- Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America
In Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America, George Derek Musgrove chronicles the scarcely researched history of black elected officials’ repression at the state level, incommensurable investigation by federal agencies, and depiction in the news media from 1965 to 1995. Musgrove divides the book into six chapters, which are then partitioned, by utilizing his argument and terminology like “harassment ideology,” into two succinct sections, in which he explores the abovementioned confrontations, “reasons behind black elected officials’ claims” of harassment, and evidence concerning these claims (p. 2). Musgrove goes on to argue that “black elected officials’ allegations of harassment reveal a significant pattern of state repression of black elected officials that occurred between 1965 and 1974, and the disproportionate investigation of these same officials [End Page 324] by federal agencies from 1974 to 1992” while “their defense efforts had a pronounced impact on African Americans’ understanding of the relationship to the news media and the state during the post-civil rights era (p. 2).” He contends that the civil rights reform of the mid-1960s “created the political context for white backlash and the Republican ascendance,” which, once in office, “disproportionately investigated black elected officials in their pursuit of political realignment (p. 9).”
Musgrove commences his book with a detailed account of the barring of Julian Bond and Clayton Powell Jr. from the Georgia and United States House of Representatives, respectively. He states that the two obstructions “were both a symbol and product of two critical developments . . . that would come to precipitate state repression of black elected officials” and “influence discussions of “harassment” throughout the post-civil rights period (p. 14).” The first, assisted by protest and reform, showed the rising incorporation of African Americans into electoral politics, and the second illustrated the realizations of white backlash in electoral politics (p. 15). In explaining why the two men were barred from their respective chambers, it becomes evident why Musgrove chose to include their stories. Bond, with his backing of SNCC’s statement against the war in Vietnam, and Powell, “best known for his breaches of congressional ethics,” are spectrally representative of the black elected officials that encountered several forms of harassment for the next three decades (p. 28, 43).
The second section largely explores black elected officials’ discovery of “harassment,” and the rise and zenith of federal agencies’ investigation of black elected officials during the Reagan and Bush administrations, and the nadir of such practices during Clinton’s first term as president. This discovery, Musgrove explains, came in the wake of Watergate and exposure of the intelligence community’s malfeasance in the mid-1970s (p. 11, 72). Key to the book’s association with post-civil rights Alabama history is the exploration of the state’s “selective prosecution” of black elected officials from 1981–1992 (p. 146–147). Musgrove also skillfully depicts Alabama as a microcosm of the ascension of black political power that is both connected to the [End Page 325] discovery of “harassment” in the mid-to-late 1970s and paralleling the Reagan revolution of the 1980s (p. 146). Lastly, he intertwines the news media’s coverage and depiction of black elected officials after Watergate into the development of what he coins “harassment ideology.”
Musgrove’s major contribution to post-civil rights era historiography, aside from focusing on a historical issue that has often been ignored or clustered into the larger narrative, is the introduction of what he deems “harassment ideology.” While using the term, he explains that “harassment ideology” was an outgrowth of revelations in the mid-1970s that black elected officials were targeted at a disproportionate rate by all levels of government (p. 6–7). A key figure to the discovery of “harassment,” which Musgrove draws upon to explain “harassment ideology,” is Mary Sawyer, author of The Dilemma of...