoument of that most American of stories, for his opponents his victory represented the penetration of anti-American radicalism into the highest office in the land.
This double vision, seeing both radicalism and civil rights in the same person, speaks suggestively to recent scholarship on the Black freedom struggle in the middle decades of the twentieth century. One major focus of this historiography has been the relationship between radicalisms of various sorts (both class-based socialisms and race-based nationalisms) and the movement represented in popular memory by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks (which some scholars have taken to calling the ‘classical phase’ of the movement). In re-examining this relationship, many historians have concluded that civil rights and radicalism are not as opposed as the competing representations of Obama’s candidacy would lead us to believe. This essay will examine this scholarship through the lens of Jacqueline Dowd Hall’s formulation of a “Long Civil Rights Movement,” consider objections to the concept, and suggest ways it may be extended.
Hall announced her conceptualization of the long movement in her presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in 2004. Entitled “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” the address was a combative response to conservative appropriations of the image of civil rights. Hall sought to reconceptualize this history in such a way that it would be both a “more robust, more progressive, and truer story” and “[h]arder to celebrate as a natural progression of American values. Harder to cast as a satisfying morality tale.” To accomplish these dual objectives, Hall crafted a narrative of civil rights which began not with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or even Brown v. Board of Education, but the struggles of liberals and radicals against racial oppression in the 1930s. These struggles, such as the Communist Party led campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, or the struggle of Blacks in the CIO for a “civil rights unionism,”2 signaled a capacious understanding of the fight for racial justice, which included confronting class and gender oppression as well. In these campaigns, Hall argues, lie the origins of the civil rights movement.3
United Tobacco Workers protest R.J. Reynolds, 1946
Hall suggests that understanding the nature of the civil rights movement’s classical phase requires coming to terms with how this earlier movement was defeated. As a radical challenge to what Hall describes as “racial capitalism,” it should come as no surprise that this first wave of civil rights should have met with fierce opposition from the business class, defenders of white supremacy, and the US state. The anticommunist crusade, aided by liberal figures inside civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, broke the back of organizations which had been at the heart of radical challenges to Black oppression. Leftist figures like Paul Robeson were denounced in the the press, and groups like the anticolonialist Council on African Affairs were prosecuted by the government for being agents of a foreign power. The disorganization this repression visited on the Left led Hall to pronounce civil rights a “casualty” of the Cold War.4
Anticommunist repression thus decisively changed the character of civil rights struggle, marginalizing those with a more expansive vision of emancipation and encouraging groups like the NAACP to pursue a more narrowly legalistic strategy than they had in the mid-1940s. Even as it disorganized the left, however, Cold War repression did not succeed in completely isolating radical activists. As a great deal of research on the classical phase of the civil rights movement is now showing, figures like Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, who were absolutely central to the movement, had substantial Old Left backgrounds and training which carried over into their work with the movement’s most recognizable leaders and institutions. Moreover, activists at the local level, who have increasingly displaced telegenic leaders like Dr. King as the focus of recent research, often brought to civil rights work their experience in the radical campaigns of the 1940s.5
Hall’s reconceptualization of civil rights thus extends the movement backwards in time, effectively positing two distinct, though intimately related, waves. The first, based in the radical challenges to racism of the thirties and forties, was closely linked with working class movements and supported by activists who often held a vision of total social transformation for the United States. After this movement was crushed by government repression, the classical phase of the movement emerged. This wave advanced more restricted goals than the earlier wave, but was still supported by a significant group of activists with ties to earlier radical organizing.
