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Sweet Land of Liberty

The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North

by Thomas J. Sugrue

Hardcover, 688 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $35 |


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Sweet Land of Liberty
The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
Thomas J. Sugrue

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Book Summary

Sweet Land of Liberty is an epic, revelatory account of the abiding quest for justice in states from Illinois to New York, and of how the intense northern struggle differed from and was inspired by the fight down South.

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Understanding Racial Perceptions

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Sweet Land Of Liberty

Chapter 1

“Sweet Land of Liberty”

And this will be the day—this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., brought his speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to a thundering close, Anna Arnold Hedgeman sat a few feet away. It was a long-overdue moment of recognition for the sixty-four-year-old civil rights activist, though it was bittersweet. The only woman on the steering committee for the march, Hedgeman had a place of honor on the dais at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. It was only at the last minute, at her insistence, that march organizers gave a few minutes on the program to Little Rock leader Daisy Bates and “casually” introduced Rosa Parks to the crowd. Hedgeman remained unacknowledged, her presence mute testimony to the importance of decades of grassroots organizing, much of it in the North, that had brought a quarter of a million people to the greatest demonstration in the nation’s history. It is safe to say that most of the marchers gathered that hot August afternoon had no idea who she was. At a moment when the black freedom struggle was growing younger and more militant, Hedgeman was part of a largely forgotten generation of activists, women and men, black and white, religious and secular, whose lives embodied the long history of civil rights in the North.

Anna Arnold Hedgeman’s journey began in the small-town Midwest at the dawn of the twentieth century, took her through the North, and brought her into the heart of a remarkable and diverse political and social movement to challenge racial inequality in America. She came of age as millions of blacks headed north in search of opportunity but faced a regime of racial proscription there that was every bit as deeply entrenched as the southern system of Jim Crow. During her lifetime of activism, she encountered grassroots school desegregation activists and angry Klansmen; black and white churchwomen committed to dialogue on race relations; poor black migrants and struggling women workers; hypocritical white liberals who mouthed their commitment to racial equality but continued to profit from it; musicians, activists, and intellectuals who created the Harlem Renaissance; black separatists dreaming of a proud black nation; and blue-collar activists committed to building an interracial labor movement. A tireless woman of political savvy and considerable charm, she worked with nearly every important civil rights activist in the first half of the twentieth century.

Hedgeman started life born into the “talented tenth,” a term coined by W. E. B. DuBois for the highly educated, deeply religious, and well-connected black men and women who saw their mission as uplifting the race. Pious and proper, she was the embodiment of the black churchwoman, sometimes prone to self-righteousness but deeply committed to leading a life of faith in service of social change. For Hedgeman, as it was for many early-twentieth-century black activists, there was no boundary between politics and piety, between prayer and protest. Her calling was both spiritual and practical but also open to the dramatically changing circumstances of America as it was remade by the massive black diaspora. Hedgeman’s encounter with the troubled and unresolved history of race and inequality in the North profoundly altered her vocation. She found herself drawn to the plight of poor and working-class Americans, especially the black women born in circumstances far less fortunate than her own. Even if she never jettisoned her intense religiosity or her sense of propriety, she came to see that the project of uplifting the poor into bourgeois respectability by prayer, admonition, or moral education would never be sufficient. Because of her encounter with racial and economic injustice, she came to argue that the plight of the black poor would be overcome only through a wholescale political and economic transformation.

Anna Arnold’s childhood was anything but ordinary. She grew up in a nearly all-white world. Born in Marshalltown, Iowa, in 1899 and raised in Anoka, Minnesota, in a devout household, she was the daughter of a college-educated southern migrant so light-skinned that he could pass for white. William Arnold was a preacher and educator committed to the prohibition of alcohol. A stern, devout man, he had high ambitions for his children. When Anna was still an infant, the Arnolds found their way to Anoka, a relatively prosperous lumber and mill town on the northernmost reaches of the Mississippi River, twenty miles northwest of Minneapolis. Only 8,809 blacks lived in the entire state in 1920. Anoka’s tiny black population had risen from only 15 to 41 in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The only blacks Arnold knew for most of her childhood were immediate family members. Minnesota was relatively liberal, its white population more indifferent than hostile to the small number of blacks who peppered the state. Anna Arnold did not recall facing any racial hostility as a child, but it did affect others. In 1931, less than ten years after she left her hometown, a black Anokan barely escaped a lynch mob.

