U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Black Intellectuals and Social Democracy in 1960s American Discourse

I’ve spent the last few weeks writing about how African American intellectuals viewed the rioting of the 1960s. Last week, I compiled a brief review essay laying out works that further describe how African American intellectuals, and American society in general, has dealt with crime and the African American community. Today I’ll consider how the discourse of the 1960s among African American intellectuals related to a wider discourse about the possibilities of the American state—and American life—at the end of the Sixties.

This essay was inspired, in part, by a conversation I had with Kevin Schultz (S-USIH treasurer) at the Biennial Scholars’ Conference on American Jewish History in Atlanta over the summer. During the conference, urban historian Tom Sugrue gave a speech about gentrification, urban history, and the history of real estate. The Q &A session has always stood out to me for Dr. Schultz’ s question about the end of social democratic discourse in the 1960s. I can’t remember the exact wording (and I certainly hope he can refresh my memory in the comments), but his point has always stayed at the center of my work on intellectual history since then. In short, what Dr. Schultz was getting at—that the middle of the 1960s saw both America’s grandest experiment in social democracy with the Great Society, and the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act—has crystallized for me how, for all intents and purposes, recent American history hinges on the 1964-66 time period. The backlash both those events prompted has shaped both modern liberalism and conservatism in the United States, as well as the political imagination both sides bring to modern debates. Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Lyndon_Johnson_2

Now this essay will use a limited definition of social democracy. I’m considering it in the milieu of the 1960s, an attempt in the United States to create robust welfare state—with the American twist of local and state control systems. Recent books, such as Kent Germany’s New Orleans After the Promises or Susan Ashmore’s Carry It On present how African Americans on the ground in the urban and rural South used the War on Poverty programs for political empowerment, even if such political power came at the expense of local Democratic Party elites. Just as these groups began to gain some sense of political power on the ground, however, the 1966 midterms showed that the nation at large tired of the nation’s direction on race, crime, and the various programs being used to fight poverty.

African American intellectuals recognized that 1966 was a turning point. I think of Rick Perlstein’s ending to his book Before the Storm, describing the liberal reaction to Barry Goldwater’s crushing 1964 defeat. The liberal consensus had come to the conclusion that movement conservatism was broken and defeated—surely, many liberals believed, the Republican Party would come to its senses. African American intellectuals, however, had no such pretenses. Recognizing the difficulties of getting the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964 passed, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many black leaders knew that politics was a tenuous game. Defeat always loomed around the corner. And that’s not even taking into account the grassroots activists, North and South, who suffered for such gains.

Black disenchantment with the Great Society goes hand in hand with critiques of American society at the climax of the long, hot summers of the mid-1960s. Such concern was seen in the debates over the rise of Black Power in 1966. As John O. Killens acknowledged in the winter of 1966, the Civil Rights “Movement had reached a dead-end. It was time for a fundamental change in tactics.” He referred to the Great Society as a “gargantuan hog” that, at the moment, white liberals and black middle-class activists believed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act had entitled all African Americans to feast on.[1]

Martin Luther King, Jr. also expressed deep concerns about the Great Society. “The Great Society is only a phrase so long as no date is set for the achievement of its poor_peoples_campaign_flyer_fullpromises,” he wrote in Where Do We Go From Here. His critique of liberalism in this book and elsewhere—“Often white liberals are unaware of their latent prejudices”—reminds us that King’s “fierce urgency of now” in the last few years of his life were directed at an interconnected web of domestic racialist policies, the war in Vietnam, and the limits of Great Society (and American) liberalism.[2] Wrestling with the social democratic project of the New Deal and Great Society was at the core of what African American intellectuals debated during the 1960s.

This piece was inspired, in part, by current debates about responses to the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and others during confrontations with the local police. Yet, there’s a larger issue at stake, and I think they boil down to two questions. First: what, precisely, does the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement means for all Americans today? And, secondly, what’s the legacy of “backlash” from 1966 forward, not just to the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Power activism, but also to the social democratic experiment in the Great Society programs? A recent Jacobin piece points out the questions Michel Foucault raised about the welfare state in France—and how he viewed neoliberalism as a potential solution to those problems. Both that interview and the response it generated have played a role in shaping my thoughts in this post. “Going beyond the welfare state,” as it were, was a question many African American intellectuals asked for decades. After all, all of these elements of my recent posts—policing, law and order, race, and social democracy—are linked at the hip.