This vision of a long civil rights movement obviously has tremendous synthetic power. Yet the concept has also provoked criticism. Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang have recently argued that, in its amalgamation of 1930s and 1960s struggles, the long movement concept resembles a vampire, in that “it exists outside of time and history, beyond the processes of life and death, and change and development.” According to this critique, “the continuous 1930s-1970s timeline theorized by Long Movement scholars ignores or minimizes the ruptures and fractures” wrought by government repression. Eric Arnesen advances a similar criticism, in addition to a more broadly political point that historians of the long movement tend to gloss over the Communist Left’s defects and ignoring its critics.6
As the above gloss on Hall’s presentation of the long movement concept makes clear, the critique of overly inclusive periodization largely fails to engage with long movement scholarship. Hall’s contention that civil rights were a “casualty” of the Cold War can hardly be described as downplaying or ignoring the effects of government repression. Indeed, documenting the rupture between the character of activism in the earlier era and the classical phase of the movement has been one of the hallmarks of long movement scholarship. Penny Von Eschen, for example, provides a detailed account of the ways that the racial discourse of groups like the NAACP shifted during the Cold War. Where they had once condemned the exploitation and oppression that white supremacy entailed, by the 1950s their descriptions of racism evoked Myrdalian moral dilemmas or organic metaphors of “the virus of prejudice,” both of which took race out of history. Similarly, Martha Biondi has described how anticommunism in New York City led the NAACP to move away from popular forms of protest such as picketing, which officials feared was too open to Leftist infiltration. Finally, Glenda Gilmore’s Defying Dixie, which presents an impressively researched account of the long movement to an audience beyond the academy, argues that “virulent southern anti-Communism…eviscerated postwar social justice movements and truncated the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1950s.” In the face of this body of work, Cha-Jua and Long’s contention that “Long Movement scholars generally fail to engage these issues of postwar anticommunist repression” is simply unsustainable.7
Eric Arnesen’s criticism of long movement periodization is similarly misdirected. In an attempted reductio ad absurdum, Arnesen asks why scholars stop at World War I, and don’t include Reconstruction-era struggles or uprisings on slave ships as part of the long movement. The point of long movement scholarship, however, is not simply that African Americans fought against racism before the classic civil rights movement. Indeed, this point is taken for granted by virtually everyone who currently studies Black history. Rather, long movement scholars emphasize that, in the decades prior to the classic movement, activists challenged white supremacy in such a fashion that their struggle shaped the next wave in two key ways: first, the earlier wave of civil rights activism won a number of important victories that changed the shape of later struggle, and second, the earlier wave produced institutions and trained activists that would go on to play an absolutely central role in the later wave. These relations, not the abstract fact of struggle, are what lends support to long movement scholarship’s linking of the 1940s with the 1960s.
Arnesen’s political critique attempts to rehabilitate the perspective of anticommunist Black activists such as A. Philip Randolph, who he contends have been marginalized by long movement scholars overly enamored with groups and individuals linked to the Communist Party. These figures, he argues, were not merely dupes of J. Edgar Hoover, but important Black progressives who had a deep critique of communist cynicism towards Black rights and complicity with Stalinist repression abroad. For Arnesen, the question must be asked: “So where do Randolph and his non-communist allies fit into the new narrative of the long civil rights movement? The quick answer: awkwardly, when they fit at all.” As with the Cha-Jua and Long’s critique of periodization, this is simply a misrepresentation of long movement scholarship. Thomas Sugrue’s recent Sweet Land of Liberty, for example, which presents the civil rights struggle in the North to a popular audience, explicitly takes its cue from Hall’s long movement framework. Far from Randolph being marginalized in that text, he is discussed at length, receiving easily as much attention as the Communist Party. Nor is Randolph absent from other long movement scholarship. Indeed, it is telling that Arnesen never directly names any works that overlook Randolph’s contributions.8
A. Philip Randolph
On the political level, Arnesen’s promotion of Randolph runs into other problems. As Arnesen makes clear, Randolph’s critique of the Communist Party was not primarily based on the party’s backing off from militant civil rights struggle during World War II, but rather its support for the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939. Neither of these actions by the party, however, appear to have damaged its ability to recruit and appeal to African Americans. As Bert Cochran has noted, the war years actually saw an increase in the percentage of Blacks among new recruits to the party, so that by 1944 they constituted fully thirty-seven percent of new members. While Randolph’s outrage over the party’s shifting lines with regard to race and war may have been justifiable, it does not appear to have prevailed among broad layers of the Black working class. Arnesen may well be correct that revisionist scholarship on the CP has not fully reckoned with the party’s failings regarding civil rights, but it is clear that Randolph’s perspective provides little help in understanding these failings.9
Existing critiques of long movement scholarship thus largely fail to engage with the key claims of the historiography. However, the long movement concept, especially as theorized by Hall, does possess a notable weakness: its relation to space.10 Aside from extending the movement’s periodization and reconsidering its relationship to the Left, a major theme of long movement scholarship has been the ways African American activists related to spaces outside the United States.11 Yet Hall spends barely a paragraph on the global imaginaries of Black activists. As a consequence, the concept of a long movement expands the location occupied by civil rights in time, but does little to push the spatial boundaries of the movement beyond those theorized by earlier waves of scholarship, even as long movement scholarship has clearly called for just such a reconceptualization.
