U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Framing Post-World War II African American History

First off—Happy Black History Month! Traditionally my favorite time of the academic calendar as a young boy, Black History Month offers plenty of new things for everyone to learn. As intellectual historians, we should think about African American History Month in context of the ongoing struggle to make black history central to American history. Our colleagues and friends over at Black Perspectives have already offered provocative pieces on the history of black history. Today I wish to offer a bit to chew on regards to how we think of post-World War II African American history.

I have spent the last few days reading sections from Manning Marable’s Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction And Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006. It is, without question, my favorite synthetic work of African American history. Marable uses the book to explain the changes in African American politics, culture, and thought from the end of the Second World War up until Hurricane Katrina. What I find intriguing about the book is the way in which Marable divides African American history into certain eras—especially the end of the 1970s.

Marable uses the oft-cited “Second Reconstruction” argument to talk about the Civil Rights Movement in American history. The chapters that cover the post-1965 period in African American history include some interesting dividing points. For instance, the chapter “From Protest to Politics: The Retreat of the Second Reconstruction” features the years 1976 until 1982. Here, Marable is quite harsh when it comes to both Jimmy Carter and the black political and economic elite of the time. Wrote Marable, “once he had assumed office, Carter began to rescind many of the basic achievements of the Second Reconstruction.”[1] Seeing Carter as a conservative Southerner who abandoned the promise of greater equality for African Americans in favor of a narrow focus on fiscal austerity, Marable’s judgment of the man and his African American supporters was not kind.

What I also found eye-opening about this chapter was the lead-up to the election of Ronald Reagan. As I’ve written about before, the 1979-1981 period included considerable concern on the American Left about a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and other extreme right-wing groups. This led to violence—in places such as Greensboro, North Carolina, when five left-wing activists were murdered in broad daylight by Klansmen and Neo-Nazis, or Okolona, Mississippi, which was the site of a pitched battle between the KKK and the “United League,” an organization of African American activists. Marable also critiques the rampant police brutality of the era. It’s easy to see why Marable, and others, argued that the end of the 1970s was also the end of an era of promise opened by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.

Admittedly, I also see some stunning parallels between that period and now. For example, the 1980 Miami Riot was, at the time, a major event in bringing attention to police brutality in American society. Yet it has been virtually forgotten, sandwiched between the “long, hot summers” of the 1960s and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. One wonders how, in the future, Americans will remember Ferguson and Baltimore—if they remember those smaller-scale riots at all. The return of right-wing terrorism—most notably in Charleston—parallels the shocking Greensboro Massacre of 1979. The lament from many on the American left and within liberalism that the GOP was too radical to win in November 1980—and then did so anyway—seems to have echoes in 2016.

My point here is that Marable’s book offers some food for thought in regards to both African American and American history. Looking at African American history offers an intriguing contrast to the national narrative. Where we talk about “declension” with American history in the early 1970s, an even murkier picture emerges for African American history—a mixture of black hope tied up with social mobility for a growing black middle class, combined with continuing economic decline for millions of African Americans across the country trapped in ghettos and impoverished small towns. In addition to that, Marable’s book—and others on African American history—highlight events of the American past that risk being forgotten by the “grand” narratives of national history. One of the continuing goals of African American history will be to keep up that conversation between the two fields. This is the only way we can make sure American history reflects a fuller picture of the nation’s past, warts and all.

[1] Manning Marable. Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007, p. 167.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I wish I understood what criteria you use to determine that Marable was harsh in his assessment of Jimmy Carter. It has been a very long time since I read the book, but if my memory serves me correctly Marable was correct. Carter’s presidency was the first of the post New Deal neoliberal presidencies dedicated to fiscal austerity and a shrinkage of the welfare state. Kennedy challenged Carter in the 1980 primary for precisely that reason. As early as 1977, Carter was being characterized as a Rockefeller Republican in news magazines.

    • Oh no, you misunderstand–I’m not saying his harshness was unfair. It was more a reflection that Marable did not let him, or his African American allies, off the hook. In fact, I sometimes wish I was more forthright like Marable was in his judgment of these political figures in my own writing.

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