[1] John O. Killens. “A Symposium: Black Power, Its Meaning and Measure,” Negro Digest, November 1966, p. 31-32.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986 [1968]) p. 93-94.

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  1. “Both that interview and the response it generated have played a role in shaping my thoughts in this post.”

    I also read that interview and the response, and thought they were wonderful and highly useful for pushing us to make some decisions about how we think about the post-war American welfare state and its political role in the last half-century.

    So I was also wondering what you think — do you find Zamora or Frase more convincing, or some qualified combo of the two?

    • I’d have to say some sort of combination of the two. I thought that Frase’s response was a great summation of the classic Left argument about *why* folks work in the first place–not just to survive but to embrace some deeper meaning in life. And his critique of how Leftists talk about neo-liberalism is important. It has become the big bogeyman, but we forget (as my post today tried to show) that it wasn’t so rosy before the mid-1970s either.

      And, of course, it wasn’t just Black intellectuals talking about this either. Across the Left spectrum of American politics, people were talking about a need for something more than the welfare state the US had in the 1960s. Robert Kennedy’s speeches were peppered with this thinking–although in what direction he was headed is up for some debate. I think Zamora’s point is well taken though: Foucault might very well have embraced neo-liberalism, but certainly for different reasons from why others did in the 1980s and 1990s.

      So to answer your question–I side a little more with Frase. But both pieces offer some truths as to how people across the left end of the political spectrum tried to engage with both the disappointments of the welfare state, and the collapse of such states later on.

      • Yeah, I agree with the outline you sketched here. I also took something from both – how I would summarize my thoughts would be to say that Zamora makes a really strong case for how the neoliberal shift — or should we just say, the ratcheting up of capitalism? — involved intellectual/cultural tendencies so deep that they impacted the entire political spectrum; i.e., it wasn’t just the Right going all batshit, it was broader and more profound than that.

        Frase, however, reminds us exactly why this might be by reminding us not to get all nostalgic about post-war liberalism; as if everything would be ok if we all just talked and walked like FDR, JFK and LBJ! (All those acronyms!) That’s a huge problem on the liberal left that constantly needs to be corrected for, I think.

  2. Great points there–and I especially agree with shying away from any nostalgia about the New Deal or Great Society programs. The writers I cited, Killens and King, both recognized the limits of the Great Society. Furthermore, they recognized that the limits were *inherent* to American liberalism. I think that makes King’s shift to the Left by 1967 a not terribly shocking moment–it’s all part of an effort to figure out what, exactly the nation should do next to empower African Americans within the social, political, and economic fabric of the nation.

    • Robert and Robin,
      A great post and a fascinating discussion. I wonder, though, if 1964-66 was really the pivotal moment. Perhaps the experiment of the Great Society, as Ira Katznelson argues in the Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, was always doomed because the compromises and defeats of the 1940s–namely the failures to enact a permanent federal FEPC and sustain tripartite national planning–deprived ’60s liberals (and especially social democrats) of the institutional foundation to tackle inequality, discrimination, segregation, etc. Therefore, maybe we should read ’60s black social democracy as a movement with the most clear understanding of what was lost in the late ’40s, and most energized to reclaim the corporatist spirit and proletarian energy of that moment (hence the continued prominence of AP Randolph).

      • Ooooh I like the way you think Kit! And I think you’re spot on, because I agree with Katznelson’s take on the New Deal era as being far from perfect for a variety of issues, most notably race.

        When I say the 1964-66 time period is crucial, what I’m getting at is two aspects: first, the Black intellectual discourse of the era developing several ways of thinking about the relationship between African Americans and the state, and second, the conservative backlash to everything going on. But I agree that the origins of both can be found in the 1940s.

        And your analysis of Randolph is spot on. I might throw Rustin’s role in there too as being important. You might have prompted my next blog post–or at the least, a longer response this evening. But yeah, African American activists understood as well as anyone the limits of the American welfare state.

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