Paul Gilroy’s theorization of a “Black Atlantic” is suggestive in its ability to propose an alternative, “outer-national” space of Black struggle. Gilroy argues that the diasporic space of the Atlantic as a whole has framed Black experience in a way that simply cannot be captured through national heuristics. The international experiences and engagements of Black activists from Frederick Douglass to Richard Wright show that even when Black struggle is directed against profoundly national institutions such as American chattel slavery or the construction of Black ghettos, the contours of Black struggle cannot be explained without reference to the broader stage of the Black Atlantic. The histories of long movement activists like Paul Robeson, George Padmore, and Lorraine Hansberry confirm the importance of this “outer-national” framework.12
As helpful as Gilroy’s Black Atlantic is for moving the long movement outside the borders of the United States, it is ultimately insufficient for the task. Black internationalism, especially during the years long movement scholarship covers, ultimately went far beyond the framing of the Atlantic. Martin Luther King’s embrace of Gandhian satyagraha is only the most obvious way in which civil rights activists looked beyond the Atlantic for resources in their struggle. Gerald Horne has recently shown that King was far from alone among civil rights activists in his engagement with the Indian anticolonial struggle. Bill V. Mullen has gone so far as to propose a discourse of “Afro-Orientalism” as a sort of Eastern version of the Black Atlantic, to capture the ways in which Black activists engaged with India and China. In particular, his portrait of a “Bandung Detroit,” awash in the politics of decolonization, seems especially important for long movement scholars to take note of. If these works gesture towards the need to go beyond the Black Atlantic, none of them, in the end, provide formulations of sufficient rigor and breath to replace it.13
W.E.B. Du Bois meets the Chairman
The lack of attention that historians have paid to the formulations of literary critics like Mullen and, to a lesser extent, social theorists like Gilroy is also indicative of the ways in which the concept of the long civil rights movement can be extended. This essay will thus conclude with a comparison of Richard Wright’s Native Son and James Baldwin’s Another Country, works which could stand as representative cultural productions of the two waves of the movement. Additionally, I will consider the problems that arise from current periodizations of Black literature, and suggest how the concept of the long movement could contribute to solving these.
Native Son is easily the most famous work to come out of the Leftist milieu long movement scholars have described. Wright’s role in the Chicago John Reed Club, his relocation to Harlem and his ultimate disillusionment with the CP are all well known. Because of Wright’s prominence in the CP and the success of Native Son, the novel has come to stand in for the literary productions of the what Michael Denning has called “the cultural front” as a whole. Literary critics looking back on this movement have often seen didacticism and antimodernism as hallmarks of this literature, qualities they have often found in no short supply in Native Son. Yet such a reading does violence both to Wright’s novel and the broader movement. As Barbara Foley has argued, Native Son in fact has a much more complex formal structure than its common description as “naturalist” would imply. Though most of the novel is narrated from the limited perspective of Bigger’s consciousness, Wright also included the Communist lawyer Max’s lengthy closing argument, which presents an account of Bigger’s life that is not identical to the one to which readers have access through Bigger. Additionally, in every edition after the first, Wright included his essay “How Bigger Was Born,” which, unlike either Bigger’s story or Max’s summation, compares the book’s protagonist with the alienated and dispossessed youth of all races. As Foley notes, “[a]ll three perspectives upon Bigger’s experience coexist in the novel, vying for the reader’s consideration and judgment.”14
This multi-layered rhetorical structure places Native Son alongside works like John Dos Passos’ USA, the standard bearer for Leftist modernism. Like Dos Passos’ trilogy, Wright’s use of multiple perspectives allows his work to represent what Marxist critics have called the “totality,” or the whole complex of social processes and contradictions that compose a social formation. This aspiration to totality is replicated on the level of plot, as Bigger’s fear, flight, and fate take him from the segregated South Side of Chicago to the mansion of his white employers, and into a confrontation with the state in the courtroom climax. This plot structure allows Wright to draw a picture for the reader of the interactions of different classes and institutions in Bigger’s life, making clear the connection between the ‘philanthropic’ real estate baron and the crushing poverty in which Bigger’s family lives. Form and content thus interact in Native Son to present a total critique of American society, merging opposition to racial oppression and class exploitation in just the way that long movement activists sought to.15