Comfortable as the only black person in a room full of whites, she became the first black student at Hamline University, a small Methodist school in St. Paul. It was there, in Minnesota’s capital, where racial tensions were soaring, that she had her first serious encounters with other African Americans. Several thousand blacks had moved into the Twin Cities in the early 1920s, leading to a tightening of racial restrictions in schools, housing, and employment. One member of Arnold’s social circle in St. Paul was Roy Wilkins, two years her junior and later president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Fresh from college, Wilkins wrote a scathing account of their home state, decrying the “complacency” and “indifference” of its black leadership. “The most regrettable and almost tragic feature of life in Minnesota,” wrote Wilkins, “is that Negroes are so satisfied with their condition that they are blind to the signs of a new time.”

In the 1920s, blacks faced growing hostility in the North. Throughout the region, restrictive covenants—clauses in home deeds that forbade blacks and other minorities from purchasing or renting homes— proliferated. Nearly every new housing development built during the booming 1920s was closed to blacks. Those who attempted to breach the invisible color lines that separated neighborhoods faced violent reprisals. The result was a steep rise in housing segregation. The Ku Klux Klan gained strongholds in nearly every northern city in the 1920s. Chicago’s Klan, for example, had nearly forty thousand members, and nearly one in three white men in Indiana belonged to the group at its peak in the mid-1920s. In Detroit, a Klansman lost election to the Detroit mayoralty on a technicality in 1924. Blacks faced growing restrictions. Shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and theater managers proclaimed their premises for whites only. And racially separate schools proliferated, particularly in northern towns that attracted large numbers of black migrants. Nearly all of these proscriptions—as Wilkins called them—were defended by law enforcement authorities.

Anna Arnold had her first serious encounter with discrimination as a twenty-two-year-old. An ambitious student, she pursued one of the few professions open to educated black women—teaching. But St. Paul had a very small black population, and its school district had no interest in placing a “colored” teacher in one of its white schools. (With few exceptions, hardly any black teachers taught white students in the North until the mid-1950s.) Frustrated by her experience and eager to see the larger world, she took a teaching job at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, a small, all-black “citadel of moralistic Methodism.” The students at Rust were, for the most part, poorly educated; the school had a small budget; and Holly Springs could not have been more different from Anoka or St. Paul. Arnold found the indignities of southern-style Jim Crow difficult to negotiate, though she learned a great deal about the history of race relations from her mentor, Rust College dean J. Leonard Farmer, whose son James would later move north and spearhead the Congress of Racial Equality. Embittered by the “overwhelming difficulties” of life in the segregated South, she headed back north after two years, feeling a “deep hate” toward southern whites.

In 1924, Anna Arnold was hired by the YWCA, starting out in Springfield, Ohio. The town was hardly a refuge from the indignities that she had experienced in the South, but the Y provided a springboard for her ambition. A bastion of liberal Protestantism amid the fundamentalist revival of the 1920s, the Y attracted young, idealistic, churchgoing women who used their talents to reform and uplift poor and working-class women through continuing education, moral training, cultural events, and physical fitness programs. By the 1920s, the YWCA movement was also tentatively interracial, drawing together churchwomen who began to experiment with “interracial dialogues.” One of the few white-dominated institutions that hired black women to positions of leadership, the Y became the base for a whole generation of ambitious black social workers, educators, and administrators. Building on a Christian understanding of the “brotherhood of all mankind,” the Y’s moral integrationists worked within churches and religious organizations toward the goal of interracial cooperation. It was a daunting challenge when, as the old adage went, Sunday services were the most segregated hour in America. Most whites listened to white ministers, imagined Jesus as white, and could scarcely envision a heaven without segregation. Religious interracialists had modest goals: to foster “tolerance” of racial difference, to encourage whites to grapple with the presence of “the Negro problem” in their midst, and to create spaces for interracial dialogue through what one skeptical observer called “tea, touch, and talk.” To white interracialists, the very prospect of attending conferences with blacks was heady. And to black interracialists, especially those who aspired to respectability, interracial meetings were a rare opening to a white world mostly forbidden to them.

