Tag Archives: Malcolm X

Converging Visions of Equality


Peniel E. Joseph, The Sword and the Shield:

The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Basic Books)

[NOTE: A version of this review has been posted to the Tocqueville 21 blog: https://tocqueville21.com/books/king-malcolm-x-civil-rights/.  Tocqueville 21 takes its name from the 19th century French aristocrat who gave Americans much insight into their democracy.  It seeks to encourage in-depth thinking about democratic theory and practice, with particular but by no means exclusive emphasis on the United States and France.  The site is maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies].

Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X met only once, a chance encounter at the US Capitol on March 26, 1964.  The two men were at the Capitol to listen to a debate over what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a measure that banned discrimination in employment, mandated equal access to most public facilities, and had the potential to be the most consequential piece of federal legislation on behalf of equality for African-Americans since the Reconstruction era nearly a century earlier.  There wasn’t much substance to the encounter. “Well, Malcolm, good to see you,” King said.  “Good to see you,” Malcolm responded. There may have been some additional light chitchat, but not much more.  Fortunately, photographers were present, and we are the beneficiaries of several iconic photos of the encounter.

That encounter at the Capitol constitutes the starting point for Peniel Joseph’s enthralling The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, a work that has some of the indicia of a dual biography, albeit highly condensed.  But Joseph, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has written prolifically on modern African American history, places his emphasis on the two men’s intellectual journeys.  Drawing heavily from their speeches, writings and public debates, Joseph challenges the conventional view of the two men as polar opposites who represented competing visions of full equality for African Americans.  The conventional view misses the nuances and evolution of both men’s thinking, Joseph argues, obscuring the ways their politics and activism came to overlap.  Each plainly influenced the other.  “Over time, each persuaded the other to become more like himself” (p.13).

My final stages of this review on the convergence of the two men’s thinking coincided with the trial of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd last May, along with the recent killing of still another black man, Daunte Wright, in the same Minneapolis metropolitan area.  Watching and reading about events in Minneapolis, I couldn’t help concluding that the three familiar words “Black Lives Matter”  –  the movement that led demonstrations across the country and the world last year to protest the Floyd killing — also neatly encapsulate the commonalities that Joseph identifies in The Sword and the Shield.

* * *

In March 1964, King was considered the “single most influential civil rights leader in the nation” (p.2), Joseph writes, whereas Malcolm, an outlier in the mainstream civil rights movement, was “perhaps the most vocal critic of white supremacy ever produced by black America” (p.4).    The two men shared extraordinary rhetorical and organizational skills.  Each was a charismatic leader and deep thinker who articulated in galvanizing terms his vision of full equality for African Americans.  But these visions sometimes appeared to be not just polar opposites but mutually exclusive.

In the conventional view of the time, King, the Southern Baptist preacher with a Ph.D. in theology, deserved mainstream America’s support as the civil rights leader who sought integration of African Americans into the larger white society, and unfailingly advocated non-violence as the most effective means to that end.  White liberals held King in high esteem for his almost religious belief in the potential of the American political system to close the gap between its lofty democratic rhetoric and the reality of pervasive racial segregation, discrimination and second-class citizenship, a belief Malcolm considered naïve.

A high school dropout who had served time in jail, Malcolm became the most visible spokesman for the Nation of Islam (NOI), an idiosyncratic American religious organization that preached black empowerment and racial segregation.  Often termed a “black nationalist,” Malcolm found the key to full equality in political and economic empowerment of African American communities.  He considered racial integration a fool’s errand and left open the possibility of violence as a means of defending against white inflicted violence.  He seemed to embrace some form of racial separation as the most effective means to achieve full equality and improve the lives of black Americans – a position that the media found to be ironically similar to that of the hard-core racial segregationists with whom both he and King were battling.

But Joseph demonstrates that Malcolm was moving in King’s direction at the time of their March 1964 encounter.  Coming off a bitter fallout with the NOI and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, he had cut his ties with the organization just months before the encounter.  He had traveled to Washington to demonstrate his support for the civil rights legislation under consideration.  Thinking he could make a contribution to the mainstream civil rights movement, Malcolm sought an alliance with King and his allies.  Although that alliance never materialized, King began to embrace positions identified with Malcolm after the latter’s assassination less than 11 months later, stressing in particular that economic justice needed to be a component of full equality for African Americans.  King also became an outspoken opponent of American involvement in the war in Vietnam, of which Malcolm long been had critical.

Singular events had thrust both men onto the national stage.  King rose to prominence as a newly-ordained minister who at age 26 became the most audible voice of the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, after Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white person.  Malcolm’s rise to fame came in 1959 through a nationally televised 5-part CBS documentary on the NOI, The Hate that Hate Produced, hosted by then little-known Mike Wallace.  The documentary was an immediate sensation.  It was a one-sided indictment of the NOI, Joseph indicates, intended to scare and outrage whites.  But it made Malcolm and his NOI boss Elijah Muhammad heroes within black communities across the country.  King seemed to buy into the documentary’s theme, describing the NOI as an organization dedicated to “black supremacy,” which he considered “as bad as white supremacy” (p.85).

But even at this time, each man had connected his US-based activism to anti-colonial movements that were altering the face of Africa and Asia.  Both recognized that the systemic nature of racial oppression “transcended boundaries of nation-states” (p.73).    Malcolm made his first trip abroad in 1959, to Egypt and Nigeria.  The trip helped him “internationalize black political radicalism,” by linking domestic black politics to the “larger world of anti-colonial and Third World liberation movements” (p.18-19), as Joseph puts it.  King, whose philosophy of non-violence owed much to Mahatmas Gandhi, visited India in 1959, characterizing himself as a “‘pilgrim’ coming to pay homage to a nation liberated from colonial oppression against seemingly insurmountable odds”  (p.80).   After the visit, he “proudly claimed the Third World as an integral part of a worldwide social justice movement” (p.80).

After his break with the NOI and just after his chance encounter with King at the US Capitol, Malcolm took a transformative five-week tour of Africa and the Middle East in the spring of 1964.  The tour put him on the path to becoming a conventional Muslim and prompted him to back away from anti-white views he had expressed while with the NOI.  In Mecca, Saudi Arabia, he professed to see “sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.” (p.188).   He went on to Nigeria and “dreamed of becoming the leader of a political revolution steeped in the anti-colonial fervor sweeping Africa” (p.191).  Malcolm’s time in Africa, Joseph concludes, “changed his mind, body, and soul . . . The African continent intoxicated Malcolm X and informed his political dreams” (p.192-93).

By the time of their March 1964 meeting, moreover, the two men had begun to recognize each other’s potential.  After over a decade of forcefully criticizing the mainstream civil rights movement, Malcolm now recognized King’s goals as his own but chose different methods to get there.  Malcolm also had a subtle effect on King.  The “more he ridiculed and challenged King publicly,” Joseph writes, the more King “reaffirmed the strength of non-violence as a weapon of peace capable of transforming American democracy” (p.155).  King for his part had begun to look outside the rigidly segregated South and toward major urban centers in the North, Malcolm’s bailiwick, as possible sites of protest that would expand the freedom struggle beyond its southern roots.

Joseph cites three instances in which Malcolm extended written invitations to King, all of which went unanswered. But in early February 1965, after Malcolm had participated in a panel discussion with King’s wife, King concluded that the time had come to meet with his formidable peer.  Later that month, alas, Malcolm was gunned down in New York, almost certainly the work of the NOI, although details of the assassination remain murky to this day.

In the three years remaining to him after Malcolm’s assassination, King borrowed liberally from the black nationalist’s playbook, embracing in particular the notion of economic justice as a necessary component of full equality for African Americans.  Although he never wavered in his commitment to non-violence, King saw his cause differently after the uprising in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965.  Watts “transformed King,” Joseph writes, making clear that civil unrest in Northern cities was a “product of institutional racism and poverty that required far more material and political resources than ever imagined by the architects of the Great Society” (p.235).  King also began to speak out publicly in 1965 against the escalation of America’s military commitment in Vietnam, marking the beginning of the end of his close relationship with President Johnson.

King delivered his most pointed criticism of the war on April 4, 1967, precisely one year prior to his assassination, at the Riverside Church in New York City, abutting Harlem, Malcolm’s home base.  Linking the war to the prevalence of racism and poverty in the United States, King lamented the “cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” (p.267).  Joseph terms King’s Riverside Church address the “boldest political decision of his career” (p.268).  It was the final turning point for King, marking his formal break with mainstream politics and his “full transition” from a civil rights leader to a “political revolutionary” who “refused to remain quiet in the face of domestic and international crises” (p.268).

