Radical Histories After the 1960s: A CBFS Interview

Randall Robinson greets Nelson Mandela, June 24, 1990, Washington, DC (Shutterstock)

Conversations in BlackFreedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn Spencer with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on “Racism and Resistance in the Post Civil Rights Era,” scheduled for May 5th, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests. 

Emily Hobeson is Associate Professor in the Department of Gender, Race, and Identity and in the Department of History at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is an historian of radicalism, sexuality, and race in the United States, and an interdisciplinary scholar of queer studies, American Studies, and critical ethnic studies. Her research centers on radical movements in the latter half of the 20th century, especially LGBTQ, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist politics. She is the author of two books, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left, and (with Dan Berger) Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States, 1973-2001. Her newest book project examines the history of HIV/AIDS activism by, for, and with imprisoned people in the 1980s and 1990s United States.

Daniel S. Lucks holds a PhD in American history from the University of California, Berkeley and is the author of Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. He is a graduate of the University of California Hastings College of the Law and lives in Los Angeles. His most recent book is Reconsidering Reagan: Racism, Republicans, and the Road to Trump, which was a finalist for the Association of American Publisher’s 2021 Prose Award for best scholarly work published in a trade press.

CBFS: Can you tell us how you came to write on the topic of your most recent book?

Emily: Remaking Radicalism was sparked by a few impulses over nearly a decade of work. In our other research, my co-author Dan Berger and I were constantly finding rich material that we could only partially address and that we wanted to dialogue with others about. We wanted to make sources from radical history available to classrooms and activist groups alike. We also wanted to challenge the erasure or minimization of activist movements in the closing decades of the 20th century. This is the first reader to document radical movements in the United States after the “long 1960s,” and it pushes back against received wisdom about the period between 1973 and 2001, that is, between the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam and the rise of the war on terror. This era is typically described as dominated by conservatism, when radicals met unrelenting losses. But these decades saw a broad array of grassroots organizing, a growing awareness of intersectional oppressions, and a rising commitment to synthesizing varying political commitments and approaches. We wanted to bring this history to broader audiences. 

Daniel: I decided to write on Reagan’s abysmal legacy on race and civil rights for many reasons. First, I was a college student at Berkeley in the 1980s and therefore lived through the Reagan revolution and witnessed his immense political popularity. I joined campus organizations protesting his policies in Central America and South Africa. Years later, I was aghast at conservatives’ success in canonizing him as an American saint and distorting his presidency beyond recognition. After going to law school and working as an attorney, I decided to pursue my PhD in American history. My first book, Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, addressed the impact of the Vietnam War on the civil rights movement. I devoured literature on civil rights and realized there was a lacuna on conservatism and civil rights. Despite the profusion of books on Reagan there had not been a book devoted solely to Reagan and race. Sure, there were book chapters referencing his draconian War on Drugs, his tacit support of South Africa’s apartheid regime, and his denigration of the civil rights movement and attempt to roll-back the gains of the civil rights revolution. I started thinking and writing about this project during Obama’s second term when the so called ‘Party of Reagan’ refused to distance themselves from the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory. I was half-way done with a rough draft when Donald Trump, the birther-in-chief, won the presidency. Trump’s stunning victory seemed to validate my argument that Reagan planted the seeds for Trumpism and was therefore a disaster for African Americans.

CBFS: Can you share the story of a particular figure or event from your work that our readers might not be familiar with?

Emily: Only a multiplicity of examples can tell the book’s story—the book has 164 written documents, twenty images, and thirty-two short essays, along with introductory material by Dan and myself. The first section, “Bodies and Lives,” looks at struggles over bodily autonomy, reproductive labor, and fighting the right. This grounds the book in the growth of intersectional feminism, with one example in articles from the 1970s campaign for Inez Garcia, a Latina woman charged with murder for defending herself against rape, where activists identified “racist sexism” in both violence and the legal system. The second section of the book, “Walls and Gates,” focuses on activism against prisons, policing, and state repression and for urban freedom. One of our favorite documents here is James Yaki Sayles’ “War for the Cities,” where he traces the links between urban abandonment and the growth of incarceration, especially for Black and brown communities.

The third section, “Borders and Maps,” centers on antiwar, international solidarity, and global justice movements, including in relationship to labor and immigrant organizing. This section has one of my favorite images in the book, Lincoln Cushing’s poster “End Apartheid,” which layers together a Black person rising out of the African continent against a background in which the names of corporations upholding apartheid recur in shadowy font. The last part of the book, “Utopias and Dystopias,” examines direct action and mass politics, environmental justice, and decolonization. In crafting this section, I was really excited to learn more about the Black Hills Alliance, which joined Indigenous sovereignty activists with settlers opposed to extractive industries. As these examples suggest, there’s a tremendous range in the book. We hope readers discover their own surprises!

