|Professor's History of the Civil Rights Movement Honors Its Lesser-Known Heroes
January 20, 2011
Contact: Bill Giduz
|Associate Professor Daniel Aldridge
The Civil Rights Movement is over, and its strategies won't help those seeking to improve the welfare of African Americans today. That's the message of a new book, Becoming American: The African American Quest for Civil Rights, 1861-1976, written by Davidson College Associate Professor of History Daniel W. Aldridge III.
The book presents a critical and analytical study of Civil Rights Movement leaders and organizations, whose efforts during more than a century overturned the South's "Jim Crow" legal and extralegal system of discrimination. A ten-year member of the Davidson faculty, Aldridge undertook the sweeping topic because he couldn't find a single volume for his classes that covered the entire movement from beginning to end. Harlan Davidson Publishers accepted the idea for its "The American History" series, and Aldridge began work in earnest in 2007. He was able to finalize early drafts during a spring term 2010 sabbatical.
The book title reflects Aldridge's belief that the Civil Rights Movement began with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The title also concludes the movement ended in the mid-1970s. Aldridge chose the year 1976 out of his belief that by that date the Civil Rights Movement had achieved its principal goals. He emphasizes that reaching those goals does not imply that that racism no longer exists, nor that it should no longer be combatted. But African Americans in the post-civil rights era could freely vote, run for office, articulate their grievances and be served in public accommodations.
African Americans vividly demonstrated their new status in 1976 by helping elect a sympathetic Southerner, Jimmy Carter, as president, who appointed an unprecedented number of African Americans to major positions. Most notably, he named King's close associate Andrew Young as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Aldridge believes the public gives more radical African American leaders, like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, too much credit for bringing about civil rights. "Those figures were emotionally appealing, but their impact is overrated," Aldridge said. "They were good at articulating grievances, but they didn't offer a positive, effective alternative to non-violence as a tactic and racial integration as an ultimate goal. Adopting calls to violence and racial separatism would have created a terrible situation for blacks and whites alike."
Likewise, he acknowledges the importance of Martin Luther King Jr. But he contends that Dr. King's contributions were possible only because of the actions of many lesser known people and groups, and he seeks in his book to give them their due.
Among them are Walter White, executive director of the NAACP from 1931 to 1955. Aldridge explained "Under White, the NAACP made civil rights a respectable cause. It did not fall under the sway of leftist or other radical influences that would have marginalized African Americans. The NAACP helped civil rights succeed by bringing it into the political mainstream."
Another is A. Phillip Randolph, whose risky work to organize a sleeping car porters' union on trains in the 1930s was an important step toward building the civil rights movement. "He was another leader who helped raise social conscience and greater political sophistication among blacks without promoting violence," said Aldridge.
Aldridge also believes that Booker T. Washington was a more effective civil rights leader than many people believe. Washington has been attacked as overly timid in his stance and actions, but Aldridge believes that history has borne out Washington's observations that over-emphasizing protest politics and seeking rights without a corresponding focus on combating social and economic underdevelopment would benefit the most advantaged, talented, and affluent African Americans while leaving many poorer blacks relatively untouched.
Aldridge does credit Martin Luther King as the most successful figure at promoting non-violence, but points out that he was not unique in that achievement. Bayard Rustin and James Farmer, leaders of the Congress for Racial Equality, pioneered freedom rides and sit-ins in the 1940s. In fact, Aldridge states, as far back as the 1930s many African Americans were citing Mohandas Gandhi as a role model for the American Civil Rights Movement.
Part of King's genius was his ability to appeal to multiple audiences, including liberal whites, average whites, African Americans and Christians.
Aldridge also notes, "His positioning of civil rights as something patriotic-a fulfillment of America's core values-was crucially important. King's steadfast refusal to endorse violence or to make a cheap appeal to African Americans' frustrations by baiting and demonizing whites makes him one of the greatest figures in world history. He didn't invent those approaches, but he practiced them in a way no one else could."
History has also shown that the attainment of civil rights didn't benefit African Americans across the board. It did open doors for the most advanced, most talented, and most affluent African Americans, who today hold offices such as the President of the United States and professors at Davidson College. But the civil rights struggle did not to the same degree improve the lives of poor African Americans in inner cities and small towns who struggle with poverty, violence and broken families.
Aldridge said, "Because the Civil Rights Movement succeeded, it was a high point in African American history, but no one-left or right, black or white-has found a way to fix the pressing issue of turning ghettos into functional neighborhoods. It's everyone's problem, and we need to work on it together. We need a new path to success, but it's not going to include the same tactics and strategies that worked for the Civil Rights Movement."
He continued, "Protest politics and identity politics can't fix the problems plaguing poor and working class blacks. The high rates of crime, broken families, poor literacy and numeracy skills, and other social dysfunctions that we see are not a racial anomaly, but are a particularly acute manifestation of a broader crisis affecting poor and working class Americans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds."
However, he believes success may come from efforts of the same type of local, largely unrecognized activists who led the Civil Rights Movement.
Aldridge was steeped in the Civil Rights Movement from an early age. His great-aunt, Dorothy Height, was president of the National Council of Negro Women for more than 50 years. When she died in 2010, President Obama delivered the eulogy at her funeral, and Aldridge met the President, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden on that occasion.
His father was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Detroit, and associated with some of the more radical figures in the movement. Aldridge notes that Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown were guests in his house. "But by the time I was 18, I knew it was a different era," Aldridge said. "I had never experienced discrimination as my parents had. I was never denied seating in a restaurant or the right to vote."
Aldridge earned a law degree at Northwestern University and worked for two years as a public defender in Los Angeles before returning to graduate school and receiving his Ph.D. in history at Emory University. He taught two years at Ursinus College before joining the Davidson faculty in 2000. He has focused many aspects of African American history, and this semester is teaching a seminar that explores African American cultural history, with segments on film, the Harlem Renaissance, sports, and rhythm and blues.
He is considering writing another book that would focus on the role of previously overlooked African American cultural figures in achievement of civil rights. In the 1950s and early 1960s, "Black popular standards singers like Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald were very popular with white as well as black audiences, and many were outspoken activists," he noted.
He has previously written about the parallel efforts of the U.S. government and African American civic organizations during the 1940s to give the United Nations the power to regulate and terminate colonialism, and African American activists' opposition to U.S. entry into World War II.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.