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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 663-670
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Civil Rights Made Harder
John P. Jackson, Jr. Social Scientists for Social Justice: Making the Case Against Segregation. New York: New York University Press, 2001. xii + 291 pp. Notes, select bibliography, and index. $45.00.
Dean J. Kotlowski. Nixon's Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. x + 404 pp. Notes, select bibliography, and index. $35.00.
Carol Polsgrove. Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton, 2001. xxi + 297 pp. Notes, select bibliography, and index. $26.95.
I have always enjoyed teaching the civil rights movement to undergraduate students. The central stories from 1955 to 1965 are remarkably rich, since so many tell the struggles of ordinary citizens trying to change injustices against difficult odds. For students who have grown jaded about American politics—Generation X-Files, I sometimes call them—there are plenty of heroes within the stories, those who see morality and political change as inseparable. Consider Robert Moses, the young and soft-spoken philosophy student who read Camus and worked out his moral philosophy in voter registration drives and community organizing. Or study Martin Luther King who widened the meaning of politics beyond interest group bartering. For King, politics was about citizens toughening themselves with a "spiritual discipline against resentment" (Reinhold Niebuhr's term) and creating a "beloved community" through a participatory ethic of non-violent change. Politics and morality, for King and Moses, were always intertwined: a lesson that challenges the presumptions of so many young people today. 1
At the same time, the civil rights movement was not just about moral clarity and idealism. After all, Rosa Parks did not refuse to get off that famous Montgomery bus just because she was tired and wanted change but because she had been trained within institutions pursuing a political victory. King's life and activism make this even clearer. We need not explore the lurid details about his extra-marital affairs to see he was no saint. He let politics trump [End Page 663] morality, for instance, accepting LBJ's terms on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party compromise—something Robert Moses chastised as immoral. King understood the movement needed both ethical clarity and tactical acuity (that LBJ needed placating if movement leaders were to keep him on their side). He believed civil disobedience was about both moral suasion and national media attention. The balance between morality and political effectiveness explains the civil rights movement's success. 2
Recently, historians have started to add to our understanding of the complexity of the civil rights movement—that is, the wider context in which it achieved its remarkable success. Mary Dudziak has illustrated how the civil rights movement related to the "broader Cold War policy of containing communism." The Cold War operated, she points out, as both "an agent of repression and an agent of change." International embarrassment served the interests of civil rights workers as they exposed the conflict between democracy and segregation. Indeed, Carol Polsgrove argues that the "Cold War had all along provided an argument for desegregation" (p. 147). By broadening our perspectives beyond the typical storyline—the bus boycotts, Freedom Rides, voter registration campaigns, and responses of Kennedy and Johnson—historians can help us understand both the limitations and possibilities under which the movement worked. In their own ways, the three books discussed here show both the possibilities and challenges of deepening our understanding of this remarkable movement. 3
One way to complicate our understanding of the civil rights movement is to examine the roots of the Brown v. Board decision. John Jackson does this by showing the central role of social scientists, his story culminating in Kenneth Clark's famous "doll tests." Jackson illustrates how moralistic arguments did not matter as much here as the "objective" and largely amoral reasoning of "social engineers." Intellectual historians have argued that social scientists abandoned activism for objectivity during the early twentieth century. 4 Jackson instead argues that social scientists' self-conception as social engineers allowed them to square advocacy and objectivity. He...