James Baldwin’s Another Country is a very different sort of book. Well before it was published (1962), Baldwin had signaled his intention to create a different aesthetic from Wright. His essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” pilloried the older writer mercilessly, comparing Native Son to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The essay was published in Partisan Review (the first piece by an openly Black author in that venue), former journal of the New York John Reed Club which had, by the time of Baldwin’s piece, become solidly anticommunist. In fact, Partisan Review would go on to play an important role in articulating an American aesthetic meant to replace the literature of the Thirties. Valuing irony and ambiguity over social commitment or mimesis, the Partisan Review aesthetic dovetailed nicely with the reactionary agrarian philosophy of the New Criticism. Together, these critical currents marginalized the literary values which had inspired much of the cultural front. In effect, Partisan Review was a major part of the aesthetic wing of the ‘long backlash’ identified by Hall.16
Another Country fulfills a great deal of these critical expectations. On the most surface level, the book is dedicated to Mary S. Painter, a close friend of Baldwin’s who worked for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. On a more substantial level, the novel’s plot concerns a group of friends, acquaintances, and lovers coming to terms with race, sex, and love in the aftermath of a friend’s suicide. The novel’s tight focus on this group of characters, who all seem to be Greenwich Village bohemians of one sort or another, is the opposite of Native Son’s expansive vision, running as it does from the ghetto to the mansion. While the novel focuses closely on the ways that race distorts human relationships, it is, in contrast to Native Son, almost silent on the class question. As Paul Goodman noted in a review at the time, “It is puzzling how most of Baldwin’s people make a living.” Other critics with radical affiliations were similarly disappointed. Langston Hughes, while conceding the novel’s emotional power, thought it a “curiously juvenile” book that focused too much on sex. Most famously, Eldridge Cleaver pronounced the novel “void of a political, economic, or even a social reference.”17
Yet just as long movement scholarship emphasizes the rupture that anticommunist repression created in the struggle against white supremacy, it also emphasizes the continuities that remained between the earlier wave and the classic phase. Such continuities exist in Baldwin’s work as well. Baldwin himself had something of a background in the Left, having joined the Trotskyist Young People’s Socialist League as a youth. While his tenure in the organized Left was brief, Baldwin would go on to be an important voice in the journal Freedomways, the theoretical journal of the classic phase of the movement. Edited by Esther Cooper Jackson, a veteran of the Southern Negro Youth Congress and wife of CP member James Jackson, Freedomways was the site of some of the strongest links between the civil rights unionism of the 1940s and the movement of the 1960s..18
James Baldwin, Joan Baez, and James Farmer, 1965
In light of such links to political radicalism, it is unsurprising that Another Country’s politics, like Native Son’s aesthetics, are more complicated than they at first appear. For one thing, class is not so absent from the novel as Goodman and Cleaver argue. While it’s true that Baldwin’s characters seem to have access to more money than their life styles would indicate, the legacy of Black poverty and exploitation appears in the novel through its suffusion with the voices of women blues singers. Throughout the novel, lyrical fragments from blues singers like Bessie Smith appear interspersed with the dialogue of the characters. As the characters sit in a club, Bessie sings “I wouldn’t mind being in jail but I’ve got to stay there so long,” testifying to the incarceration of Blacks outside the clubs. Later, a white character awakes to his Black girlfriend (a waitress, who is, significantly, the only main character in the novel who works for wages) singing “ If you can’t give me a dollar/Give me a lousy dime-/Just want to feed/This hungry man of mine,” a song that comments both on the poverty of Black households and Black women’s consequent entry into the labor market well before their white counterparts.19
Another Country also has moments of anger that seethe as much as Bigger Thomas ever did. When the father of the Rufus, the Black jazz musician who committed suicide, is presented with his son’s body, his wife asks him to pray. He shouts in response “Pray? Who, pray? I bet you, if I ever get anywhere near that white devil you call God, I’ll tear my son and my father [who was beaten to death with a hammer by a white railroad guard] out of his white hide!” Baldwin here foregrounds the violence of white supremacy, as well as the poverty of Black men (the father’s death strongly suggests he was a hobo). Baldwin’s characters can also be every bit as didactic as Wright’s, describing their lives in such a way that no white reader could miss the message. In a moment of interracial honesty, for example, Ida, the waitress, tells her white friend Cass her true feelings about white folks:
Shit. They keep you here because you’re black, the filthy white cock suckers, while they go around jerking themselves off with all that jazz about the land of the free and the home of the brave. And they want you to jerk yourself off with that same music, too, only keep your distance. Some days, honey, I wish I could turn myself into one big fist and grind this miserable country to powder. Some days, I don’t believe it has a right to exist.
As this passage indicates, Baldwin’s emphasis on the importance of sex, which so disturbed Cleaver and Hughes, could be harnessed to an anger at American racism as intense as their own.
The ruptures and continuities between Baldwin and Wrights’ works line up suggestively with those foregrounded by the concept of a long civil rights movement. They also point to a way of periodizing African American literature that is more coherent than current efforts. The current edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, a text that largely sets the terms for such periodization, lists both Wright and Baldwin under the same period, which the editors (Nellie Y. McKay and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) label “Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, 1940-1960.” As they themselves readily acknowledge, such a melange of genres is essentially arbitrary. Encompassing a range of aesthetics which are largely opposed to one another, the label mixes together writers such as Baldwin, Ellison, and Wright, whose primary relations to one another were often gestures of disaffiliation. Furthermore, by using form as the primary means of dividing writers, it encourages the mis-reading of books like Native Son, whose obvious naturalist tendencies should not cause us to overlook its modernist features.20
A periodization which bases itself on long movement scholarship might look at the years surrounding mid-century differently. Recognizing the importance of the labor left to the first wave of civil rights struggle, as well as the connection of virtually every major Black cultural figure to the movement during this period, such a periodization would see a decisive break in the late 1940s. The thorough disorganization of the movement during these years, combined with the CP’s success in alienating its most talented Black authors (Wright and Ellison), could mark a transition point, when the radical Black aesthetics of the thirties and forties were displaced by the rise of a liberal Black modernism. Heartily encouraged by the institutions of the cultural Cold War, this new aesthetic would repudiate the social commitment of earlier writers in favor of protagonists who are largely equivocal about the society in which they live.21
Just as Baldwin (who had done as much as anyone to marginalize Wright and the socially committed work of the Black Popular Front) would retain important radical moments in his work, however, Black literature as a whole was not utterly purged of its radicalism by the McCarthy years. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, for example, was partially a product of Hansberry’s involvement with the Freedom group, comprised of mostly Black writers centered around Paul Robeson. By using the long movement framework as a guide to periodizing Black literature, scholars could avoid the admitted artificiality of current efforts, and account for the continuities and discontinuities in cultural production at mid-century.
The concept of a long civil rights movement thus has a great deal to offer scholarship on Black politics and culture during the twentieth century. Its ability to reshape discussions of Black cultural production has yet to be appreciated, though it clearly has a great deal to contribute in this area once literary scholars take note of what historians have been up to. Though an adequate theorization of space within the concept has yet to appear, this lacuna has not prevented long movement scholars from definitively pushing the boundaries of civil rights outside the United States. The need for such a reconceptualization is not merely academic. As the controversy surrounding Barack Obama’s birth certificate has shown, those who support America’s racial status quo have a healthy interest in questions of space as well. If long movement scholarship is to succeed in its aim of destabilizing the racial narrative that supports such controversies, it will ultimately have to grapple with the same questions of culture and space that the heirs of the backlash do.
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