On the Making and Timely Re-Release of Reluctant Reformers

African American History Monument, Columbia, South Carolina (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1974, Howard University Press published a powerful book documenting how racist ideas and practices incapacitated the US’s most historically significant social movements—from abolition to woman suffrage to labor. Authored by Robert Allen, with the collaboration of Pamela P. Allen (who today goes by Chude Pam Allen), Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States will be re-released this September.

I first encountered Reluctant Reformers while I was carrying out doctoral research into Chude Pam Allen’s anti-racist endeavors in white feminist circles of the 1960s and 70s. At that time, I understood the book as part of Chude Pam’s commitment to shining a light on the feminist practices (past and present) that rested on racist assumptions—and as a testament to Robert’s diligence in showing how social movements betrayed or lost their radical potential. In other words, I saw Reluctant Reformers mainly as a historical artifact.

Today, the book remains important for this reason—and more. In his introduction to the new edition, Jamelle Bouie makes the compelling point that Reluctant Reformers may help to re-center capitalism in contemporary understandings of racism. He writes, “A sense of how capitalist production continues to shape and condition racial identity and ideology for Americans across class and color lines will be integral to fighting [Trumpism’s] inevitable resurgence. To that end, Reluctant Reformers remains an invaluable work.” Indeed, the book promises to help us trace capitalism’s role in shaping the particular race, class and gender grievances that animate Trumpism.

Among the many stripes of agitators who will undoubtedly mine Reluctant Reformers for its lessons, today’s scholar-activists should look to it for a model of how our forerunners excavated a useable past. The book stands as a significant remnant of a social movement milieu that valued historical lessons and participated in knowledge production. Moreover, almost fifty years after its publication, it is possible to trace the ways the book opened new areas of inquiry in the academy.

Robert and Chude Pam Allen were well-placed to assess the internal dynamics of social movements past. By 1974, Robert Allen had established himself as a vital thinker of the Black Power era. A draft resister and a former journalist for the radical weekly The Guardian, his 1969 book, Black Awakening in Capitalist America, raised the alarm about white institutional co-optation of Black self-determination efforts—as insightful for our own times as it was for the late 1960s. Always a scholar-activist, he became a long-serving editor of The Black Scholar and went on to author several more books.

Chude Pam Allen cut her teeth in the civil rights movement and went on to pioneer the white women’s liberation movement.1 She volunteered for the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer and afterward mounted efforts to support the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from the North. In the late 1960s, she helped to found feminist organizations, consciousness-raising groups (CR) and one women’s liberation free school. She authored what was arguably the most significant writing on small CR groups, Free Space. More importantly for Reluctant Reformers, in conferences, memos, letters to other feminists, classes, and workshops, she consistently raised the issue of racism in white feminist circles.

Robert Allen penned the bulk of the book, basing his research on abolitionism, populism, progressivism, labor, socialism and communism in existing scholarship. In summarizing the book’s findings, he wrote of a historical pattern in these movements in which “black reformers” pushed “their white co-workers to reject and oppose racism, both within the reform movements themselves and throughout society in general.” And yet, those movements “either advocated, capitulated before, or otherwise failed to oppose racism.”2 Tracing racism as both a material and ideological force, the Allens’ conclusion was that “the attack on racism must become a struggle with the bourgeois social order itself, since the two cannot be isolated from the other.”  Indeed, racism as ideology had operated as the rationalization of dominant capitalist relations – both inside and outside of the US’s most progressive social movements.

For her part, Chude Pam Allen contributed to every chapter, but her major task involved researching and writing the chapter on woman suffrage. She based her research mostly on primary sources given the dearth of scholarship on the movement in the early 1970s. She wrote of woman suffrage, “Feminism came to mean predominantly (although not solely) the fight of white women to be included in the rights and privileges of a racist society.”  She observed several striking similarities between that movement and the women’s liberation movement: “I saw how the dominant culture’s default to white supremacy was an Achilles heel for the woman suffrage movement and that helped me see the same problem in the early women’s liberation movement, whose membership was predominantly but never solely white women.”