When Arnold started with the Y, it was part of a still-tentative religious interracialist movement. Beginning in the 1920s, the Federal Council of Churches, an umbrella organization of mainline Protestant denominations, created a Department of Racial and Cultural Relations. Through the mid-1960s, it published a bimonthly newsletter, the Interracial News Service, and sponsored “Race Relations Sunday,” an annual event in which pastors were encouraged to bring up questions of racial inequality in sermons or, for the less adventuresome, in church newsletters or afternoon seminars. However symbolic such efforts were, they attracted a dedicated cadre of activists, committed to the ideal of persuasion, who envisioned the problem of racial inequality as a moral problem. Their vision of “brotherhood,” that all were equal in the eyes of Christ, would lead a small but growing number of whites to embrace the goals of the fledgling struggle for black equality.

Protestant interracialism, especially in the Y, drew much of its vision from the missionary movement. Missionaries were often agents of American imperialism, men and women who dedicated their lives to bringing civilization and Christianity to the unchurched, uneducated, and undemocratic peoples of the world. As the United States extended its political, military, and economic reach abroad in the early twentieth century, missionaries were often on the front lines. However, overseas mission work had unintended consequences. By the 1920s, many returning missionaries, particularly white women, had been transformed by their encounter with foreign people of color. Though most were incapable of wholly jettisoning their sense of moral and political superiority, many returned from these stints humbled by their experiences and outraged at the suffering, deprivation, and political oppression they had witnessed. A small, vocal, and growing segment of churchwomen began to compare the situation of American blacks to that of the oppressed peoples overseas. Haltingly, they began to demand that their own churches extend their mission work to Negroes—and, even more important, they began to argue for the full recognition of blacks within their own churches. By the late 1920s, they began to push even further, forging alliances with like-minded black churchwomen.

The Y movement was influenced by similar interracial currents, but like most institutions in the early twentieth century—even the most progressive—YMCAs and YWCAs were still strictly segregated by race. Any self-respecting northern city had its “White-WCA” and, if its black population was large enough, its Negro Y, a place that provided social services, housing and food, and education for urban blacks. The Negro Y was one of the most visible manifestations of a politics of respectability and race uplift that had infused black politics since the late nineteenth century. In this vision of social reform, the black elite had a special duty to promote a new vision of “the race,” one that challenged prevailing white assumptions about innate black inferiority. Well-to-do blacks emphasized the importance of propriety, embracing a set of Victorian values of decorum, restraint, and caution that distanced them from the black masses, whose dress was garish; music profane; religion overly emotional; accents backward and folkish; and habits feckless and irresponsible. Respectability required abstinence from the pleasures of the flesh, a proper and restrained religion, and conservative dress. The politics of uplift was deeply condescending, but also hopeful that the poor and working classes could be redeemed through the charitable efforts and good example of their betters.

Black women such as Arnold played a special role in the politics of uplift and respectability. Since the late nineteenth century, black women had created an extraordinary base of sororities and clubs. At lunches and teas, they gathered to socialize and to build lasting networks of friendship. As much as clubwomen liked to don their fine dresses, hats, and gloves, they were motivated by a higher purpose, a deep sense of responsibility toward their disadvantaged sisters. As “race women,” they had a twofold duty: first, to embody the very virtues that whites believed were inherently lacking in black culture, and, second, to instill those virtues in the downtrodden. Through their moral example, but also through reform institutions, churches, and schools, black women hoped to modify the behavior and values of the poor and thus undermine the racial stereotypes that prevented the full recognition of Negroes as citizens. To be sure, early-twentieth-century black elites had no monopoly on the ideology of uplift. Progressive-era reformers—black and white alike— condescended toward the poor and created a bevy of institutions to control and discipline the ill-behaved, the “uncultured,” and the unruly. But because of the deep currents of racial oppression, blacks viewed uplift as a distinct task to be performed by blacks themselves. At the very core of the politics of uplift was a belief in racial solidarity and self-help. It was up to Negroes to pull their disadvantaged people out of spiritual and economic impoverishment.