Review: Toward Freedom Land
Harvard Sitkoff. Toward Freedom Land: The Long Struggle for Racial Equality in America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010. 232 pp. ISBN 0813125839.
Any student of late twentieth century U.S. History would have a hard time avoiding Harvard Sitkoff’s influence. Over a forty year career, Sitkoff has tracked and challenged prevailing wisdom about the black freedom struggle, from its roots in New Deal and World War II era activism to the economic structures and prominent political and social leaders that shaped its trajectory. The University Press of Kentucky’s collection of his most influential articles from the 1960s to the present offers a rich survey of this important career. They reflect, in his words, “one historian’s effort to grapple with changing times and changing historical scholarship” (1). Toward Freedom Land continues Sitkoff’s career-long quest to uproot some of the most persistent assumptions about the civil rights movement. At the same time, while he may “aim to rile” as much as ever, the body of scholarship represented in these essays will also ground young scholars as they grapple with the movement’s legacies and their own place within a continually controversial civil rights literature.
Arranging the articles topically rather than chronologically, Sitkoff opens each with an introductory reflection that situates it within his larger career. Each preface reveals a scholar attuned to but consciously at odds with his contemporaries’ prevalent historiographical concerns. His essays on the World War II era in particular demonstrate his development from a young scholar “when I proudly considered myself a New Leftist” of the 1960s to a “subtler and more complex treatment of African American wartime behavior” in the 1990s (93). Early writing “proudly wore my heart on its sleeve,” he admits. The young historian depicted wartime violence amid the racial conflagrations of the late-1960s. A decade later, the constraints placed upon black protest occupied much of his work. Yet throughout these changes he has consistently challenged the “textbook” belief that World War II offered a watershed in the formation of black political consciousness. Emerging from the racial violence of the WWII years into a Cold War white liberalism more amenable to gradual civil rights reform, black leadership traded the possibilities of collective action and protest for liberal alliances that moved the struggle into the courtroom. Given these transformations, black militancy in the 1960s, he argues, had little to do with the limited reach of WWII-era protest.
Yet despite arguing against the continuities between 1940s race consciousness and the major movements of the 1960s, Sitkoff has also consistently advanced a better understanding of the “long civil rights movement” as he developed a more nuanced critique of New Deal liberalism. His early work addressed the New Deal’s general apathy toward black suffering while later assessments unearthed aspects of reform that worked to alleviate it. Personal initiatives of local agency leaders and increasing pressures from the left ensured that, while Roosevelt publicly downplayed black rights in efforts to secure southern support, he “nevertheless acted in ways that had the unintended consequences of laying the groundwork for the Second Reconstruction” (27). Sitkoff’s “Preconditions for Racial Change” similarly examined the larger economic and technological environments that shaped the possibilities and limitations of black activism. Written in the early 1970s when textbooks still credited Brown v. Board with launching the civil rights revolution, Sitkoff challenged such claims as he courted controversy for downplaying the efforts of individuals and grassroots protest, “even for erasing blacks from the story.” Toward Freedom Land addresses these concerns while hoping to “spur some historians to do more contextualizing and less editorializing” (11).
Indeed, throughout the book, Sitkoff addresses many of the concerns and controversies surrounding his work in the field of black history. Republishing lesser-known works and highlighting key elements from among his major contributions, the book reveals a career shaped by the personal and political struggles around him. As a Jewish New Yorker coming of age in the 1960s, he felt the need to challenge an older generation even as he faced criticism for being an “outsider.” Essays such as “African Americans, American Jews, and the Holocaust” reflect some of these tensions, he acknowledges, as he examines the troubled relationship between American Jews and black activists. Mirroring the dominant sentiments of the time, the black leadership had to overcome “a compound of ignorance and indifference sparked with anti-Semitism” as they came to a common cause with victims of Nazi oppression (154). Such works, he hoped, reflect the possibilities of political cooperation among oppressed groups.
Sitkoff’s career has also maneuvered the waning of “great man” and institutional histories in the last two decades. Perhaps too many scholars overcompensate for such approaches in their examination of more localized studies, he argues. His essay on Wendell Wilkie, an early reformer who helped link the black freedom movement to struggles against colonialism and imperialism, remind readers of the ways civil rights leadership shaped and articulated the experiences of the “powerless” in everyday life. At the same time, his recent biography of Martin Luther King demonstrates his attempt to account for both the larger ideals of the reformer and the day-to-day struggles that those principles often evoked. The included excerpt from his 2008 biography reveals a civil rights leader failing in health and retreating into extramarital affairs as his increasingly passionate antiwar stance alienated him from civil rights allies. Depicting King “in all his humanness, not as an icon” offers an intimate glimpse into his later career as he despaired of a society “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity” (198).
Sikoff’s volume is one among a handful of career reflections by historians who came of age amid the Civil Rights Movement. Such volumes will remain valuable to scholars tempted to move beyond the “dated” paths of an older generation as we move on to the golden shores of “ground-up” histories of “lived experience.” As we do so, Toward Freedom Land reminds us “that we are hardly exempt from the intellectual limitations we see so clearly in our predecessors” (8). Nonetheless, we can take both challenge and comfort in his blend of scholarly humility and daring. As we seek out new historiographical paths and unearth the complex pasts of the voiceless, the march of historical scholarship should encourage continued self-reflection and debate. As Sitkoff playfully reminds us, “the beat goes on. The beat goes on.”