After Riverside, in his last year, King became what Joseph describes as America’s “most well-known anti-war activist” (p.271).  King lent a Nobel Prize-winner’s prestige to a peace movement struggling to find its voice at a time when most Americans still supported the war.  Simultaneously, he pushed for federally guaranteed income, decent and racially integrated housing and public schools — what he termed a “revolution of values” (p.287).  During this period, Stokely Carmichael, who once worked with King in Mississippi (and is the subject of a Joseph biography), coined the term “Black Power.”  In Joseph’s view, the Black Power movement represented the natural extension of Malcolm’s political philosophy, post-Malcolm. Although King frequently criticized the movement in his final years, he nonetheless found himself in agreement with much of its agenda.

In his final months. King supported a Poor People’s march on Washington, D.C.  He was in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968 on behalf of striking sanitation workers, overwhelmingly African-American, who held jobs but were seeking better salaries and more humane working conditions, when he too was felled by an assassin’s bullet.

* * *

After reading Joseph’s masterful synthesis, it is easy to imagine Malcolm supporting King’s efforts in Memphis that April.  And if the two men were still with us today, it is it is equally easy to imagine both embracing warmly the “Black Lives Matter” movement.


Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 20, 2021





Filed under American Politics, American Society, Political Theory, United States History

A History of Overcoming Obstacles



Herb Boyd, Black Detroit:

A People’s History of Self Determination


          Detroit, once known as the “automobile capital of the world” and, during World War II, as the “arsenal of democracy,” is today more readily written off as the quintessential urban basket case.  Census figures alone provide a good part of the reason.  From a population that reached nearly 2 million in 1950, by the year 2000, that figure had dropped by almost exactly half, to about 950,000.  This precipitous drop continued into the present century – today, Detroit’s population is estimated to be about 675,000.  But population drop is only one part of a story that can be told from many perspectives.   

             In Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self Determination, journalist, activist, and Detroit native Herb Boyd tells the story from the perspective of the African-Americans who have been part of the city’s building blocks from its earliest days in the early 18th century, when it was a French trading settlement along the straits that link Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, up through the present, as a majority black city.  Boyd describes his book as the first to consider black Detroit “from a long view, in a full historical tableau” (p.14). 

          Through his treatment of 18th and 19th century Detroit, Boyd introduces his readers to numerous African-Americans who have been overlooked or neglected in earlier histories of the city.  Their stories are ones of survival, thriving, and even heroism in the face of the overwhelming odds which racism placed upon 18th and 19th century African-Americans in Detroit and throughout the United States.   But Boyd’s story takes off in the early 20th century, as Detroit’s intimate connection to the American automobile industry took hold, offering unparalleled employment opportunities for Detroit’s African-American community.    

          Over half the book addresses Detroit’s history in the nearly three quarters of a century since the end of World War II, and it is largely a dispiriting story.  After roughly two decades of unprecedented prosperity in the 1950s and early 1960s for Detroit’s working classes, black and white, the city went up in flames in a devastating 5-day riot in July 1967 and has not been the same since.  The riot accelerated the already on-going flight of the city’s white population to the suburbs.  They were joined by many of the businesses that had provided jobs to the city’s working class, black and white, thereby decimating the city’s tax base.  Detroit hit what Boyd considers its nadir in 2013, when it ignominiously filed for bankruptcy, the largest city in the United States to do so. 

          Boyd finds in 21st century Detroit all the indicia of a Third World city, comparing it explicitly to Dhaka, Bangladesh, with its “concentration of poverty compounded by a declining tax base, spreading squalor, inadequate health facilities, and high infant mortality” (p.283).   Since Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy, Boyd sees some signs of hope, especially in the revitalization of its downtown and midtown business areas, thanks to the efforts of several creative business entrepreneurs.  But daunting challenges remain, especially in the blighted neighborhoods beyond the city’s inner core.

* * *

            Boyd’s opening chapters emphasize how slavery was a fact of life in Detroit in the 18th century and into the early years of the 19th century.   By the time Michigan became a state in 1837, slavery had largely disappeared from Detroit but the city’s African-American population still faced enormous obstacles in exercising the rights and enjoying the freedoms that white Detroiters took for granted.  In the years before the American Civil War (sometimes called the “War Between the States”), Detroit and neighboring Canada became important end points in the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used to escort African-American slaves to freedom.   Boyd details the heroic contributions of many Detroiters to the success of the network, with William Lambert standing out. Lambert was a “phenomenal” conductor on the Underground Railroad, “assuring the safety of runaway slaves during their stay in Detroit and then escorting them to freedom across the river” (p.35).  The general consensus among historians is that some 40,000 men, women and children passed out of bondage through Lambert’s “gentle and caring hands” (p.36).

          Detroit emerged as an industrial center during the last quarter of the 19th century.  Although industrialization provided Detroit’s black workers with increased employment opportunities, most had “little choice but to accept menial jobs as immigrants slowly replaced black workers as longshoremen, coopers (barrel makers), barbers, cooks, teamsters, and doormen.  It made little difference if the newcomers were not fluent in English” (p.54).  As the automobile age dawned during first two decades of the twentieth century, Detroit became a preferred destination for the many African-Americans fleeing the American South, attracted by the opportunities that the burgeoning automobile industry offered.  “When considering all that Detroit has meant to America,” David Maraniss wrote in Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, reviewed here in November 2016,  “it can be said in a profound sense that Detroit gave blue-collar workers a way into the middle class.” 

          But Boyd emphasizes how Detroit’s African-Americans had to struggle far more than whites throughout the 20th century to gain a share of this middle-class prosperity.  Among Detroit’s automobile manufacturers, Ford Motor Company “quickly surpassed all other companies in the number of African American employees” (p.94).  Some manufacturers, Dodge in particular, preferred Eastern European immigrants, even those who couldn’t speak English, to native-born African-Americans. The relationship between black Detroiters and the automobile companies could thus not help but be troubled, a “classic black-and-white battle and clearly an unequal one” (p.69).  

          In the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression hit black Detroiters harder than any other ethnic group.  As labor unrest became a fact of life in industrialized Detroit, black workers were often reluctant to participate in strikes against the automobile companies.  Many felt uncertain about the promises made by the emerging United Auto Workers (UAW).  “After all,” Boyd writes, there was a “four-century history of white betrayal to counsel hesitancy and prudent neutrality.   A few blacks even went so far as to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ford’s security forces as they brutally attacked union members, and some joined the legions of strike breakers who dared to cross the picket lines surrounding the plants” (p.133).  

          Many African-American men from Detroit went off willingly to fight World War II and acquitted themselves honorably in combat.  Their absence meant openings for women in the factories, including a dramatically increased number of black women.  But in the middle of World War II, tensions between black and white Detroiters exploded on a sweltering summer Sunday afternoon in June 1943.  A misunderstanding on the city’s recreational playground, Belle Isle, cascaded into an orgy of racial violence that spread across the city and turned into one of the most devastating civil disorders  to that point in American history, which Boyd painstakingly details.  

         The 1943 disorders were far from the first in the city’s history, and underscored how stark racial conflict between blacks and whites constitutes an inescapable part of Detroit’s history.  Other disorders, in 1833, 1863, 1925, and 1941, had also scarred the city’s landscape physically and psychologically, with the worst still to come.

* * *

          Although Detroit began losing population sometime in the early 1950s, the two decades following World War II were years of extraordinary prosperity in the city and the United States as a whole.  As Detroit’s automakers met Americans’ seemingly insatiable desire for new cars, a middle class lifestyle became a reality for more and more of the city’s working population, black and white.  In the early 1960s, Detroit was selected as the US nominee in the competition to host the 1968 Olympics.  Although the games were ultimately awarded to Mexico City, the city bested other American competitors for the nomination in no small part because a slew of high-minded officials in the public and private sector had carefully cultivated an image of the city as a model of racial progress for the nation.   

          Detroit in the early 1960s felt the full force of the Civil Rights Movement.  In June 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King led approximately 125,000 people in what was known as the “Walk to Freedom,” in which King delivered a speech that presaged his “I Have A Dream” address at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington two months later.  Later that year, Malcolm X, who had grown up in nearby Lansing and had lived in Detroit for a while, delivered one of his most noteworthy speeches, “Message to the Grass Roots,” which emphasized community control as the key to black advancement, a notion at the core of what was coming to be known as the Black Power Movement. 

          But the five days of looting, arson and violence in July 1967 permanently shattered Detroit’s image as a bastion of racial progress.  The disorder left 43 dead and 473 injured.  More than 7,200 persons were arrested, with some 2,500 stores vandalized or destroyed.  Overall damage was estimated to be somewhere between $40 and $80 billion.  In the aftermath of the 1967 disorders, Detroit was moving inexorably toward becoming a majority black city. The city elected its first African-American mayor, the cantankerous Coleman Young, in 1974.   Young went on to serve four additional terms as mayor, dominating the city’s political landscape until 1994.  His outsized persona also dominates Boyd’s narrative of the final quarter of Detroit’s 20th century.    

