The Black Freedom Struggle of the North

Harlem Tenement in Summer, 1935-1939. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

Historians have produced a remarkable body of literature reappraising the civil rights movement in the last two decades. And still, contemporary popular interpretations of the civil rights movement are flawed and incomplete, if not deeply misinformed. Public education may even make matters worse, as suggested by a study of the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2014 that found that most states’ “expectations for teaching the civil rights movement remain woefully inadequate.” Prevailing accounts tend to focus on a handful of charismatic civil rights leaders at the expense of a mass movement; overemphasize dramatic, highly publicized events and downplay methodical, grassroots organizing; push women at the center of the movement to its margins, except perhaps for a sanitized Rosa Parks; and frequently minimize white resistance to the movement, both in its violent and so-called civil expressions.

And this is just how many Americans misunderstand the Southern civil rights movement. When it comes to the history of the Northern movement for racial equality, we encounter a different problem—not widespread misinterpretation, but rather profound ignorance of centuries of racial exclusion and discrimination that has thrived in the United States outside the South, as well as the many movements that struggled against such discrimination beyond the eleven states of the former Confederacy.

How many Americans, for instance, realize that every one of the original thirteen states enslaved people of African descent? How many understand that Northern states were pioneers in disenfranchising free Blacks and in developing customs and laws that racially segregated public transportation, neighborhoods, and jobs before the Civil War? And how many, by the same token, realize that the single-largest one-day civil rights protest in the 1960s was by most estimates not the March on Washington, but a student boycott of New York City’s public schools in February 1964?

Jeanne Theoharis and Brian Purnell, along with Komozi Woodard—the editors of The Strange Careers of Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside the South (2019)—have been among the leading scholars in the last two decades to demand both researchers and the wider public confront this forgotten history of racism and anti-racism in the North. Theoharis and Woodard’s 2003 essay collection, Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980, as well as their and Purnell’s respective monographs, represented a historiographic call-to-arms at a time when a Montgomery-to-Memphis framework of a short civil rights movement with a narrow focus on Southern segregation and federal legislation enjoyed outsized influence on interpretations of the Black freedom struggle.

In their introduction, Purnell and Theoharis glance back at the literature on civil rights and Jim Crow in the North that has emerged in the past two decades while looking ahead to address major unresolved historiographic questions in the field. Three understudied themes of racism and anti-racism in the North loom large in this volume’s essays, the editors tell us.

First, a number of the book’s essays critique the “language, practices, and ideologies of northern liberalism” with an eye to explaining how Black thinkers and activists “developed theories about the limits of the North as the ‘promised land” (30). Second, the book’s contributors connect the uprisings of the 1960s to the northern Black freedom struggle. Instead of treating the former as a corruption of the latter, several essays regard the decade’s uprisings as an expression of deep frustration with the civil rights movement’s failure to undo the North’s de facto racial caste system. Third, the book’s essays seek to expose and historicize lingering myths that a culture of urban poverty resulted in Northern Blacks being disinterested in, or even incapable of, forming their own movements for racial equality as southern Blacks did.

While many Southern whites mounted a campaign of massive resistance and made naked appeals to white supremacy in the 1950s and ‘60s, Northern whites responded to demands by Black activists in their communities with claims of racial meritocracy and color-blind ideology, which Southern whites would only later embrace in the wake of desegregation from the 1970s onward. Indeed, one could argue that understanding Jim Crow in the North is more important for understanding current manifestations of racism in America, because Northern whites’ more sophisticated and purportedly race-neutral use of “law, policy, and bureaucracy to maintain segregation and racial privilege” (6) more closely resembles the mechanics of racial discrimination today.