Reluctant Reformers is many things. Certainly, it is a product of a social movement era that took seriously the task of studying Black history. In free schools and freedom schools, organizational newsletters and radical newspapers, and in countless study groups, people who sought a more racially just and feminist future turned to the past to make sense of the present. They studied and wrote histories of enslavement, colonization, abolition, gender violence and more to legitimate their quests for civil rights, Black Power, peace, and women’s liberation. And they did so in the understanding that historical study was a people’s prerogative—that it in fact was a necessary part of movement building. Chude Pam and Robert Allen did not wait until the book was published to share what they were learning. They sought out places, from women’s liberation conferences to study groups, to share their findings as they went along.

But excavating these histories was never just about understanding and sharing the lessons of what doomed reform efforts in the past with as broad a public as possible. It was also about the political necessity of understanding how reform efforts induced their own demise and making clear what was at stake when white-led efforts reproduced racist thinking or ignored the ways that whiteness shaped their efforts. As Robert Allen recently told me:3

Reluctant Reformers was written with two audiences in mind: Socially conscious students and social activists in general who must confront racism (and sexism) in their work. The book offers the possibility of thoughtful opposition and change through building social movements that shape public policy. In social movements people are voting with their feet. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the activists.”

Moreover, the book helped to show what the Allens’ contemporaries were getting wrong about the past. Chude Pam recalls:

I learned the importance of understanding what is possible at a given historical moment. Woman suffrage, for example, was never a possibility when the 14th and 15th amendments put gender into the constitution. So to say, as some influential women’s liberation writers did, that the abolitionist men ‘betrayed’ the woman’s rights activists encouraged a moralistic rather than political understanding of the times.”

Thus, Reluctant Reformers presented the kind of usable past that, should the lessons be heeded, could make or break contemporary movements. This history the Allens uncovered, in other words, was in service to the present.

While Reluctant Reformers belongs to the public, it also helped to validate certain questions in the academy. The radicalism of the 1960s and 70s transformed the field of history (that is, the scholarly discipline), and this book shows one of the ways that happened. Questions that animated feminist, anti-war and Black freedom—such as how racism had shaped earlier reform efforts or how Black activists had historically challenged white radicals—bubbled up from these movements and re-shaped what “counted” as subjects of intellectual inquiry in academe. Angela Y. Davis, Roderick D. Bush, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva were among the many who drew from and built on the Allens’ insights. Because it represented one of very few studies in the area, Chude Pam’s chapter on woman suffrage was used at times by itself in women’s studies classes and anti-racism workshops.

The re-release of Reluctant Reformers is a timely as it is necessary. For the agitators among us, it highlights the importance of historical study to our efforts and highlights the pitfalls of our predecessors. For the historians among us, it reminds us that we have a role in validating critical questions arising from today’s social movements. And for those of us who do both, it is a usable past paragon.

  1. I am making a purposeful distinction here between the white women’s liberation movement and the larger, longer feminist movement. With the white women’s liberation movement, I refer to the upsurge in white-led feminist activity beginning in the mid-to-late 1960s.
  2. Both quotes from the 1983 edition of Reluctant Reformers, p. 247.
  3. Email communication between author and Chude Pam Allen and Robert Allen, 17 July 2021.
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Say Burgin

Say Burgin is an assistant professor of history at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her essay on George Crockett is forthcoming in a collection with NYU Press. She is also the co-developer, along with Jeanne Theoharis, of the ​educational website on Rosa Parks. Follow her on Twitter @sayburgin.​

Comments on “On the Making and Timely Re-Release of Reluctant Reformers

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    The re-release of Reluctant Reformers is a service to present-day activists and social movements and those trying to better analyze current activism and, especially, to put last year’s upsurge in response to state-sponsored police violence.

    I have often recommended the Allens’ insightful work, and the upcoming release will make it more accessible. (A “new” copy of the original is for sale online for nearly $500.)

    My wife and I drew upon my well-worn Howard University Press first edition of Reluctant Reformers – especially the sections on farmers and populism – for our historical novel, CLANDESTINE: The Times and Secret Life of Mariah Otey Reddick, which was inspired by the life of my once-enslaved great-grandmother.

    The Allens’ book is an invaluable resource and a sobering reminder of the seductive power of white so-called supremacist ideology even among progressive leaders and movements.

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