Daniel: This is a difficult question since my book covers so much ground in discussing the conservative movement’s decades-long embrace of white supremacy. I indict the major figures in modern conservatism such as William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Reagan, and many of the leading conservative thinkers for their failure to get on the right side of history on race. Conversely, there were a number of notable figures who opposed Reagan’s civil rights agenda; leaders of the anti-apartheid movement such as Randall Robinson, civil rights commissioner Mary Frances Berry, and even a number of moderate Republican Senators like Arlen Specter. Charles Mathias compiled an honorable record in thwarting Reagan’s efforts to reverse the gains of the civil rights revolution.

I would have to commend Ralph Neas, who is a figure not so well known. Neas was a white liberal who from 1971 through 1979 worked as a chief legislative aide for a number of moderate to liberal Republican senators and focused on civil rights. There, Neas was instrumental in the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1975, preserving Affirmative Action, opposing Reagan’s conservative judicial nominees, and sounding the alarm about the Reagan administration’s agenda on civil rights and race. During Reagan’s presidency, Neas served as the Executive Director of the nonpartisan Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the legislative arm of the civil rights movement. In the face of opposition from the Reagan administration, Neas’s efforts were instrumental in opposing Reagan’s plan to weaken the Voting Rights Act, and he led the opposition to the nomination of Robert Bork, a staunch opponent of civil rights laws. Neas was an unsung hero who was instrumental in thwarting the Reagan administration’s concerted effort to reverse the gains of the civil rights revolution. In 1995, Ted Kennedy lauded Neas as the 101st Senator for civil rights.

CBFS: Considering the current movement for Black lives, how does an understanding of this history help us understand and even act in our current world?

Emily: The goal of the book is to curate a usable past that can strengthen struggles today. Specifically, we aimed to craft a volume that would reflect the growth of intersectional feminist, abolitionist, anti-imperialist, and decolonial politics across the 1970s through 1990s, and that would show how radicals have organized well beyond the ballot box and the courts. The uprising of summer 2020 represented such an enormous renewal and invested us with much hope, not only for halting the violence of the carceral state, but also for winning what we desperately need for public health, decent jobs and housing, and a sustainable climate. Coming up on the two-year anniversary of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others whose deaths sparked the 2020 uprising, we feel an acute sense of crisis and loss, but also an underlying faith in the persistence of radical possibility, and an eagerness to see what all of us can build together next.

Daniel: My study of Reagan and the conservative movement’s disgraceful record on civil rights and race is instructive because it demonstrates their longstanding campaign to cripple voting rights, dismantle affirmative action, reverse the landmark civil rights jurisprudence of the Warren Court, and turn back the clock on the civil rights revolution. The conservative movement is now steeped in white Christian nationalism, and hostility to people of color and immigrants is the heart of its appeal. Since the 1950s, when a conservative movement emerged vowing to stand athwart history, it has telegraphed its desire to preserve white supremacy and has succeeded in using race as a cudgel to peel away working class whites from the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. During Reagan’s presidency, he ratcheted up the racist War on Drugs which has devastated communities of color and led to our current crisis of mass incarceration.

In our current moment of Black Lives Matter, knowing the history of Reagan and the conservative movement’s hostility to efforts to rectify systemic racism is important to counteract the notion that we have entered a post-racial society. Indeed, Reagan and his defenders would allege that they are not racist, but are colorblind, and have embraced the notion of color-blind conservatism. Accordingly, they fail to acknowledge the extent to which systemic racism is woven into the fabric of all American institutions. This current brouhaha over critical race theory is the latest manifestation of conservative efforts to use race to galvanize whites like they did with Affirmative Action. In the past, a coalition of white progressives and African American activists have arisen to check these racist tendencies. Today, the current conservative movement, dominated by Trump and his cronies, presents an existential threat to our democracy. In red states throughout the country, conservatives are passing laws that restrict the suffrage. It is important that we recognize the long roots of this trend and adopt the tools of civil rights advocates to stir the conscience of the nation and thwart these efforts to marginalize African Americans, immigrants, Latinos, and non-Christians.

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Erik Wallenberg

Erik Wallenberg is a PhD candidate in the History Program at CUNY Graduate Center. He has taught courses in history and environmental studies at the University of Vermont and currently teaches global history and American environmental history at Brooklyn College. He is a Presidential Research Fellow working with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His research is on radical theatre and environmental movements, politics, and ideas.