Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thomas Sugrue

Thomas J. Sugrue is a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is currently Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology. Sugrue’s first book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in American History, the President’s Book Award of the Social Science History Association, the Philip Taft Prize in Labor History, and the Urban History Association Prize for Best Book in North American Urban History. He is the author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.

From a Q & A about Sweet Land of Liberty:

Q. What types of activities were Northern activists involved in?

A: During the 1930s and 1940s grassroots activists really saw the question of civil rights as a question of economic rights as much as anything else. Activists saw the questions of racial economic inequality or racial class as fundamentally intertwined, and promoted an agenda to improve wages and to push for trade unionization, as well as an agenda to end discrimination.I also discovered a remarkable history of grassroots black-led boycotts of separate and unequal schools in the North that really forced me to rethink the whole meaning of Brown v. Board of Education. There was also a really important and largely unknown Northern story of grassroots battles against segregated hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, swimming pools and amusement parks. This was a real eye-opener for me. Up until the 1950s, in many parts of the North, African Americans were systematically excluded from public accommodations. Many of the activists in the South, in the famous sit-ins in the early 1960s, were inspired by the activism of Northerners who, in the 1940s and 1950s, were engaged in civil disobedience to challenge segregation.

Q: The timeframe you cover in your book goes back to the 1920s and comes right up to the present. Why did you choose that scope?

A: The Northern story forces us to push the chronology of civil rights back and forward in time, and it makes us focus on many of the issues that were left unresolved in the so-called “classic” phase of the civil rights movement, including economic inequality, persistent segregation in where people live and in education and educational equality.

My book begins during the enormous migration of African Americans from the South to Northern cities, which changed the demography and the politics of the North in serious ways. During the 1920s and 1930s, in the midst of this migration, you have currents of nationalism and black self-determination and a very strong current of black anti-imperialism that’s really influential. You’ve got activists who are putting together trade unionism and the black freedom struggle and who are making arguments for black-white alliances. You also have the coming of the New Deal and the rights consciousness that it unleashed. This whole period is one of real ferment and of exploration and experimentation, and you can follow many of those currents through the struggles of the next several decades.

My story goes forward to the present because I resist the simplistic division of 20th-century America into the civil rights era and the so-called post-civil rights era, as if all the questions of the civil rights movement were solved and now we’re in a period that is qualitatively different. To cut off this story, as so many books do, circa 1968 would not do justice to the ongoing struggles for racial equality that build on previous generations of civil rights activism.
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue