Northeast Politics Once A Tangled Web For Black Candidates

Host Michel Martin speaks with Jason Sokol, lecturer in Harvard University's Department of African and African-American Studies, and a Resident Fellow at the W-E-B DuBois Institute, about his new book project on politics and race in the Northeast, called "The Northern Mystique: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now for our final installment of the conversations weve been having for Black History Month. While much has been documented about the history of Africans in America, so much more continues to be discovered. Weve been focusing on new research and journalism that illuminates the history of people of African descent in this country.

With us today is Jason Sokol. He is a lecturer in Harvard Universitys Department of African and African-American Studies and a resident fellow at the Du Bois Institute. His work there involves a new book project about politics and race in the Northeast. Its titled The Northern Mystique: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn. I hope he doesnt mind my mentioning that Jason has been feted as one of Americas top young historians, and he joins us now. Welcome, and thank you for joining us.

Mr. JASON SOKOL (Harvard University): Thank you, Michel, pleasure being with you.

MARTIN: First of all, can I just ask how you were drawn to this field or why you were drawn to the field of African-American studies?

Mr. SOKOL: Well, I grew up in a somewhat racially integrated small city, Springfield, Massachusetts, went to somewhat integrated schools. And I think from a very young age I just realized that there is something there about race in America that the sort of compelled my attention. And then so when I got to school and to college and got to read all about the Civil Rights Movement, I was hooked.

MARTIN: Well, I want to talk about the book title, The Northern Mystique. And weve talked a lot in this country, in documentaries, in sort of historical works about race and politics in the South, largely because of slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. What is the Northern Mystic? What does that refer to?

Mr. SOKOL: It refers to an idea that the North, and particularly the Northeast, I think Im thinking about New England and New York City - have a mystic about them in terms of politics and culture and race relations, that things are possible in the North that arent in the South. Its not a complete myth, its a mystique. And some of it is grounded in truth. For instance, African-Americans could vote in the North and they couldnt in the South.

And some of it is not so true. The sobering realities of racial segregation in the North and racial violence and racism persist, and they puncture that mystique. The biggest thing is probably the Boston busing crisis, where in the 1970s whites in the cradle of liberty rose up against busing, which is busing African-Americans students into white schools and white students into African-American schools. And throughout Boston there was waves of violence and beatings and pervasive racial tension, right there in the home in the supposed home of liberty.

MARTIN: One of the chapters in the book is devoted to former Senator Ed Brooke of Massachusetts. He was recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He was elected in 1966. He became the first black U.S. senator since Reconstruction. You know, blacks are a tiny minority of the population in Massachusetts. And how do you square that? I mean, how do you square

Mr. SOKOL: Right.

MARTIN: the fact that Massachusetts is willing to send, you know, an African-American to the United States Senate but youve also got neighborhoods where people also willing to throw bricks at your head for wanting to go to the same school?

Mr. SOKOL: So, I had the chance to ask Senator Brooke in an interview exactly the question youre asking. In his public comments, he was saying that Massachusetts voters were color blind. But I think privately Brooke had a very strong sense that people werent truly colorblind, and that they were seeing that he was black.

MARTIN: You talked about other significant figures in African-American history who came to prominence in the North like Jackie Robinson, you know, like Ed Brooke, like Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in Congress, who was elected from Brooklyn. And you point out that these strides were taking place at the same time that there is very real segregation in neighborhoods -sometimes, you know, real sort of street level conflicts. What do you think that says?

Mr. SOKOL: Well, I think that says that Americans, white and black, are able to make breakthroughs and make strides on certain levels of society, on levels where it seems that less power is at stake, where the threat isnt so obvious. For instance, to white people in Massachusetts there was no necessary connection between voting for Ed Brooke and sending their child to an integrated school. And similarly for whites in Brooklyn in 1947 and 48, they believed that they could root for Jackie Robinson, that they could welcome this first African-American across the racial threshold, and at the same time that they could start moving to the suburbs and that they could sign housing petitions, which was when word got around that an African-American might be buying in your neighborhood, the response wasnt like it might have been in the South, to go out and sort of throw rocks. The response would be to do something more subtle and more silent. When Jackie and Rachel Robinson first tried to look for a home, they were met with stiffness by realtors and by builders and by owners. And it took them years to finally find a lot of land that they could build on.

And were not just talking about a regular African-American here, were talking about Jackie Robinson. I think those stories speak volumes about the distance between sort of breakthroughs on the levels of politics and culture versus breakthroughs on the level of society and spacial segregation.

MARTIN: Did you ever come up with a theory particularly given that your first book was about the South and about white Southerners in particular, what did you come up with as an explanation for why it is that white Northerners, despite their issues around, you know, having their kids going to integrated schools or living in integrated neighborhoods, were still willing to grant black people the franchise, allow them to vote, and in some cases vote for black people as elected leaders?

Mr. SOKOL: One of the differences is in the histories of the societies, which is that there is a big difference in a place where slavery has hung on so long and so centrally in the economy and where the Jim Crow system and lynching and sharecropping persisted for so long in the South.

I think also one big thing is that in the North these were basically urban and suburban places that Im looking at, from Boston to Brooklyn. You dont have rural areas that have the history that rural areas in the South do. I mean, in the South, if you go to a place - county in Mississippi or in Greene County, Alabama, or a place like that, you have places that are 80 percent African-American and 20 percent white.

And you dont get many of those, at least countywide, in the North. You have places where there is more mixing and where whites dont see African-Americans as much of a threat. In the South, after the Voting Rights Act, when African-Americans got the vote, they could suddenly control counties and control court houses when they were in such a vast majority. And that threat simply didnt exist in the North.

MARTIN: So whats the new news about black history?

Mr. SOKOL: Yeah. Well...

MARTIN: We should all know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SOKOL: The new news, I think, is that - the 1960s is the period that I study most closely. And I think there are a few tried and true narratives that we have about the 1960s. We have, of course, the narrative of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, of people struggling up against Jim Crow. We also have the story of black power.

People know the story of Stokely Carmichael, and we know clenched fists in the streets of Northern cities. But I think a person like Ed Brooke has been harder for those main narratives to make sense of because Brooke was not a civil rights leader. He didnt call himself a civil rights leader. He called himself a politician. And he sparked a lot of controversy. He was a Republican. He was not a conservative, he was a Republican liberal.

But he still got a lot of flak from the black power community and from the civil rights community. And I think for a long time, black history had been about finding the heroes, the downtrodden who had risen up and conquered. And I think Ed Brooke, although his achievements and accomplishments are just as remarkable, he didnt see himself as achieving that kind of a feat. And so he doesnt fit quite as well into these main stories we have of triumph and heroism.

MARTIN: Jason Sokol is an historian and resident fellow at Harvard Universitys W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, where he is writing "The Northern Mystique: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn. Its a book about politics and race in the Northeast, and he is kind enough to join us from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thank you so much for visiting with us.

Mr. SOKOL: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And thats our program for today. Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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