Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom Struggle
Steven Lawson has been hailed as one of the most prominent and well-respected civil rights historians to have studied the era. Civil Rights Crossroads collects several of his most influential essays written over the course of three decades. Although wide-ranging in subject and areas of emphases, the text is a cohesive one, but not as satisfying as it might have been.
Civil Rights Crossroads is divided into five parts. The first, “Freedom Then, Freedom Now,” provides an overarching discussion of the black freedom struggle. Lawson is quick to point out the difference between the freedom struggle and the civil rights era that is only a fraction, albeit a significant one, of that struggle. The second part, “Lyndon B. Johnson and the Black Freedom Struggle,” consists of three essays devoted to Johnson, an individual who Lawson anoints as one of the most central figures of the civil rights era. In “Civil Rights and Black Politics,” Lawson details specific ways that blacks used mediums of uplift such as the ballot in securing their rights. The fourth part, “From The Bottom Up,” describes several massive resistance strategies, e.g. sit-ins. The fifth and final part, “New Paths of Exploration,” offers critical readings of under-theorized civil rights legacies, e.g. the role of women in the movement.
As previously suggested, “Freedom Then and Freedom Now” is most interesting for its discussion of the difference between the black freedom struggle and the civil rights movement. As Lawson writes, “a useful distinction should be made between the black freedom struggle and the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement if it has any contextual meaning must be seen as a distinct and coherent part of the longer freedom struggle” [p. 23]. This contextual meaning is also considered temporally, with Lawson asking when, specifically, the civil rights movement did begin: in the protest-laden 1960s, post-World War II 1950s, or, in a bid to tie the movement to economic disenfranchisement, as early as the 1930s Depression [p. 22]? The reader might become confused having arrived at Lawson’s subsequent discussion of intersectionality [p. 23]. In previous pages, Lawson devotes quite a bit of space to parsing links between race and gender and race and economics. It is unfortunate that so little discussion is given to race and sexuality, with a few mentions of black gay pioneer Bayard Rustin seemingly thrown in for not-so-good measure. By way of explicating the reasons undergirding the dearth of historical analyses that expressly link race and sexuality in the civil rights movement, Lawson mentions that three texts have recently been published about Rustin in comparison to other silenced figures e.g. Ella Baker (two biographies) and Ruby Doris Smith (one). This interest in Rustin, however, should be viewed as a result of the influence of queer studies and not as a queer reading of history. The best example of how this silencing works in a historical context occurs in the chapter’s final paragraph wherein Lawson explains how the civil rights movement might be conceptualized: “New subjects for exploration have been included—gender and class come easily to mind" [p. 28]. That Lawson does not cite sexuality is unfortunate, the implication being that it does not come so easily to the historian’s mind.
The chapters on Lyndon Johnson are helpful in elucidating the man and the figure. The reader learns how much respect the erstwhile President had for the legislative process, persistently encouraging that civil rights advocates work to change the culture of racial oppression through state and federally-sanctioned laws. This mindset was in marked contrast to those who felt impatient with the sluggishness of legal means e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although King is largely heralded as a non-violent figure, Johnson was unmoved by King as a result of the latter’s tendency to subvert the legislature in favor of protest. Accordingly, relations between the two were often fraught in comparison with King’s relationship with John F. Kennedy. Lawson’s decision to place this section so early in the text might seem odd, especially since three full chapters are devoted to Johnson. Fortunately, these chapters are rich in their account of the important roles (intentionally pluralized) Johnson played during the civil rights era.
Sandwiched between three strong chapters on Lyndon Johnson and innovative chapters on overlooked components of the civil rights era, the next two parts, while interesting, struggle to hold the reader’s attention. In the fairly brief third section, Lawson analyzes the link between race and class during the civil rights era. He concludes by rightly, albeit not very originally, observing, “One cannot easily separate race from class in an economic system reflecting long-standing discrimination against African-Americans” [p. 165-166]. The fourth section leaves much to be desired discursively speaking. For instance, Lawson posits, “Following the war [WWII], black veterans who returned home found the Jim Crow South virtually unchanged. They encountered hostile whites determined to preserve the rigid system of racial oppression” [p. 177]. While this statement is undeniably accurate, Lawson never addresses the fact that the WWII armed services were not a bastion of racial uplift, with blacks frequently being placed under the command of overtly racist superiors culled from the segregated American South. An even more curious conceit comes in the chapter entitled “Florida’s Little Scottsboro.” Here, Lawson discusses an episode of racist persecution that resulted in several senseless deaths. Having read this chapter, the reader inevitably realizes that the diminutive reference in the title detracts from the impact this case has on its own merits. Viewing the events in Florida through the lens of the more famous Scottsboro Brothers case is instructive, but the reader’s familiarity with Scottsboro necessarily overshadows the impact of this “little Scottsboro.”
