Sweet Land of Liberty

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. Thomas J. Sugrue. New York: Random House, 2008.

All law librarians should read Sweet Land of Liberty, but for court librarians working in the Northeast, there is no better text to explain the racial tensions underlying reference desk interactions between black patrons and white librarians.
In Sweet Land of Liberty, Sugrue’s ambition is to write a political history of the civil rights movement from the 1920s to the present. Instead of focusing upon a few major names and big demonstrations, he explores the motivations and circumstances of activist blacks, many who had moved to the major cities of the Northeast during the 1920s Great Migration. The pre-World War II anti-racist efforts by blacks were supported by few white groups. Among the most supportive were left wing groups who were considered as peripheral as blacks; integration was not a mainstream interest. Sugrue makes explicit the differing interests and goals of political actors at both grassroots and government levels. The black community contained many anti-racist groups and they often disagreed.
Sugrue organizes this complex history into two opposing anti-racist trains of thought. The first, the minority and ultimately defeated view, held that whites would never give up power willingly and that only a labor-based coalition of white and black workers could challenge racism. The 50s red scare ostracized these rank-and-file militants as trade unions and advocacy groups expelled suspected Communists or those sympathetic to Communism. The second, ultimately successful train of thought, held that by appealing to whites’ better natures, fairness and justice would occur gradually. Appealing to both well-minded religious groups who truly believed human nature could be redeemed and self-protective business groups who did not want government oversight in hiring and promotion practices, this belief was known as “social engineering.” From it developed the current idea of diversity. Sugrue also places into perspective black nationalism and the black power movements, which were peripheral in American thought, but effective as political theater.
This history of six hundred pages with over one hundred pages of notes moved me tremendously , not just for the knowledge so effortlessly displayed by Sugrue, but because he brings to light the past efforts of black and leftist (and some were both, C.L.R. James, for example) activists to create alliances. These activists taught organizing skills. They taught parliamentary skills. They were dedicated and they passed their skills and knowledge on to recruits. They were resources at the grass roots. They got purged during the Red Scare, disheartened and exhausted during the 70s recession. Now, instead of political parties enacting a national anti-racist program, urban advocacy groups pressure financially ailing city administrations for aid. “Those with the least are trying to do the most.”
These purged activists provided a vocabulary into which frustration could be funneled purposefully. A quote from a Detroit activist is just one of the moving passages, “What I am talking about is living a very narrow life in a large dynamic city with a host of opportunities but for “whites only.” (p. 131)
This man’s frustration, voiced in the 1940s, identifies my unease in New York City. I have wanted the library to be a transformative public space, but I know that the non-attorney patrons consider the law library another official office that makes their lives hard: no real help and unintelligible books. I have tried to reconcile my knowledge of the justice system’s coerciveness with the aspirations of dedicated judges. There is a terrible contradiction between the well-meaning efforts of individuals and the oppressiveness of the system. After reading Sugrue, I now know my unease is not self-indulgent angst, but instead is an awareness of how government policies have distorted public life by supporting whites withdrawing from cities into safe, private spaces reached by highways and protectively zoned. There are no shared public spaces. There is no shared political language.
Sugrue’s closing chapter lists what activists used to successfully challenge racism. Reading that list, I thought we do not live in the future imagined by those activists. We have accepted small lives and a blighted present. We need to regain our sense of influence in the world and that our actions have power. We need to regain a community directed toward a shared future.

(The full text of this review will appear in the next issue of the SCCLL Newsletter)

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