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.
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.
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 promises,” 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. 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.
 John O. Killens. “A Symposium: Black Power, Its Meaning and Measure,” Negro Digest, November 1966, p. 31-32.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986 ) p. 93-94.