The Struggle for Black Equality 1954-1980 Analysis

Harvard Sitkoff

The Struggle for Black Equality 1954-1980

This is a particularly good time to examine with Harvard Sitkoff The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1980. Civil rights activists are complaining that the gains of the last quarter of a century are under assault. The current administration in Washington has proven antagonistic to Affirmative Action plans, mandatory busing as a remedy for unconstitutional school segregation, and IRS administrative rules that deny tax exemptions to schools that discriminate. Other more extreme measures are being pushed by various senators and representatives. There is a Senate bill that would virtually reverse the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education by denying lower courts the right to issue almost any kind of desegregation order and another Senate bill that would permit the reopening of closed desegregation cases by any individual in the community even if the desegregation plan has been successful or in effect for several years. In the House there is a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit federal courts from issuing any remedies after a finding of constitutional violations. A similar proposed constitutional amendment was only defeated by seven votes in 1979. In this context, it is tempting for civil rights activists to conclude that the nation is abandoning all pretense of a commitment to end discrimination and racial injustice.

The kind of historical perspective that Sitkoff provides, however, suggests that such a conclusion would be premature. As a Northern white college student, Sitkoff had been involved in the Southern black freedom struggle of the early 1960’s. His early optimism and faith in the ultimate triumph of the black campaign for human rights gave way to disillusionment and disenchantment as the struggle failed to sweep away the entrenched racism of American society. As a graduate student, his initial essays minimized the accomplishments of those who had labored to reduce the pervasive racism in our society. Yet further research, focused on the 1930’s and 1940’s, revealed that decades of seemingly limited surface change could nevertheless entail a variety of fundamental changes in the status of race relations that would ultimately lead to significant racial reforms. That insight is clearly reflected in his first book on the subject, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (1978). While the book details the failures of the New Deal in the area of civil rights, it also shows that the New Deal years constitute a watershed of developments whose outgrowth was a broad-based social movement aimed at bringing about a fuller participation of blacks in American society.

The same deeper perspective informs Sitkoff’s The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1980. After sketching important developments before 1954, Sitkoff provides a succinct narrative that captures the drama of the civil rights battle during the period he calls the Second Reconstruction, 1954-1965. The Second Reconstruction period begins with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education and ends with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In his final chapter, Sitkoff talks of “The Dream Deferred.” Just five days after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, the most destructive race riot in more than two decades began in Watts, Los Angeles’ largest black ghetto. This turned out to be a mere prelude to acts of destruction and desperation in Chicago, Cleveland, Dayton, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Newark, and Detroit. The fiery riots provided a rationalization for white expressions of hostility toward blacks. In 1968 Richard Nixon campaigned against open housing and busing for racial balance. George Wallace made the fear and resentment of blacks the central thrust of his campaign, and Hubert Humphrey, long associated in the public mind with the civil rights movement, won just one out of every three white votes. Nixon then pursued a “Southern strategy” in preparing for his reelection effort, and the transformation of the Supreme Court was begun. By 1974 there was a five to four majority willing to overrule the only desegregation plan that could work in Detroit because it required interdistrict busing and the suburbs had not themselves caused Detroit’s segregation. More black students attended segregated schools in 1980 than at the time of Brown v. Board of Education. The index of residential segregation rose in nearly every American city between 1960 and 1980. As one reads Sitkoff’s account of the years between 1965 and 1980, it becomes clear that the retreat on civil rights did not begin with the election of 1980. There is no new assault from President Ronald Reagan and the “New Right” but a continuation and acceleration of long established trends.

Should those who would like to see black progress despair as they watch current developments? What is the ultimate significance of the current legislative initiatives for the civil rights movement?

Sitkoff’s discussion does not extend to the 1980 election and its aftermath, but it is still suggestive. Sitkoff argues that the First Reconstruction foundered on the failure of the federal government to establish a viable economic base for the freed slaves. The Second Reconstruction ended the legally enforced segregation of Jim Crow laws, but only helped the black middle class economically. Towns with black mayors and other black officials still failed to provide jobs for the jobless and adequate housing and health care for the poor, even though cities with black mayors spent more per capita for education and social services and directed a higher proportion of their budgets toward the needs of the disadvantaged than those headed by whites. Sitkoff concludes that the Second Reconstruction did not result in equality because of the lack of a thorough economic transformation. Nevertheless, he also argues that blacks are today far closer to equality than they were in 1954 and are in a...

(The entire section is 2470 words.)


Best Sellers. XLI, September, 1981, p. 227.

Booklist. LXXVIII, September 15, 1981, p. 78.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, August 1, 1981, p. 1000.

Library Journal. CVI, August, 1981, p. 1539.

Publishers Weekly. CCXIX, June 26, 1981, p. 55.