Christina’s Review: Sweet Land of Liberty by Thomas J. Sugrue


sweet land

 His book did not fall short of expectation and understanding the politics behind the Civil Rights movement from the New Deal forward. One thing I learned is how every movement was really only as strong as their grassroots. Movements were largely grassroots organized and pushed, which was where their power came from.

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North by Thomas J. Sugrue

Published: November 4th 2008 by Random House
Genre: Nonfiction, History
Pages: 720

Synopsis:

The struggle for racial equality in the North has been a footnote in most books about civil rights in America. Now this monumental new work from one of the most brilliant historians of his generation sets the record straight. Sweet Land of Liberty is an epic, revelatory account of the abiding quest for justice in states from Illinois to New York, and of how the intense northern struggle differed from and was inspired by the fight down South.

Thomas Sugrue’s panoramic view sweeps from the 1920s to the present–more than eighty of the most decisive years in American history. He uncovers the forgotten stories of battles to open up lunch counters, beaches, and movie theaters in the North; the untold history of struggles against Jim Crow schools in northern towns; the dramatic story of racial conflict in northern cities and suburbs; and the long and tangled histories of integration and black power.

Appearing throughout these tumultuous tales of bigotry and resistance are the people who propelled progress, such as Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a dedicated churchwoman who in the 1930s became both a member of New York’s black elite and an increasingly radical activist; A. Philip Randolph, who as America teetered on the brink of World War II dared to threaten FDR with a march on Washington to protest discrimination–and got the Fair Employment Practices Committee (“the second Emancipation Proclamation”) as a result; Morris Milgram, a white activist who built the Concord Park housing development, the interracial answer to white Levittown; and Herman Ferguson, a mild-mannered New York teacher whose protest of a Queens construction site led him to become a key player in the militant Malcolm X’s movement.

Filled with unforgettable characters and riveting incidents, and making use of information and accounts both public and private, such as the writings of obscure African American journalists and the records of civil rights and black power groups, Sweet Land of Liberty creates an indelible history. Thomas Sugrue has written a narrative bound to become the standard source on this essential subject. (synopsis from Amazon)

Review:

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Thomas J. Sugrue’s book Sweet Land of Liberty was no short read, but very insightful on the history of the Civil Rights movement in the north, a location with a lot of Civil Rights momentum previously overlooked by historians. Sugrue argued you can not fully understand the Civil Rights movement without the north. (xiv) Sugrue said his book was a political history, noting: “Race is a political construction, one whose pernicious consequences can be unmade only through political action.” (xxiii) His book did not fall short of expectation and understanding the politics behind the Civil Rights movement from the New Deal forward. One thing I learned is how every movement was really only as strong as their grassroots. Movements were largely grassroots organized and pushed, which was where their power came from. Their activism is what drove the Civil Rights movement over the decades.

I especially liked the chapter “No Place for Color” which broke Jim Crow down in the north. I found this chapter particularly interesting, especially with the break down of police actions, press’ impact, protests in the north, and details on the regulation and effects of Jim Crow in public places such as movie theatres, restaurants, beaches/pools, amusement parks, and similar places. This chapter really brought things into a clearer picture for me, setting the tone for the remainder of the book.

A couple critiques: I would have very much loved foot notes, especially on some of the references through the book. In addition, there were quite a few rhetorical questions that were distracting for me. (ex: 134-135; 143) One last note, the author referenced “uplift” quite a bit throughout the first part of the book, particularly referencing fraternal and sorority organizations for providing this uplift. As the book continued, there was a little more on uplift, but I would have still liked to have seen this theme carried on more. Maybe a little more on some of the influential leaders’ involvements in fraternities and sororities, and grassroots movements that started with with these groups and contributed to the uplift…

christina

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