          Young was what an earlier generation of blacks called a “race man,” with a combative, take-no-prisoners style that, as Boyd puts it, was “emblematic of a Detroit toughness, a self-determinative disposition that continues to resonate from those who experienced his furious passage” (p.9).  When first elected mayor, Young “wasn’t naïve about his victory, feeling that the city was his because the whites no longer wanted it” (p.231).  Young forged alliances with key Detroit business leaders, which led to the building of a new sports arena and glittering skyscrapers downtown.  But he was frequently criticized for ignoring the city’s residential neighborhoods, black and white (one scathing critique is Paul Clemens’ Made in Detroit: A South of Eight Mile Memoir, reviewed here in 2012). 

          Many black middle class Detroiters joined in the exodus out of the city during Young’s rein, while powerful drug-dealing gangs came to dominate more and more neighborhoods and the citywide crime rate increased alarmingly.  One particularly painful reminder of the crime increase occurred in August 1994, when civil rights heroine Rosa Parks was mugged in her home by an intruder and robbed of $103.  “The irony of the attack was inescapable,” Boyd writes.  “Here was a woman who had risked her life to bring an end to a segregated society, an avowed nonviolent opponent of racism and discrimination, now waylaid by one of her own.  It was a horrible moment that circulated around the globe but with a particular resonance of despair in Detroit” (p.280-81). 

          By 2000, black middle class flight from the city exceeded white flight.  Politically, things seemed to go from bad to worse in the new century, as symbolized by the disheartening regime of Mayor Kilwame Kilpatrick.  Elected in 2001 at the age of 30, Kilpatrick appeared to be a young man on the rise, with charisma, oratorical skills and connections to the national Democratic Party elite.  But allegations of multiple forms of corruption hounded him from the very beginning of his term.  The most graphic involved Kilpatrick’s extramarital affair with his chief-of-staff, which Kilpatrick attempted to hide and lied about under oath, forcing his resignation, a guilty plea to several felony charges, and 120 days in jail. 

          Kilpatrick’s fall from grace, Boyd concludes, served as “another reminder of the city’s Third World circumstances”  (p.325).   In Detroit, as in Dhaka, Bangladesh, there was “very little left of a once prosperous manufacturing base, where residents purchase most goods from other countries and seldom own or control the means of production” (p.321-22).  Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy closes out Boyd’s narrative of downward spiral.  

          In recent years, mortgage and financial giant Quicken Loans has taken a lead role in the revitalization of the city’s downtown business district, where it established its headquarters,  accompanied by pledges to help employees find housing nearby.  Shinola, a Detroit manufacturer (not the defunct shoe polish company), produces not only watches, its main product, but also bicycles, leather goods and other items, offering myriad employment opportunities to Detroit residents.  And Boyd even sees cause for optimism in Detroit’s recent election of a white mayor, the first since 1974, who won “because he earned the black vote” (p.338).  But dozens of formerly vibrant residential neighborhoods beyond the downtown and midtown business districts remain severely blighted or nearly uninhabited.   

          Boyd steers away from a “big picture” attempt to dissect and explain Detroit’s precipitous post-World War II fall, a ground many other writers have treaded upon.  “I leave it to the social scientists and economists,” he writes, to “assess the damage, how it got there, and what can be done to restore and sustain the city” (p.338).  But a macro-theory explaining the fall can nonetheless be pieced together from his narrative, consisting most prominently of the following:

  • White racism/white flight: whites over the course of several decades “voted with their feet,” showing that they preferred to live in communities closed to blacks, outside the city limits; scores of businesses followed, decimating the city’s revenue base;

  • The devastating 1967 riot accelerated white flight and set the city on a downward course that, more than a half-century later, has yet to be fully reversed; and

  • Fiscal mismanagement and outright corruption within city government in the years Detroit was seeking to recover from the 1967 disorders, up to the 2013 bankruptcy. 

          Boyd gives less emphasis to changes in the automobile industry.  But Detroit’s famed Big Three automakers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, were generally outperformed by foreign competition during the 1970s and 1980s, while many of their key facilities left the city for the suburbs and beyond.   Then, in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown, General Motors and Chrysler themselves filed for bankruptcy.

* * *

           Boyd also elaborates throughout on how black churches served as institutional anchors for the city’s African-American community from Detroit’s earliest days, and he provides rich detail on the dynamic African-American music scene that flourished throughout Detroit’s history.  In the initial decades of the 19th century, prior to the American Civil War, Detroit’s Second Baptist Church became the “social, political, and economic bedrock” where black Detroiters could seek refuge from the ravages of the day.  “Here they could find succor and salvation from the slights of poverty, the insults, and the racism that were so much a part of their daily travails” (p.49).   

          In the 20th century, during the Civil Rights fervor of the early 1960s, the charismatic Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, minister at New Bethel Baptist Church, led the behind-the-scenes organization for the June 1963 Walk to Freedom and served as one of Dr. King’s key Detroit allies.   Franklin competed with the Reverend Albert Cleage for control over the details of the Walk and, more generally, for control over the direction of the quest for racial justice and equal opportunity in Detroit.  Cleage, whose church became known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna, founded on the belief that Jesus was black, sponsored Malcolm X’s November 1963 speech.

          In the post-Civil War decades, Detroit was awash in marching bands whose styles were subsequently popularized by John Phillip Sousa.  Through the work of Detroit organist, pianist, and composer Harry Guy, Detroit was arguably the birthplace of ragtime music, more frequently associated with Scott Joplin.  In the 20th century, Detroit came to rival such centers as Memphis and New Orleans as centers for the blues.  It was also a hothouse for jazz throughout the 20th century, from the “hot jazz” of the 1920s and 1930s to the “cool jazz” of the 1950s.

          But as the 1950s ended, Detroit’s music scene came to be dominated by marketing genius Berry Gordy, as he put together the popular music empire known officially and affectionately as Motown.  Gordy aimed to promote his Motown sound with white and black listeners alike.  His team included a mind-boggling array of stars (one who eluded him was Reverend Franklin’s daughter Aretha, who recorded instead for the Columbia and Atlantic labels).  He ran his popular music business like an automobile factory, Boyd writes playfully.  “When the song rolled off this assembly line of musicians and arrangers, the finished product was like a new Cadillac” (p.183).  Gordy stung the city psychologically in 1972 when he joined the exodus of businesses out of Detroit, moving his Motown empire to Los Angeles.

* * *

          In this comprehensive account of the African-American contributions to Detroit’s good and not-so-good times, Boyd shines light on a community that has always been “vigorous and resourceful” (p.26), as he puts it at one point, with a glorious tradition of “getting up off the floor [and] coming back” (p.339).  He writes about his native city’s downward spiral with circumspection, providing the details objectively, much like a physician reporting to family members on a seriously ill patient.  But there is more than a wisp of sadness and regret in his account of Detroit’s years of decline.  How could it be otherwise?

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 12, 2019


Filed under American Society, United States History

Can’t Forget the Motor City




David Maraniss, Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story

     In 1960, Detroit was the automobile capital of the world, America’s undisputed center of manufacturing, and its fifth most populous city, with that year’s census tallying 1.67 million people. Fifty years later, the city had lost nearly a million people; its population had dropped to 677,000 and it ranked 21st in population among America’s cities in the 2010 census. Then, in 2013, the city reinforced its image as an urban basket case by ignominiously filing for bankruptcy. In Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, David Maraniss, a native Detroiter of my generation and a highly skilled journalist whose previous works include books on Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, focuses upon Detroit before its precipitous fall, an 18-month period from late 1962 to early 1964.   This was the city’s golden moment, Maraniss writes, when Detroit “seemed to be glowing with promise. . . a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things” (p.xii-xiii; in March 2012, I reviewed here two books on post World War II Detroit, under the title “Tales of Two Cities”).

      Detroit produced more cars in this 18 month period than Americans produced babies.  Barry Gordy Jr.’s popular music empire, known officially and affectionately as “Motown,” was selling a new, upbeat pop music sound across the nation and around the world.  Further, at a time when civil rights for African-Americans had become America’s most morally compelling issue, race relations in a city then about one-third black appeared to be as good as anywhere in the United States. With a slew of high-minded officials in the public and private sector dedicated to racial harmony and justice, Detroit sought to present itself as a model for the nation in securing opportunity for all its citizens.

