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Grassroots at the Gateway

Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75

Clarence Lang

Publication Year: 2009

This is a theoretically sophisticated and thoroughly documented historical case study of the movements for African American liberation in St. Louis. Through detailed analysis of black working class mobilization from the depression years to the advent of Black Power, award-winning historian Clarence Lang describes how the advances made in earlier decades were undermined by a black middle class agenda that focused on the narrow aims of black capitalists and politicians. The book is a major contribution to our understanding of the black working class insurgency that underpinned the civil rights and Black Power campaigns of the twentieth century. ---V. P. Franklin, University of California, Riverside "A major work of scholarship that will transform historical understanding of the pivotal role that class politics played in both civil rights and Black Power activism in the United States. Clarence Lang's insightful, engagingly written, and well-researched study will prove indispensable to scholars and students of postwar American history." ---Peniel Joseph, Brandeis University Breaking new ground in the field of Black Freedom Studies, Grassroots at the Gateway reveals how urban black working-class communities, cultures, and institutions propelled the major African American social movements in the period between the Great Depression and the end of the Great Society. Using the city of St. Louis in the border state of Missouri as a case study, author Clarence Lang undermines the notion that a unified "black community" engaged in the push for equality, justice, and respect. Instead, black social movements of the working class were distinct from---and at times in conflict with---those of the middle class. This richly researched book delves into African American oral histories, records of activist individuals and organizations, archives of the black advocacy press, and even the records of the St. Louis' economic power brokers whom local black freedom fighters challenged. Grassroots at the Gateway charts the development of this race-class divide, offering an uncommon reading of not only the civil rights movement but also the emergence and consolidation of a black working class. Clarence Lang is Assistant Professor in African American Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Photo courtesy Western Historical Manuscript Collection, University of Missouri, St. Louis

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Class : Culture


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List of Abbreviations

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pp. viii-ix

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pp. 1-16

In the midsummer of 1964, St. Louis’s Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) picketed the construction site of the Gateway Arch monument, protesting the exclusion of African Americans from the skilled building trades involved in the publicly supported Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Demanding a fair share of jobs for black workers, two activists ...

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1. A Black Working-Class Public, 1932–39

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pp. 17-42

Disembarking at St. Louis’s teeming Union Station, black migrants from Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and rural Missouri encountered a stable black community that had developed remarkably during slavery and matured rapidly after its demise. Waves of newcomers in the second and third decades of the twentieth century had also dramatically remade the city’s ...

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2. The St. Louis March on Washington and the Historic Bloc for “Double Victory,” 1942–45

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pp. 43-68

The black working-class political bloc that had arisen during the Depression was further reified in the new wartime crisis raging in Europe. As the United States joined the campaign against the Axis powers of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan, an industrial renaissance occurred on the domestic front. Many aspects of the local economy allowed ...

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3. Black Working-Class Demobilization and Liberal Interracialism, 1946–54

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pp. 69-96

By 1946, following British prime minister Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, the United States and Soviet Union had emerged as rival world powers. Under the administration of Missourian Harry S. Truman, this simmering Cold War generated an American security state to contain the spread of Communism. Mass U.S. labor unrest ...

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4. Grassroots Renewal and the “Heroic” Period, 1956–61

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pp. 97-126

In June 1954, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the St. Louis Board of Education voted to integrate its schools, and a number of historically black institutions, including the Booker T. Washington Vocational School, closed. By June 1953, CORE could boast of thirty-four previously all-white eateries that had ended Jim ...

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5. Black Freedom at the Crossroads of Automation and De Facto Racism, 1962–64

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pp. 127-154

When Jordan Chambers died in August 1962, he had recently won the primary race for reelection as constable. Having held the Nineteenth Ward committeeman’s seat since 1938, he was the oldest member of the city’s Democratic Central Committee, and the key broker of black electoral cohesion. The black vote, constituting 40 percent of the local Democratic Party’s ...

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6. The Jefferson Bank Boycott and the “General Strike” against Racism, 1963–64

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pp. 155-185

Departing by bus from the NAACP and NALC headquarters, three hundred St. Louisans began a twenty-hour journey on August 27, 1963, to attend the D.C. March for Jobs and Freedom. Margaret Bush Wilson and Ernest Calloway sat among the four busloads of travelers, as did leading members of the city’s white religious, human rights, and ecumenical com-...

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7. “What Do We Want?”: Black Power and the Growing Contradictions of Class, 1965–71

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pp. 186-216

The passage of the1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights acts were vividly symbolic of the movement’s many triumphs, but they also unraveled the tenuous consensus that had fastened together the national civil rights coalition of the SCLC, NAACP, SNCC, CORE, and the Urban League. The already strained relations between SNCC and CORE on the ...

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8. Broken Bloc: “Law and Order,” the New Right, and Racial Uplift Redux, 1968–75

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pp. 217-244

Despite black power’s contradictory class character, its popular association with communal insurrections was indicative of “the issue of black poverty and unemployment” that had become the central domestic crisis of the 1960s. Since 1950 a large swath of the black working class had become a “semiproletariat” barely suspended above permanent unemployment. ...

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pp. 245-254

At the end of the 1970s, “St. Louis was clearly the patron saint of the nation’s urban crisis” that for many residents in the surrounding county epitomized the danger and dysfunction of urban life. In 1980, two sociologists ranked it one of the nation’s most depressed cities, as measured by housing stock, per capita income, and degree of population decline. By then, ...


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pp. 255-304


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pp. 305-324


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pp. 142-345

E-ISBN-13: 9780472026548
E-ISBN-10: 0472026542
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472050659
Print-ISBN-10: 0472050656

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 11 B&W photos
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Class : Culture
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OCLC Number: 698586694
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Grassroots at the Gateway

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Subject Headings

  • Saint Louis (Mo.) -- History -- 20th century.
  • Saint Louis (Mo.) -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Saint Louis (Mo.) -- Race relations.
  • African Americans -- Missouri -- Saint Louis -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Missouri -- Saint Louis -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- Missouri -- Saint Louis -- History -- 20th century.
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