Harvard Sitkoff was writing about the "long civil rights movement" before it was cool to do so or at least before the pre-Brown struggle for racial equality acquired this label. In Toward Freedom Land, Sitkoff, professor emeritus of history at the University of New Hampshire, presents snapshots from a career that brought renewed attention to race relations in the 1930s and 1940s. Taken together, the ten journal articles and book excerpts demonstrate that Sitkoff 's pioneering work on black activism and racial politics helped lay the groundwork for those who would later identify the 1930s and 1940s as crucial to the movement that would grow in the years after World War II.
Sitkoff opens with an introduction that sets his scholarship in the context of his upbringing in the world of New York City Jewish immigrants, where political debates were a regular feature of life in his home and helped him learn to express—and defend—his own emerging progressive views. After attending Queens College, he undertook graduate work at Columbia, interrupting his studies there [End Page 128] for a brief sojourn in the South to support the civil rights movement. Upon his return to Columbia, he was thrilled to find that the revisionist New Left history then developing would allow him to marry his social-justice concerns with his interest in African American history. As he puts it, "Nothing pleased me more than being a cog in an academic machine contesting the consensus viewpoint of our teachers" (p. 6). This inclination to go against the grain has defined his scholarship.
His contrariness is in full display in these selections. In two chapters on the New Deal, he calls attention, first, to important structural changes in the American economy that helped advance the cause of black rights and, second, to Roosevelt's contributions, however meager or half-hearted, to the burgeoning civil rights struggle. While he fully affirms the primary role black activism played in effecting racial change in this and subsequent eras, he insists that one must recognize the other forces that shaped and prefigured the modern movement. In two chapters on the impact of World War II on the civil rights struggle, he argues that, rather than inspiring new levels of black militancy and activism, as many historians held, the racial hostilities and violence that characterized the war years served to suppress black activism and to channel it out of the streets and into the more palatable—to potential white allies—world of the courtrooms and legislatures. And in his chapter on the election of 1948, Sitkoff highlights Truman's at best strategic commitment to civil rights to challenge the position that Cold-War liberals were supportive of racial equality, a view that had informed the scholarship of the consensus historians but which was coming under attack from revisionist historians.
The collection is organized chronologically by subject matter rather than publication date. While this allows the book to move linearly from the Great Depression and New Deal to the latter days of the 1960s civil rights movement, it obscures the trajectory of his scholarship. He did not simply begin his career working on the 1930s and move forward from there. Rather, his early work focused on World War II and the 1940s—his first published article was on the 1943 Detroit race riot—and only in the late 1970s did he publish his [End Page 129] seminal work on the New Deal years. Nonetheless, Toward Freedom Land allows the reader to take the full measure of Sitkoff 's contributions to the study of African American and civil rights history. Moreover, as a career retrospective, it shows that Sitkoff has never shied away from challenging historiographical conventions or, for that matter, his own earlier interpretations. Indeed, he considers such criticism to be central to the historians' work, and he clearly relishes this role. "I'm still hopeful and vigorously argumentative," he writes here. "Still irreverent as ever, I aim to rile" (p. 9). This collection is a...