     Maraniss begins his 18-month chronicle with dual events on the same day in November 1962: the burning of an iconic Detroit area memorial to the automobile industry, the Ford Rotunda, a “quintessentially American harmonic convergence of religiosity and consumerism” (p.1-2); and, later that afternoon, a police raid on the Gotham Hotel, once the “cultural and social epicenter of black Detroit” (p.10), but by then considered to be a den of illicit gambling controlled by organized crime groups.  He ends with President Lyndon Johnson’s landmark address in May 1964 on the campus of nearby University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Johnson outlined his grandiose vision of the Great Society.  Johnson chose Ann Arbor as the venue to deliver this address in large measure because of its proximity to Detroit. No place seemed “more important to his mission than Detroit,” Maraniss writes, a “great city that honored labor, built cars, made music, promoted civil rights, and helped lift working people into the middle class” (p.360).

     Maraniss’ chronicle unfolds between these bookend events, revolving around on what had attracted President Johnson to the Detroit area in May 1964: building cars, making music, promoting civil rights, and lifting working people into the middle class. He skillfully weaves these strands into an affectionate, deeply researched yet easy-to-read portrait of Detroit during this 18-month golden period.  But Maraniss  does not ignore the fissures, visible to those perceptive enough to recognize them, which would lead to Detroit’s later unraveling.  Detroit may have found the right formula for bringing a middle class life style to working class Americans, black and white alike. But already Detroit was losing population as its white working class was taking advantage of newfound prosperity to leave the city for nearby suburbs.  Moreover, many in Detroit’s black community found the city to be anything but a model of racial harmony.

* * *

     An advertising executive described Detroit in 1963 as “intensely an automobile community – everybody lives, breathes, and sleeps automobiles. It’s like a feudal city ” (p.111). Maraniss’ inside account of Detroit’s automobile industry focuses principally upon the remarkable relationship between Ford Motor Company’s chief executive, Henry Ford II (sometimes referred to as “HF2” or “the Deuce”) and the head of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther, during this 18 month golden age (Manariss accords far less attention to the other two members of Detroit’s “Big Three,” General Motors and Chrysler, or to the upstart American Motors Corporation, whose chief executive, George Romney, was elected governor in November 1962 as a Republican). Ford and Reuther could not have been more different.

     Ford, from Detroit’s most famous industrial family, was a graduate of Hotchkiss School and Yale University who had been called home from military service during World War II to run the family business when his father Edsel Ford, then company president, died in 1943. Maraniss mischievously describes the Deuce as having a “touch of the peasant, with his manicured nails and beer gut and . . . frat-boy party demeanor” (p.28). Yet, Ford earnestly sought to modernize a company that he thought had grown too stodgy.  And, early in his tenure, he had famously said, “Labor unions are here to stay” (p.212).

      Reuther was a graduate of the “school of hard knocks,” the son of German immigrants whose father had worked in the West Virginia coalmines.   Reuther himself had worked his way up the automobile assembly line hierarchy to head its powerful union. George Romney once called Reuther the “most dangerous man in Detroit” (p.136). But Reuther prided himself on “pragmatic progressivism over purity, getting things done over making noise. . . [He was] not Marxist but Rooseveltian – in his case meaning as much Eleanor as Franklin” (p.136). Reuther believed that big government was necessary to solve big problems. During the Cold War, he won the support of Democratic presidents by “steering international trade unionists away from communism” (p.138).

     A quarter of a century after the infamous confrontation between Reuther and goons recruited by the Deuce’s grandfather Henry Ford to oppose unionization in the automobile industry — an altercation in which Reuther was seriously injured — the younger Ford’s partnership with Reuther blossomed. Rather than bitter and violent confrontation, the odd couple worked together to lift huge swaths of Detroit’s blue-collar auto workers into the middle class – arguably Detroit’s most significant contribution to American society in the second half of the 20th century. “When considering all that Detroit has meant to America,” Maraniss writes, “it can be said in a profound sense that Detroit gave blue-collar workers a way into the middle class . . . Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther, two giants of the mid-twentieth century, were essential to that result” (p.212).

      Reuther was aware that, despite higher wages and improved benefits, life on the assembly lines remained “tedious and soul sapping if not dehumanizing and dangerous” for autoworkers (p.215). He therefore consistently supported improving leisure time for workers outside the factory.  Music was one longstanding outlet for Detroiters, including its autoworkers. The city’s rich history of gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues musicians gave Detroit an “unmatched creative melody” (p.100), Maraniss observes.   By the early 1960s, Detroit’s musical tradition had become identified with the work of Motown founder, mastermind and chief executive, Berry Gordy Jr.

     Gordy was an ambitious man of “inimitable skills and imagination . . . in assessing talent and figuring out how to make it shine” (p.100).  Gordy aimed to market his Motown sound to white and black listeners alike, transcending the racial confines of the traditional rhythm and blues market. He set up what Maraniss terms a “musical assembly line” that “nurtured freedom through discipline” (p.195) for his many talented performers. The songs which Gordy wrote and championed captured the spirit of working class life: “clear story lines, basic and universal music for all people, focusing on love and heartbreak, work and play, joy and pain” (p.53).

     Gordy’s team included a mind-boggling array of established stars: Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and his Miracles, Martha Reeves and her Mandelas, Diana Ross and her Supremes, and the twelve-year-old prodigy, Little Stevie Wonder.  Among Gordy’s rising future stars were the Temptations and the Four Tops. The Motown team was never more talented than in the summer of 1963, Maraniss contends. Ten Motown singles rose to Billboard’s Top 10 that year, and eight more to the Top 20.  Wonder, who dropped “Little” before his name in 1963, saw his “Fingertips Part 2” rocket up the charts to No. 1.  Martha and the Vandellas made their mark with “Heat Wave,” a song with “irrepressibly joyous momentum” (p.197).  But the title could have referred equally to the rising intensity of the nationwide quest for racial justice and civil rights for African-Americans that summer.

      In June 1963, nine weeks before the 1963 March on Washington, Maraniss reminds us that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the outlines of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the end of a huge Detroit “Walk to Freedom” rally that took place almost exactly 20 years after a devastating racial confrontation between blacks and whites in wartime Detroit. The Walk drew an estimated 100,000 marchers, including a significant if limited number of whites. What King said that June 1963 afternoon, Maraniss writes, was “virtually lost to history, overwhelmed by what was to come, but the first time King dreamed his dream at a large public gathering, he dreamed it in Detroit” (p.182). Concerns about disorderly conduct and violence preceded both the Detroit Walk to Freedom and the March on Washington two months later. Yet, the two  events were for all practical purposes free of violence.  Just as the March on Washington energized King’s non-violent quest for Civil Rights nation-wide, the Walk to Freedom buoyed Detroit’s claim to be a model of racial justice in the urban north.

      In the Walk for Freedom and in the nationwide quest for racial justice, Walter Reuther was an unsung hero. Under Reuther’s leadership, the UAW made an “unequivocal moral and financial commitment to civil rights action and legislation” (p.126).   Once John Kennedy assumed the presidency, Reuther consistently pressed the administration to move on civil rights.  The White House in turn relied on Reuther to serve as a liaison to black civil rights leaders, especially to Dr. King and his southern desegregation campaign. The UAW functioned as what Maraniss  terms the “bank” (p.140) of the Civil Right movement, providing needed funding at critical junctures. To be sure, Maraniss emphasizes, not all rank-and-file UAW members shared Reuther’s passionate commitment to the Walk for Freedom, the March on Washington, or to the cause of civil rights for African-Americans.

     Even within Detroit’s black community, not all leaders supported the Walk for Freedom. Maraniss  provides a close look at the struggle between the Reverend C.L. Franklin and the Reverend Albert Cleage for control over the details of the March for Freedom and, more generally, for control over the direction of the quest for racial justice in Detroit. Reverend Franklin, Detroit’s “flashiest and most entertaining preacher” (p.12; also the father of singer Aretha, who somehow escaped Gordy’s clutches to perform for Columbia Records and later Atlantic), was King’s closest ally in Detroit’s black community. Cleage, whose church later became known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna, founded on the belief that Jesus was black, was not wedded to Dr. King’s brand of non-violence. Cleage sought to limit the influence of Reuther, the UAW and whites generally in the Walk for Freedom. Franklin was able to retain the upper hand in setting the terms and conditions for the June 1963 rally.  But the dispute between Reverends Franklin and Cleage reflected the more fundamental difference between black nationalism and Martin Luther King style integration, and was thus an “early formulation of a dispute that would persist throughout the decade” (p.232),

     In November of 1963, Cleage sponsored a conference that featured black nationalist Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grass Roots,” an important if less well known counterpoint to King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington in August of that year.  In tone and substance, Malcolm’s address “marked a break from the past and laid out a path for the black power movement to follow from then on” (p.279). Malcolm referred in his speech to the highly publicized police killing of prostitute Cynthia Scott the previous summer, which had generated outrage throughout Detroit’s black community and exacerbated long simmering tensions between the community and a police force that was more than 95% white.

