Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement by Steve Estes (review)
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Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement. By Steve Estes. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 232 pages. Hardcover, $29.95.

Over the last few decades, historians have churned out a wealth of community studies probing the ways in which the civil rights movement played out across the spectrum of American localities. In this welcome study, Steve Estes examines the progression of race relations in Charleston throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. At the heart of his work stands a sobering reminder of "the ways in which the city and region have not changed as much as civil rights activists once hoped and dreamed" (2-3). Estes keeps this lesson in mind, leading readers on a winding and informative tour through the highs and lows of the port city's recent history. [End Page 450]

As Estes notes, the civil rights movement in Charleston was as much a struggle to eradicate institutional racism as it was a battle to dissolve the thick layer of paternalism that defined black-white relations in the region. Charleston's tight embrace of the paternalistic ethos helped its residents avoid the violence that accompanied campaigns in Birmingham and Selma. The "Charleston Movement," which peaked during the summer of 1963 only to flare up again six years later, was a much more disciplined and low-key affair compared to the pitched battles of the Deep South. During the movement's heyday in the early 1960s, the threat of continued demonstrations secured commitments from over one hundred white businesses to desegregate and form a biracial committee to discuss the city's racial issues. While not a total victory for activists, the concessions seemed to signal the impending death of Jim Crow in Charleston, as the end of summer brought order back to the city.

Charleston remained somewhat dormant until 1969, when black staff members of the Medical College of South Carolina attempted to unionize after years of mistreatment and low pay. After receiving a cool response from the college president, more than three hundred workers walked off the job, sparking a ninety-nine-day strike that succeeded in winning several concessions from the hospital administration. After the dust had settled, those involved understood the mixed legacy of the strike. Lacking official recognition or collective bargaining power, the union withered, eventually disbanding in 1972. Outside the calculus of success or failure, however, the strike served as a high-water mark of "political consciousness and empowerment for black Charlestonians," as well as the pinnacle of a movement spanning decades, backwards and forwards (34).

Like other historians of the "long civil rights movement," Estes takes his story into the years following the Civil Rights Act, showing the incremental and conflicted nature of progress in Charleston. Estes's remaining pages comprise a series of biographies and case studies of flashpoints in the fields of labor, education, and politics. With each chapter, Estes stretches the typical narrative of the post-civil rights South by presenting characters that are anything but ordinary. Examples include the city's first black (and Jewish) police chief, Reuben Greenberg, who broke down barriers by ascending to the top of his field, only to embrace the racially charged "tough on crime" rhetoric of the Reagan era, and longtime mayor Joe Riley, who spent several decades promoting racial moderation while crafting his own particular brand of probusiness centrist liberalism.

To construct his monograph, Estes relies heavily on over fifty oral interviews, because of the relatively scant archival holdings for the post-civil rights period. He is mindful, however, to round out his source base with a diverse collection of written documents, and he consistently analyzes his own interviews before making any claims. Estes also does an admirable job of distancing himself [End Page 451] from his own personal history as a longtime Charleston resident in order to ask difficult questions and draw measured conclusions about the city's racial progress. Through Estes's work, one can see the protracted and complex legacy of Charleston's post-civil rights era. Peaceful desegregation in the 1960s gave way to class-based resegregation in the...


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