In the fifth and final part, Lawson comments on under-theorized aspects of the civil rights era. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the entire text is here, “Rock ‘N’ Roll, The Payola Scandal, and the Political Culture of Civil Rights.” In this chapter, Lawson offers a thorough reading of how popular music informed and was informed by the civil rights era:
The appeal of race music to whites, along with the popularity of “American Bandstand” host Dick Clark and his distant but meaningful relationship to the civil rights era, is given a full and notable treatment. The final chapter, “Women, Civil Rights, and Black Liberation” opens with Lawson stating, “It is impossible to write about the civil rights movement without recognizing the centrality of women” [p. 265]. The reader, well aware of how the contributions of women in the movement have been erased in historical discourse, is inclined to revise this statement to read: “It is difficult to write convincingly about the civil rights movement…”
Overall, Civil Rights Crossroads is a good text, but unfortunately not as worthwhile as it might have been. Part of the problem stems from the framework in which the text is written. For example, the cold distance and remove of the historian is evidenced when Lawson cites himself by using his name—“Steven Lawson and Mark Gelfand contend”—instead of simply saying “Mark Gelfand and I” [p. 35]. This third person choice leaves the reader feeling as if the author has intentionally created a distance between himself and the work, a distance that need not be so defined. Moreover, there is a suggestion throughout the text that the answers to the questions raised by the civil rights era lie dormant in archival materials awaiting the historian’s magic kiss to bring them to life. Perhaps. But those answers have to allow for theories and questions that historians cannot—or are unwilling to—articulate.
A major concern for this reader is the number of errors in the work. A case in point: in the footnotes to the chapter “Women, Civil Rights, and Black Liberation,” Paula Giddings’ When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women in Race and Sex in America is cited as Where and When I Enter [p. 352]. This might seem a minor mistake, but it is a significant one given this is one of the classic black feminist texts. Fortunately, Lawson cites the text correctly in his bibliography. Other errors that give the reader pause include the phrase “three civil fights [sic] workers” [p. 76] and the characterization of Edward Brooke as a “Republic senator” [p. 88]. This latter gaffe is interesting for two reasons: first, for the mistake of mislabeling the Republican senator; second for Lawson’s decision not to analyze the significance of a black Republican holding office during this time. Indeed, he doesn’t address this at all! Civil Rights Crossroads is riddled with countless mechanical errors of this type, most of which are careless. In the footnotes, there is a listing that reads “Jack Valenti (?) to the president [Johnson], July 27, 1964, Hu 2, box 3, Ibid” [p. 294]. The reader does not understand if the question mark signals a guess hazarded by Lawson or something else. On page 277, Lawson inserts a capital letter in the middle of a sentence, while on page 226, he concludes a sentence without a punctuation mark. On page 211, Lawson offers the following as a complete sentence: “In light of recent decisions upholding HUAC’s broad sway in questioning alleged Communists.” Later on the same page, he writes, “Carter argued that it made no different [sic] whether the NAACP […]” On more than one occasion, the words “were” and “where” are misused. Taken as a whole, these copyediting errors are distracting and detract from the reader’s intellectual engagement with the text.
In short, Civil Rights Crossroads is a good text which really should have been a better text. Lawson offers sustained critiques of Lyndon Johnson’s role in the civil rights era and innovative readings of often overlooked aspects of the movement. Conversely, the text is rife with mechanical errors and is inexplicably cold at times. With “Nation” foregrounded in the text’s subtitle, it is a shame the back cover categorizes the text as intended for audiences interested in “African American History/Civil Rights.” This text is history, period; American history, specifically.