     Scott’s killing “discombobulated the dynamics of race in the city. Any communal black and white sensibility resulting from the June 23 [Walk to Freedom] rally had dissipated, and the prevailing feeling was again us versus them” (p.229).  The tension between police and community did not abate when Police Commissioner George Edwards, a long standing liberal who enjoyed strong support within the black community, considered the Scott case carefully and ruled that the shooting was “regrettable and unwise . . . but by the standards of the law it was justified” (p.199).

      Then there was the contentious issue of a proposed Open Housing ordinance that would have forbidden property owners from refusing to sell their property on the basis of race. The proposed ordinance required passage from the city’s nine person City Council, elected at large in a city that was one-third black – no one on the council represented directly the city’s black neighborhoods. The proposal was similar in intent to future national legislation, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and had the enthusiastic support of Detroit’s progressive Mayor, Jerome Cavanaugh, a youthful Irish Catholic who deliberately cast himself as a mid-western John Kennedy.

      But the proposal evoked bitter opposition from white homeowner associations across the city, revealing the racial fissures within Detroit. “On one side were white homeowner groups who said they were fighting on behalf of individual rights and the sanctity and safety of their neighborhoods. On the other side were African American churches and social groups, white and black religious leaders, and the Detroit Commission on Community Relations, which had been established . . . to try to bridge the racial divide in the city” (p.242).   Notwithstanding the support of the Mayor and leaders like Reuther and Reverend Franklin, white homeowner opposition doomed the proposed ordinance. The City Council rejected the proposal 7-2, a stinging rebuke to the city’s self-image as a model of racial progress and harmony.

       Detroit’s failed bid for the 1968 Olympics was an equally stinging rebuke to the self-image of a city that loved sports as much as music. Detroit bested more glamorous Los Angeles for the right to represent the United States in international competition for the games. A delegation of city leaders, including Governor Romney and Mayor Cavanaugh, traveled to Baden Baden, Germany, where they made a well-received presentation to the International Olympic Committee. While Detroit was making its presentation, the Committee received a letter from an African American resident of Detroit who alluded to the Scott case and the failed Open Housing Ordinance to argue against awarding the games to the city on the ground that fair play “has not become a living part of Detroit” (p.262). Although bookmakers had made Detroit a 2-1 favorite for the 1968 games, the Committee awarded them to Mexico City. Its selection was based largely upon what Maraniss considers Cold War considerations, with Soviet bloc countries voting against Detroit. The delegation dismissed the view that the letter to the Committee might have undermined Detroit’s bid, but its actual effect on the Committee’s decision remains undetermined.

         Maraniss asks whether Detroit might have been able to better contain or even ward off the devastating 1967 riots had it been awarded the 1968 Olympic games. “Unanswerable, but worth pondering” is his response (p.271). In explaining the demise of Detroit, many, myself included, start with the 1967 riots which in a few short but violent days destroyed large swaths of the city, obliterating once solid neighborhoods and accelerating white flight to the suburbs.  But Maraniss emphasizes that white flight was already well underway long before the 1967 disorders. The city’s population had dropped from just under 1.9 million in the 1950 census to 1.67 million in 1960. In January of 1963, Wayne State University demographers published “The Population Revolution in Detroit,” a study which foresaw an even more precipitous emigration of Detroit’s working class in the decades ahead. The Wayne State demographers “predicted a dire future long before it became popular to attribute Detroit’s fall to a grab bag of Rust Belt infirmities, from high labor costs to harsh weather, and before the city staggered from more blows of municipal corruption and incompetence. Before any of that, the forces of deterioration were already set in motion” (p..91). Only a minor story in January 1963, the findings and projections of the Wayne State study in retrospect were of “startling importance and haunting prescience” (p.89).

* * *

      My high school classmates are likely to find Maraniss’ book a nostalgic trip down memory lane: his 18 month period begins with our senior year in a suburban Detroit high school and ends with our freshman college year — our own time of soaring youthful dreams, however unrealistic. But for those readers lacking a direct connection to the book’s time and place, and particularly for those who may still think of Detroit only as an urban basket case, Maraniss provides a useful reminder that it was not always thus.  He nails the point in a powerful sentence: “The automobile, music, labor, civil rights, the middle class – so much of what defines our society and culture can be traced to Detroit, either made there or tested there or strengthened there” (p.xii).  To this, he could have added, borrowing from Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 hit, “Dancing in the Streets,” that America can’t afford to forget the Motor City.


                   Thomas H. Peebles

Berlin, Germany

October 28, 2016


Filed under American Politics, American Society, United States History

Year of Liberal Unraveling


James T. Patterson, The Eve of Destruction:
How 1965 Transformed America

       James Patterson’s The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America addresses a distinction between the 1960s and the Sixties, the former being the decade that ended in 1969, whereas the latter refers to the divisive times we associate in the United States with anti-war protests, student radicalism, urban riots, racial conflict, changing mores and, for many, cultural degeneration. Patterson, professor emeritus at Brown University and a prolific writer on 20th century American history (not to be confused with the best-selling thriller author of the same name), finds the early 1960s to have been socially and culturally similar to the 1950s in the United States. He locates the start of the Sixties in the second half of 1965, past the halfway point of the 1960s. 1965 was a year of remarkable legislative accomplishment in the United States, under the banner of the Great Society. But 1965 also marked the point when a post-war liberal consensus began to unravel, and a half-decade or so of tumult and fractious disorder ensued.

       Patterson sees the unraveling as due above all to the significant, incremental and largely secretive escalation in the United States’ participation in the war in Vietnam in 1965, along with discord within the Civil Rights movement, as it moved beyond its original focus on desegregation and injustice in the American South to focus on full rights for all African-Americans throughout the country, North and South, and consequently began to lose widespread white support. In Patterson’s account, the major event setting off this counter-reaction – “white backlash” was the term often used at the time — was the disturbance in August of 1965 in the heavily African-American Watts neighborhood of south central Los Angeles. The outsized if flawed personality of President Lyndon B. Johnson dominates the book, as he dominated political life in the United States in 1965. But lurking in the background is Ronald Reagan and a conservative movement that was down at the time, but definitely not out. In addition to covering the main political events of 1965, Patterson strives to capture the social and cultural zeitgeist of the year in the United States, discussing films, television and, especially, popular music.

       Books abound about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the Johnson presidency. Patterson’s sources are almost exclusively derived from authors who have written in greater detail on these subjects, and his book is almost entirely about the United States. Even his discussions of Vietnam are mostly from a United States perspective. If there is an original contribution here, it may be his chronological approach within the year 1965 and his precision in dating the start of the Sixties to a two-week period in late July and early August 1965.

       On July 28, 1965, President Johnson announced a large and practically irrevocable escalation in the U.S. military commitment to Vietnam. Two days later, on the thirtieth, he signed the landmark Medicare/Medicaid act, one of the Great Society’s most significant social welfare measures, extending medical care to millions. On August 6, 1965, the equally significant Voting Rights Act became law, providing authority to the federal government to end voting rights discrimination against African Americans. Then, on the eleventh, the five-day rebellion erupted in Watts. “These were the most consequential days of 1965, the inaugural year of the Sixties” (p.191), Patterson writes. They represented the “high-water mark for postwar liberalism . . . never to rise again during Johnson’s presidency. It was not long before a considerably more divided and disputatious politics – a hallmark of the Sixties – would surge into view” (p.201).

* * *

       Patterson begins with President Johnson’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in December 1964. Coming of a landslide victory over conservative Barry Goldwater in the previous month’s presidential elections, Johnson proclaimed that Americans then lived in the “most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem . . . Today—as never before – man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth” (xiii-xiv). Johnson’s rhetoric now seems almost comically inflated, but Patterson notes that most Americans in December 1964 found the United States to be a “remarkably stable and confident place to live” (p.18). Johnson’s tree lighting message the following year would be more subdued, addressing a country noticeably less unified and confident of its future.

      Johnson idolized President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was determined to build a body of legislative achievement comparable to that of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In that, he largely succeeded. The legislative achievements of 1964 had included passage of an historic Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, housing and federally aided programs. Passage of an effective voting rights act, although a natural next step after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, seemed out of reach for 1965. Johnson nonetheless made clear in his 1964 Christmas message that he had extensive liberal legislation in mind for the upcoming year, calling for “passage of a huge bundle of programs he would urge on Congress in the coming months: an education bill that would aid disadvantaged public school students; a government effort (labeled Medicare) that would provide health care for the elderly via Social Security; laws to advance clean air, clean water, and the landscaping of highways; increased funding for the War on Poverty; repeal of . . . Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act – a goal of union leaders—and creation of a National Foundation on the Arts” (p.37).

       But Johnson was also a Cold War warrior, every bit as much as his post-World War II predecessors in the Oval Office, and saw the defense of South Vietnam’s independence as a test of American will to stand firm against international communism. Further, Johnson believed that each of his predecessors had committed the United States to preserving an independent South Vietnam. Driven by his conviction that the international credibility of the United States was at issue in Vietnam, Johnson worried that conservative Republicans such as Goldwater and Reagan would “savage him if he did not stand up to communism” (p.93). Further, Johnson thought he needed to remain steadfast in Vietnam to maintain Republican support for his ambitious Great Society agenda (yes, in those days, some Republicans supported a Democratic president’s legislative proposals).

      Patterson joins many others in demonstrating that Johnson made incremental decisions to escalate the war in Vietnam largely in secret, without informing the public. Johnson seemed to sense that the public would not support an enlarged war as a measure to confront international communist foes. He never accepted the recommendation of his advisors that he provide more information to the American public on what he intended to do in Vietnam. Throughout 1965, Johnson remained “secretive about his decisions and about the course of the war. But it was impossible to conceal everything that the United States was doing” (p.95).

      In late March 1965, Johnson authorized sending 3500 combat Marines to Vietnam and secretly granted a request to allow American soldiers to mount offensive operations. Three weeks later, Johnson — again secretly — ordered additional combat troops to be deployed to Vietnam, this time 40,000 — a “staggering escalation of American military might” (p.131). But the turning point came on June 7, when the head military officer on the ground in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, beseeched the President to send 93, 000 additional troops to prevent a collapse of South Vietnam, America’s ally. Westmoreland informed the President that the United States was “in for the long pull” and that he saw “no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war” (p.159). Johnson agonized over the request for some seven weeks until, on July 28, the day after the House of Representatives had passed the landmark Medicare/Medicaid bill, he officially authorized an additional 50,000 troops be deployed to Vietnam, hiking the overall U.S. commitment to 125,000 military personnel.

      Patterson characterizes the July 28th decision to send additional troops as the “most significant in terms of manpower of any that . . . [Johnson] had made to that time. And it had huge implications: it committed the United States to take over much of the fighting from the demoralized South Vietnamese” (p.173). Johnson made this “extraordinarily important decision” (p.172) after seriously consulting only a handful of senior officials. Advisor William Bundy said later that Johnson’s July 28th decision was the “end of debate on policy, and the beginning of a new debate on tactics and above all on presentation to the country” (p.170). Because he did not level with the public about the seriousness of the situation, Johnson “did not prepare them for sacrifices that would later be required. Imagining that Americans might tolerate ever-increasing costs and causalities, he overestimated the solidity of his popular support and the reverence of people for the presidency” (p.173). By year’s end, there were 184,000 troops in Vietnam, with 400,000 at the end of 1966.

        The public generally seemed to support Johnson’s war efforts throughout most of the year, although public support was “neither deep nor well-informed” (p.93). As the year progressed, however, protests against the war became ever more commonplace on college campuses. Many were based on the realpolitik principle that it was not in the interests of the United States to preserve the independence of a South Vietnamese regime widely seen as pervasively corrupt and ineffective. But protests also began to reflect what came to be known as the “New Left” viewpoint associated with the Sixties, which linked the Vietnam War explicitly to the “baneful influences of materialism, corruption and corporate liberalism” (p.232). The United States in the New Left view was an imperialist country in which the “insatiable appetites of American capitalism generated warlike policies” (p.97) – policies implemented by leaders who, as one New Left radical put it, “study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead” (p.232). More than any other event of 1965, Patterson concludes, American escalation in Vietnam “spurred the polarization that characterized the Sixties in the United States” (p.89).

       Interwoven with escalation of the Vietnam conflict as a source of polarization was the fracturing of what had been relative unity within the Civil Rights movement. Beginning in early 1965, Martin Luther King led a series of nationally televised marches in Selma, Alabama, seeking support for an effective Voting Rights Act, the complement to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On March 7, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” white law enforcement authorities in Selma assaulted some six hundred nonviolent civil rights marchers crossing a bridge on their way to demonstrate for voting rights at the state capital in Montgomery, battering the marchers with clubs, nightsticks, and electric cattle prods. Many marchers were hospitalized. The day’s violence, much of it televised nationally, provided the impetus for the politically elusive Voting Rights Act.

        Passed one week after the landmark Medicare/Medicaid bill, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was designed to correct what President Johnson described as a “clear and simple wrong.” It established mechanisms for abolishing literary tests as voting requirements. Section V of the Act – its “pre-clearance” provision — required governmental entities with a history of racial discrimination to secure “clearance” from the Department of Justice or special three-judge court in Washington, D.C., before making changes to voting procedures. But passage of the Voting Rights Act also occurred almost simultaneously with President Johnson’s nearly irrevocable decision to escalate the war in Vietnam and five days prior to the devastating riot that broke out in Watts.

       The Watts disorders, an “especially damaging blow to liberal dreams” (p.179), were a forerunner to a series of summer riots in African-American communities across the United States that took place in the immediately following years. For many, urban unrest such as that in Watts, came to be seen as an integral part of the Sixties, transforming the attitudes of many white Americans who had previously been sympathetic to the civil rights cause. The destruction of Watts and its political aftershocks “demoralized Johnson and left the once proud and luminously effective civil rights movement in a state of disarray from which it never recovered” (p.179).

       As 1965 progressed, but particularly in the aftermath of Watts, many African-Americans activists began “openly questioning the virtues of nonviolence and interracial cooperation” (p.225) and highlighting poverty and discriminatory conditions in African-American communities outside the South. The eloquence of Dr. King’s call for non-violent change was yielding to more strident voices, which did not rule out – and, in some instances, seemed to encourage – violence as a tool available in the struggle for social justice. Malcolm X personified this approach until he was assassinated in February 1965. Stokeley Carmichael, the Black Panthers and others picked up the message after Malcolm X’s death, directly challenging older, more traditional civil rights leaders such as King. The “fracturing and enfeebling of the nonviolent, interracial civil rights movement” (p.225) by the end of 1965 was the second far-reaching development marking the onset of the Sixties, Patterson contends.

     Critically, Patterson emphasizes, the new militancy within the Civil Rights movement and the specter of unrest in African-American communities not only undermined white support for civil rights but also engendered a conservative reaction, personified by a former actor, Ronald Reagan, who seemed to be angling to run for governor of California and perhaps seek national office. The 1966 mid-term elections, in which Republicans gained solid majorities in both houses of Congress, demonstrated that the once powerful clout of liberalism “was no more. Fallout from the pivotal events that had started to weaken it in mid and late 1965—above all, escalation in Vietnam and the disturbances at Watts – had seriously afflicted it, ushering in the more contentious political world that followed. The earliest of these more polarized years, extending from late 1965 into the early 1970s, are what should be remembered as the Sixties” (p.244).

        “The Eve of Destruction” makes an appropriate title to Patterson’s book, capturing well how progressives might now look back at 1965, a high water mark of post-war liberalism. Devastating urban riots would take place in numerous other American cities during the following years, including Detroit, my hometown, in 1967. United States military involvement in Vietnam would not end until 1973. No social legislation even approximating the significance of Medicare and Medicaid would pass into law until 2010, 45 years later, when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. Better known as Obamacare, the ACA seeks to guarantee heath care to working age persons and families. But conservatives opposed and attacked the ACA with a rancor and vehemence politically unthinkable at the time Medicare and Medicaid became law. Further, in 2013, the Supreme Court drastically undermined the Department of Justice’s “pre-clearance” authority under Section V of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had been one of the federal government’s most effective tools in guaranteeing voting rights to African-Americans in the American South. And Democrats, representing, however imperfectly, mainstream American liberalism, would go on to lose five of the next six presidential elections.

       But Patterson’s title comes from what he terms a “breakthrough rock song” (p.153) of that name, sung by Barry McGuire, formerly lead singer for the New Christy Minstrels. “The Eve of Destruction” was briefly the country’s number one popular song and ranked 29th on Billboard’s Top 100 for the year. With the sounds of bombs going off in the background, the song’s lyrics were “bitter, blunt and devastatingly bleak about contemporary events, predicting that all manner of terrible developments – war in Vietnam, racial tensions, nuclear weapons – were propelling the United States (and ‘the whole crazy world’) toward the apocalypse” (p.193-94). Like many songs that address political and social issues, “The Eve of Destruction” seemed to me at the time, and still seems, mostly like an opportunistic attempt to make money off important issues of the time. Perhaps because of his use of “Eve of Destruction” for his title, Patterson’s effort to capture the zeitgeist of 1965 concentrates on the year’s popular music, although he also covers the most popular television shows and movies of 1965.