One of this collection’s primary contributions is its wide-ranging examination of institutions, with essays on how public schools, housing, higher education, and employment in the North perpetuated racial inequality. The news media in particular receive extensive consideration. As Purnell and Theoharis assert, the media treated Black activists in the North as “deviant, disruptive, and irrelevant” as they “undercovered local movements and overcovered uprisings.” Shannon King demonstrates how racism pervaded white daily newspapers’ coverage of so-called “crime waves” in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1930s and ‘40s, while Peter Levy probes how Northern media regularly covered—and often distorted—H. Rap Brown’s activities in their region in the late 1960s. Both essays push back against prevailing historical narratives that celebrate a national press corps that was eager to publicize the southern civil rights movement but hesitant to report on civil rights activists in the North. The major exception to this myopia, of course, was the Black press, whose more informed coverage of racism beyond the South is highlighted by King and Levy, as well as John Portlock’s essay on Charlotta Bass.

The criminal justice system is another institution that receives sustained attention. Say Burgin explores the “Jim Crow judiciary” (235) in Detroit, where one Black judge, George Crockett, Jr., faced fierce resistance from white citizens as he carried out his duties, especially when he sought to hold law enforcement officers accountable for breaking the law themselves. Burgin’s essay makes a meaningful contribution to a growing body of historical literature on the origins of mass incarceration that has focused predominantly on prisons and police, but much less on courts. King’s essay meanwhile probes white fantasies of Black criminality in New York City in the years after the period Khalil Muhammad examines in The Condemnation of Blackness but decades before what most scholars of the postwar punitive turn have scrutinized.

Rank-and-file racist white citizens, who viewed themselves as dissatisfied but polite citizens, make numerous appearances in this work, too. In both Mary Barr’s essay on housing segregation in affluent Chicago suburbs and Laura Warren Hill’s essay on disgruntled whites in 1960s Rochester, white residents use letter writing, community meetings, and petitions to slow or stop Black gains as part of a process Hill terms “white backtalk.” These are not the violent whites that attacked Ossian Sweet’s family in Detroit in 1925, nor the Confederate-flag waving mobs that terrorized Dr. King and fair housing protesters in Chicago in 1966, nor the enraged white anti-busing activists who stoned school busses carrying Black children or speared Black activists in Boston in the mid-1970s. But they nonetheless did considerable damage to Black people and the cause of racial equality through their purportedly color-blind, polite activism. This is what civilities and civil rights often looked like in the 1960s North.

One pressing question hinted at but not necessarily answered by this volume is whether there were, and continue to be, significant differences in how racism and anti-racist movements developed in various regions outside the South. This collection’s title locates Jim Crow in the North, but its subtitle broadens that to include “segregation and struggle outside the South.” With essays focusing on such cities as New York, Milwaukee, Rochester, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, this essay collection deserves credit for its broad geographical range.

If we consider the most segregated metropolitan areas in America today, twelve of the top twenty are in the former Confederacy and two, St, Louis and Baltimore, are in border states. But of the six areas in this group that unquestionably qualify as Northern, all six are in the industrial Midwest, clustered in just four states—Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio—including three in the top five.

While it would be foolish to treat these statistics as definitive, quantitative measures of racism, they suggest the possibility that there may have been significant regional variations within the North in how whites constructed Jim Crow, or in how successfully Black and white citizens deconstructed systematic racism. Was there, in other words, a Jim Crow Northeast, or a Jim Crow Midwest, or a Jim Crow West? Hopefully more historians will follow the cue suggested by this volume and pursue such comparative regional analyses within the North in the future.

The Strange Careers of Jim Crow North is a major milestone in the growing historical literature on racial discrimination and the civil rights struggle outside the South. By reminding us how far this historiography has come, and yet how much further it has to go, this work not only benefits scholars, but reminds all readers of how far every region in the United States still has to go to achieve some semblance of racial equality.

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Joshua Clark Davis

Joshua Clark Davis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Baltimore. His book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (Columbia University Press, 2017) examines how natural foods stores, head shops, feminist businesses, and African American booksellers emerged from social movements in the 1960s to advance the goals of political transformation and cultural liberation. Follow him on Twitter @JoshClarkDavis.