- The Lost Decade of Civil Rights
Historians have long assumed and asserted far too much continuity in the story of race and rights since the Civil War. While nobody can deny that the story stretches back to European slavers’ first contacts in Africa—indeed back before then—most scholars overemphasize the industrial-age American continuities. They turn these continuities into pet abstractions, labeled roughly Left vs. Right and black vs. white. Such sharp, Manichean distinctions land increasingly off target in post-World-War II American efforts to characterize the ideological and demographic divisions that animate political action. I will offer here a brief argument for discontinuity between the 1960s and 1970s, where, I believe, the assumption of continuity shows the greatest strain. Scholars who blithely insist that racist backlash simply became more “subtle” and switched parties have been unable to admit that civil rights protesters and their closest allies changed their basic goals and strategies after their radical victories of the mid-1960s. The activists on that side of the struggle—the good guys—are just as responsible as the unreconstructed reactionaries for the unsettled state of racial politics since the 1960s.
Of the many surprises in racial politics from the 1960s to the 1970s, perhaps the most fundamental change is that the two major goals of the post-World War II civil rights movement, electoral power and desegregation, came into sudden conflict.
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It is easy to forget how profoundly the right to vote affected the movement. One fact, a startling one from the perspective of today, may serve as an index of just how little electoral power African Americans had in the 1950s: the most popular elected black leader during Martin Luther King’s heyday was Joseph H. Jackson, head of the National Baptist Convention, the largest historically black denomination, and reputedly the largest black organization, period. (Recent membership is estimated to be about a third of black churchgoers or about a quarter to a fifth of the total black population.)1 Bitter public conflict broke out between King and Jackson, but that did not seem to affect Jackson’s position: from 1953 to 1982 he kept getting reelected to his post.2 The famous story about Joseph Jackson is that he changed the address of his Olivet Baptist Church, the oldest historically black church in Chicago, from 3101 South Park Blvd. to an address around the corner on 31st St., after Mayor Daley renamed his street Martin Luther King Drive in 1969. Jackson did not want any envelope addressed to him to have King’s name on it. (The facts in the story are true, though as far as I know, Jackson never commented publicly on the motive attributed to him. Today Mt. Olivet is officially back on King Drive.) The civil rights movement has too long been viewed as a mobilization of “the” black church: it was just as often a rebellion against established authority within black churches.
Until 1970 or so, electoral power and desegregation were part of the same civil rights strategy. But as re-enfranchisement produced large numbers of black elected officials, the two quests began to diverge. People who rejoiced when black candidates won elections saw suburban annexation as a strategy to dilute black voting power. Accordingly, they opposed annexation. Those who sought to save the desegregation of schools and housing from white flight, on the other hand, saw annexation as a good thing. The fork in the strategic road was only one mark of the fundamental change in the civil rights movement after the mid 1960s.
Having won dramatic victories in the 1960s, civil rights veterans in the 1970s, like abolitionists and Radical Republicans in the 1880s, searched for new moral crusades. Chicago’s “other reverend Jackson”—as Jesse was known—thought he found his new crusade in April 1973. “Abortion is genocide,” Jesse Jackson declared a few months after the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision. He added that Medicaid funding...