* * *

       Patterson makes a convincing case that 1965 may be considered the beginning point for what we have come to know as the Sixties – perhaps even that they started in that fateful two week period between President Johnson’s no-turning-back decision to escalate United States’ involvement in the war in Vietnam on July 28 and the eruption in Watts on August 11.  Those readers who, like myself, lived through 1965 and the Sixties as young adults will find an instructive summation of the momentous year — in my case, with the exception of popular music, mostly a reminder of what I missed. Those too young to remember the period should also benefit from Patterson’s analysis of a year whose repercussions are still very much with us today, a full half-century later.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
August 29, 2015


Filed under American Politics, American Society, Politics

Livelong Activism and Anger at American Injustice


Jeanne Theoharris, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

            In the winter of 2013, I reviewed Douglas Brinkley’s succinct Rosa Parks: A Life, under the title “Civil Civil Rights Activist.” I was therefore intrigued when I learned that Jeanne Theoharris had written another biography of this remarkable woman, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Theoharris aims for comprehensiveness in a way that Brinkley does not. She reveals far more about Parks’ engagement in the quest for social justice in the United States, both before and after that fateful day in December 1955 when Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white person, thereby triggering the Montgomery bus boycott, which in many ways triggered the modern civil rights movement. Much of Parks’ life after the boycott was spent in Detroit, Michigan, where she worked for Congressman John Conyers and confronted Northern racism. Unlike other works on Parks, Theoharris’s book explores in depth her Detroit years. Readers who share my enthusiasm for the Motor City, that soon-to-be-once-again-great industrial center, will find the latter portions of Theorharris’ book particularly captivating.

            Like Brinkley, Theoharris recoils from the sentimental image of Rosa Parks as a fed-up seamstress who one day had had enough and spontaneously decided to take a stand against Montgomery’s rigidly oppressive bus segregation. Theoharris considers this view a “romantic fable” (p.x) and “gendered caricature” (p.xiii), which reduces Parks’ significance to a single act of conscience while ignoring her “lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice” (p.ix). Theoharris drives this point home by starting with Parks’ funeral in 2005, a short time after Hurricane Katrina.

              In an effort to “cover up the federal travesty of inaction around Hurricane Katrina two months earlier,” national leaders cast Parks as the “nonthreatening heroine of a movement that had run its course” (p.241), Theoharris argues. The view of Parks which emerged at her burial was of a “self-sacrificing mother figure for a nation who would use her death for a ritual of national redemption” (p.ix). Parks’ funeral “communicated a lesson on the history of American progress and the end of racism . . . [with racism] cast as an aberrant flaw rather than a constitutive element of American democracy – that, once recognized, had been eliminated” (p.242). Contemporary vestiges of racial discrimination, such as “[p]ersistent educational inequality, widening economic disparities, skyrocketing incarceration rates for people of color, unending wars, and rampant racial and religious profiling” were implicitly cast aside as matters “very different from the clear wrong that Parks had protested, despite the fact that the actual Rosa Parks and many of her colleagues had spent a lifetime trying to address them” (p.243).

            The sentimental version of Parks may well be part of an effort to convince ourselves that the ugly history of American racism should now be considered a closed chapter (after Ferguson, is there anyone who really believes that?). But Theoharris locates the origins of this version of Parks in the Montgomery bus boycott movement itself. For strategic reasons, at a time when many Americans associated the civil rights movement with communism, the male leadership of the boycott cleverly developed and exploited this version to demonstrate the wholesomeness and genuineness of the movement. Yet, that same leadership, which included a galvanizing 25 year old pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rarely if ever allowed Parks to speak for the movement. As Theoharris puts it, Parks was “lauded by the crowd as their heroine but not consulted for her vision of the struggle and subsequent political strategy” (p.93).

           In this highly-readable, wide-ranging biography, Theoharris demonstrates that the exploitation of Parks was made possible by Park’s bedrock character. Through deeds and by example more than by words, Rosa Parks managed throughout her life to be conciliatory yet uncompromising, serving repeatedly as a bridge between competing factions and visions.

* * *

              Rosa McCauley was born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, the granddaughter of slaves on both sides of her family. Her father left her mother and younger brother Sylvester when Rosa was very young. She was raised by her single mother, in a home that also included her grandparents and a great-grandfather – a home both “full of love” (p.3) and very mindful of social inequities. “Steeped in political thought from an earlier age,” Theoharris writes, Rosa’s family “exposed her to a sense of black pride. From an early age, she knew ‘we were not free’” (p.4). In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, whom Parks described as the “first real activist” she had met. The “appreciation for race pride and activism that she had learned at home came to fruition in her relationship with Raymond Parks. He was the love of her life” (p.14). The couple’s wedding took place as Raymond was actively organizing to save the Scottsboro nine, young men aged twelve to nineteen falsely accused of raping two white women. Throughout her life, Parks was also a “staunch and devout Christian” who saw “no contradiction between religious belief and political militancy. Serving God necessitated collective action to address the needs of her fellow men and women. To Mrs. Parks, God stood with the oppressed and did not take kindly to complacency” (p.179).

             Parks’ early life provides good insight into what might be termed the “pre-Civil Rights era.” This was an era when, with little national attention, the foundation was being established for an attack on racial segregation in the American South. Parks played a major, and largely uncredited, role in establishing that foundation. She served as secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP and was active in other organizations that attacked segregation, frontally and indirectly. But working as an activist in the 1940s meant “working without any indication that your efforts would be realized in your lifetime,” Theoharris observes (p.18). During this time, Parks was closely associated with the dynamic yet enigmatic E.D. Nixon, head of the Montgomery NAACP.

                A fascinating figure who is likely someday to be himself the subject of a biography, Nixon was once described as “Gandhi with guns” (p.20). Nixon was decidedly working class in background and outlook and Montgomery’s substantial middle class African-American community looked upon him as a rabble-rouser. The NAACP was then a middle-class black enclave, and there was much tension between the Montgomery’s NAACP chapter and its head. Given her non-confrontational personality, the mistrust accorded to Nixon by Montgomery’s middle-class African Americans did not rub off on Parks. Although from a working class background herself, Parks was often the bridge between middle and working class African Americans in Montgomery in the 1940s and 1950s. Nixon was one of Parks’ greatest champions over the next decades, but his views about the proper roles for women did not include them being visible leaders. “Women don’t need to be nowhere but in the kitchen,” he once told Parks (p.28). Nixon “did not fully acknowledge Parks’s intellectual talents and political acumen, which shaped how he envisioned the roles she should play,” (p.29) Theoharris concludes.

                In the summer of 1955, Nixon arranged for Parks to attend a two-week workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee on desegregating public schools in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which had held public school segregation unconstitutional. Highlander was a fully integrated social justice training center which was beginning to focus on civil rights after years of work on behalf of labor unions and the working poor, particularly Appalachian whites. The experience at Highland that summer was transformative for Parks, allowing her to see the need for desegregation in Montgomery as part of a global movement for human rights. It was also one of the few times, she remarked, when she “did not feel any hostility from white people” (p.40). Parks maintained her connections with Highlander for the rest of her life.

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            Parks was not the first to challenge Montgomery’s bus policies. A bus boycott in 1900 had forced the city to change its policy so that no rider had to surrender a seat unless another was available, although this policy was routinely breached. There were numerous other instances of bus resistance and disruption in Montgomery, which Parks was fully familiar with. The notion that Parks was the “first – or even third — to resist or that she made her bus stand impulsively misses her familiarity with the many instances and dangers of bus resistance, and the considerable thought she had given to the matter” (p.49).

                Earlier in 1955, Claudette Colvin, a feisty fifteen year old, refused to cede her seat and was arrested, setting off a short-lived, Nixon-led bus boycott and fueling anger throughout Montgomery’s African-American community. Colvin’s case went to trial, where she was convicted not for refusing to respect Montgomery’s bus policies but for “assault” of the three policemen who arrested her, thereby precluding an appeal of the bus policies. Nixon did not consider Colvin quite the right person to build a campaign around. She was too young and “uncontrollable” (p.57) – she became pregnant by an older man shortly after the bus confrontation. Yet activist lawyer Fred Gray later commented that, without taking anything away from Rosa Parks, “Claudette gave all of us the moral courage to do what we did” (p.54).

