Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South by Gavin Wright (review)
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Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South. By Gavin Wright. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2013. Pp 368. $35.00 cloth)

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provide the foundation for Gavin Wright’s study of the economic [End Page 324] results of what he calls the civil rights revolution; Wright says these laws were “watershed moments that reshaped all subsequent events in southern history” (p. 19). Focusing on four areas—public accommodations, labor markets, school desegregation, and voting rights—Wright explores how vigorously enforced federal laws contributed to the economic transformation of the South. Sharing the Prize enriches our understanding of how much the South changed after 1965.

Several of the themes in the book challenge current approaches to southern history and the history of the modern civil rights movement. Wright argues that southern distinctiveness did not diminish as a result of the civil rights revolution. Instead it continued, even as the region began to catch up and in some cases surpass other parts of the nation economically. The migration of African Americans back to the South is a key piece of evidence that supports the author’s regional approach. Wright notes that the timing of this migration reversal “was directly related to new job opportunities. …Since 1970 net black migration has been persistently southward, increasingly so over time. Between 1985 and 2010 more than one and a half million African Americans moved south from all other regions of the country” (p. 142). Another theme is the significant role that an engaged and active federal government played in compelling white southerners to accept their black neighbors in public spaces, jobs, schools, and voting booths. Sharing the Prize takes a top down approach in assessing the role of the government in these changes, using evidence from census data, Supreme Court decisions, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports, lower federal court cases, and economic studies to demonstrate the many ways the federal government supported this revolution. A third theme is that the economic gains made through the enforcement of civil rights laws did not come at the expense of white southerners; a final theme is the study’s focus on the urban South. The majority of the evidence highlights the many ways people living in cities and their suburbs benefited economically from the end of Jim Crow—Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Dallas, Durham, and Richmond are featured. [End Page 325]

This work’s approach has some limitations because it focuses almost exclusively on the positive economic aspects of the civil rights revolution. The author notes that he wants to document “meaningful economic gains in historical context. In essence, historical context means relative to conditions and trends prior to the protests of the 1960s and the legislation of 1964 and 1965” (p. 261). This definition of historical context combined with a top-down method means evidence from the grassroots does not inform the argument, which ultimately limits the scope of its analysis. To understand the economic results of the demise of Jim Crow is important, but southern history after 1965 does not fit so neatly into the separate categories of this study. Economics, politics, and culture overlap, and neglecting the space where all three intersect makes the book’s conclusions too optimistic. For instance, when discussing federal enforcement of Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which integrated public spaces, Wright reports positively that, “According to an October 1964 survey of 53 cities in 19 states, desegregation had been accomplished in more than two-thirds of hotels, motels, chain restaurants, theaters, and sports facilities, as well as public bars and libraries. A few well-publicized enforcement cases aroused intense interest for a relatively brief period, but then, as Muse reports, ‘as a matter of active national concern it receded into history’” (p. 97).

Although it is true that white southerners eventually accepted racial integration in public places, there were long-term political consequences to the white southern reaction against integration that had a negative economic impact. Lester Maddox, for example, built a political career fueled by his anger of having to...