             The bus which Parks boarded on December 1, 1955 was initially not crowded, and Parks took a seat in a middle row, an area of four seats in theory open to either race. But by the third stop, the bus had filled and there were no vacant seats for a boarding white passenger. When driver James Blake demanded that the four blacks seated in the middle row move so the single white person could be seated, three of the four blacks moved to the back of the bus. Parks did not move. Thereupon ensued one of the most famous dialogues in American history. Blake asked Parks: “Are you going to stand up,” to which Parks responded, “No.” When Blake said, “Well I am going to have you arrested,” Parks stoically retorted, “You may do that” (p.63-64).

                 This confrontation is the centerpiece of Brinkley’s book. “Her majestic use of ‘may’ rather than ‘can’,” Brinkley argues, put Parks “on the high ground, establishing her as a protester, not a victim . . . And her formal dignified ‘No,’ uttered on a suppertime bus in the cradle of the Confederacy as darkness fell, ignited the collective ‘no’ of black history in America, a defiance as liberating as John Brown’s on the gallows in Harper’s Ferry” (Brinkley, p.107). Theoharris is less melodramatic, but describes Parks’ response to Blake as a “deeply political, principled act by a woman who well knew the danger of bus resistance. In her bravery, other people would find theirs as well” (p.71).

          Parks was arrested but, through Nixon’s efforts she was quickly released on $100 bail. Nixon saw Parks’ resistance as the opportunity he had been waiting for to launch a direct attack on bus segregation. Parks was the ideal person to build a movement around: “middle-aged, religious, of good character, known and respected in the community for her political work and brave” (p.72). But building the boycott around Parks demanded publicizing a strategic public image of her which obscured her longstanding political activity. This strategic image as a “good Christian woman and tired seamstress” proved “pivotal to the success of the boycott because it helped deflect Cold War suspicions about grassroots militancy” (p.83). The “seeds of the ‘simple tired seamstress’ myth” — the “romantic fable” and “gendered caricature” which Theoharris deplores — were thus “planted in the early days of the boycott to mitigate the repressive atmosphere of the Cold War” (p.84).

           To the surprise of the boycott’s leadership, nearly 100% of Montgomery’s African-American community participated in the protest. The boycott relied upon car pools, which “powerfully drew together Montgomery’s various economic and social classes” (p.95) within its African-American community. Women were the backbone of the boycott, as walkers, drivers, organizers and fund-raisers, although the leadership visible to the public was all male.

                Throughout the bus boycott, Nixon clashed openly with Dr. King, then a newcomer to Montgomery. Some of the conflict was due to the class tension that divided Montgomery’s African-American community; some was due to the natural tendency to be offended by attention afforded to others during a deeply-felt, highly emotional series of activities. Nixon “resented the ways the young King received all the credit and adulation for the movement at the expense of other leaders” (p.138). King, though, was already a charismatic personality who gave the boycott pizzazz and clout.

            The impact that King’s emerging leadership had on Montgomery’s black community in those first months, Theoharris writes, was “hard to capture. Nearly everyone – Parks especially – thrilled to the amazing good fortune at having this bold young minister who was making the community proud” (p.105). If there was tension between Nixon and King, none of it affected King’s relationship with Parks. Parks plainly admired the mesmerizing young preacher and she and King formed a tight relationship that would last until King’s death in the following decade. But King, too, “gendered” Parks, to use Theoharris’ formulation, keeping her in secondary and auxiliary roles as the boycott moved on.

           The boycott crippled financially the private bus company, which blamed Montgomery’s local government. Whites were surprised by the extent and intensity of the grievances. Many were convinced that the Communist Party was behind the protest. The boycott came to an end over a year later when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Browder v. Gayle, a civil suit directly challenging the constitutionality of Montgomery’s segregated bus policies, filed by four other female African-American bus riders. The case represented Nixon’s “second front” in the Montgomery bus boycott. For tactical reasons, Nixon and the boycott leadership determined that Parks would not be a plaintiff in the suit. In Browder, the Supreme Court affirmed a decision of the Alabama federal district court, which had held unconstitutional racial segregation on Montgomery’s buses. On December 20, 1956, 382 days after the boycott had begun, a “community that had walked and walked and carpooled for more than a year stepped aboard the bus and sat where they pleased” (p.134).

                But the immediate aftermath of the boycott was not a happy period for Parks. She lost her job as a seamstress in a Montgomery department store and had great difficulty finding gainful employment. Her strong work habits and non-threatening personality were not nearly enough to overcome the stigma she bore among Montgomery’s white economic leaders, who had neither forgotten nor forgiven her role in the boycott. Further, Raymond lost his job as a barber and lapsed into serious drinking which further exacerbated the couple’s financial problems (the couple had no children).

* * *

              Given their financial uncertainties, Rosa and Raymond moved to Detroit in 1957, where Rosa’s brother Sylvester had lived since the end of World War II. The Parks were spared some of the indignities in Detroit which segregated Montgomery imposed on African-Americans every day. But Parks reached the conclusion quite early in her time in Detroit that African-Americans there too were second class citizens. Detroit was the “Northern promised land that wasn’t” (p.166), Parks concluded. Housing was at least as segregated as it had been in Alabama, police were at least equally brutal, if perhaps a bit more subtle in their brutality, and a wide swath of jobs was off limits to African-Americans.

               Parks and her husband continued to struggle economically in Detroit, but the couple turned the corner in March 1965 when Parks became the local office manager for another rising African-American star, Congressman, John Conyers, today the senior member of the Congressional black caucus. Parks served Conyers loyally for more than 20 years, but nonetheless remained in what Theoharris terms a “gender-appropriate role, answering phones, handling constituent needs, welcoming visitors, and coordinating the office” (p.182). In addition to these standard services which go with any home congressional office, Parks was also able to pursue many of the activist causes which both she and her boss supported – and get paid for it. Parks thus became a quiet but powerful force in Detroit for many of the same issues of social justice which Conyers was working on in Washington.

                    Parks lived through some of Detroit’s most trying moments, none more so than the July 1967 riots, probably the worst of the riot-filled 1960s, which started only a few blocks from Parks’ home and destroyed large chunks of the city. Parks attributed the origins of the riots to the “long history of white resistance to civil rights demands and rising anger among black youth” (p.195). The riots accelerated the movement of Detroit’s white working class families to the suburbs and started the city on a steep decline that continued into the 21st century. Returning to those horrific days was a heartbreaking experience for me. To this day, I remember vividly listening to the evening sniper fire while sitting on the back porch of my parents’ comfortable suburban home, only a few short miles from the violence.

               Parks’ first decade in Detroit coincided with significant changes in the African American rights movement across the country. The eloquence of Dr. King’s call for non-violent change was yielding to more strident voices, which did not rule out – and, in some instances, seemed to encourage – violence as a tool available in the struggle for social justice. Malcolm X personified this new approach, until he was assassinated in 1965. Stokeley Carmichael, the Black Panthers and others picked up the torch after Malcolm X’s death. Another indication of Park’s unusually conciliatory personality is that she managed to have good relations with both camps, the newer and younger militants, with their harder edges, and the more traditional, religious, integrationist, non-violent activists whom King led until he was assassinated in 1968. Parks saw “no contradiction in her deep admiration for King and Malcolm X” (p.207), Theoharris writes. Refusing to characterize the calls for black power movement as a perversion of the traditional civil rights movement, Parks was “not afraid of ruining her reputation or getting in trouble, as some black leaders of her generation would feel about associating with these young militants” (p.204).

               King’s assassination in 1968 deepened Parks’despair over the deep roots of racism in America. By the late 1960s, Parks had become an “elder stateswoman in the vast and diverse black freedom struggle.” Like King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and Betty Shabazz, Malcom X’s widow, Parks stayed “above the ideological fray to support a broad range of mobilizations” (p.217). In Parks’ later years, she was ignobly mugged in her home by a young black man, prompting commentators to “bemoan the decline of a new generation of black youth” (p.233). Parks’ mugging “served as a convenient metaphor for the degraded values of a new generation” (p.233), Theoharris observes.

* * *

                  Theoharris also describes one priceless scene that occurred in the same time frame as Parks’ mugging, when Nelson Mandela visited Detroit in 1990, just a few months after his release from Robben Island prison. Parks was a late addition to the dignitaries invited onto the tarmac to welcome Mandela as he deplaned (one can only imagine the other Detroit dignitaries jockeying for position on that tarmac). Although the two had never previously met, Mandela recognized Parks instantly. “Ro-sa Parks! Ro-sa Parks,” he shouted as he made a direct line for her. Then, the “two freedom fighters embraced” (p.231). How I wish I could have witnessed that embrace: African man, African-American woman, both having led lives that changed countless other lives and transformed the societies in which they lived.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
March 28, 2015


Filed under American Politics, American Society, United States History