A couple of weeks ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wrote about Jeanne Theoharis’s important book A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, in which she reminds historians—and the broader public—not to neglect the movement in the North. In one particularly powerful example, Theoharis notes the relatively scant attention paid to the massive walkout in New York City schools 55 years ago this week. As she writes:
On February 3, 1964, more than 460,000 students and teachers stayed out of school to protest the New York City Board of Education’s refusal to create a comprehensive school desegregation plan. Bigger even than the 1963 March on Washington, New York’s school boycott was the culmination of a decade of work by Northern organizers such as the Reverend Milton Galamison and Ella Baker, along with Black parents including Mae Mallory and Viola Waddy, who demanded an equal education for their children. And it was the result of a decade of delay, obfuscation, and obstructionism by New York City leaders and white New Yorkers who might have praised the Brown decision but didn’t think it applied to them. (p. 35)
And yet I would be willing to bet that you have never heard of this. With two degrees in history and an informal specialization in civil rights history, I hadn’t. Compare this with the well-known student strike led by Barbara Johns at Robert Russa Moton High School in tiny Farmville, Virginia.
What accounts for the disparate attention? It could be because the Moton walkout occurred first, but it could also be because civil rights history has been deliberately framed as a southern phenomenon. According to Theoharis, “To recognize the long movement in New York and Boston to desegregate schools would have opened a much more uncomfortable set of questions on the limits of Northern liberalism and the pervasive nature of school segregation. It would disrupt the happy ending and challenge the easy morality tale the fable gives us—of Northern good guys who went South to support the movement—and show how white Northerners disparaged and quelled movements in their own backyards” (p. 33).
Despite receiving comparatively little attention, the movement in the North has not been neglected altogether. In fact, another book I’ve mentioned recently—Joseph Crespino’s In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution—actually does address it, if somewhat tangentially. Crespino notes how, as desegregation efforts reached a crescendo in 1970, U.S. Senator John Stennis (D-MS) took an unusual approach to combating what he perceived as a hypocritical assault on southern segregation: “He introduced an amendment to a federal education bill that called for equal desegregation efforts in both the North and the South, regardless of whether the segregation resulted from state action or residential patterns” (p. 175). While it might seem strange for an ardent segregationist to introduce a measure promoting desegregation, it was a poison pill. As Crespino points out, “The real motivation, which almost every southern official conceded, was the hope that accelerated desegregation in the North would spark a broader, national backlash against school desegregation that would provide relief for white southerners” (p. 175). Although the Stennis Amendment failed to gain passage, thus thwarting the Senator’s efforts to spark a broader backlash, the unwillingness to support desegregation in the North revealed the limits of desegregation efforts among liberals.
Theoharis picks up this line of analysis. She writes, “In their manipulation of the Civil Rights Act, Northern liberals used the veiled language of ‘racial imbalance’ and ‘neighborhood schools’ and applied their political power to keep desegregation away from their schools. In time, Southerners came to follow suit. . . . Thus, in many ways, Northerners developed the tactics that are now associated with some of the reddest Southern states in the union” (p. 93).
Racial discrimination was a nationwide phenomenon, but as the Drive-By Truckers put it, “thanks to George Wallace, it’s always a little more convenient to play it with a Southern accent.” In the election of 1968, Wallace won only five states, all in the Deep South: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Yet this is another example of how electoral maps obscure more than they reveal. Wallace won almost 10 million votes nationwide, and less than a quarter of those came from the five states he won. In fact, only a slim majority of Wallace’s votes came from former Confederate states. The electoral map also hides the fact that Wallace received almost a half-million votes in California (487,270 / 6.72%) and Ohio (467,495 / 11.81%), and more than a quarter-million votes in the following states:
- Illinois (390,958 / 8.46%)
- Pennsylvania (378,582 / 7.97%)
- New York (358,864 / 5.29%)
- Michigan (331,968 / 10.04%)
- New Jersey (262,187 / 9.12%)
In Indiana he came up just short of that threshold, earning 243,108 votes (11.45%).
This is another reason why civil rights activity in the North deserves greater attention than it has heretofore received: it helped to midwife the modern conservative movement. Like the civil rights movement in general, we tend to associate the rise of the modern Republican Party with the southern backlash against civil rights. While that certainly is part of the story, it is not the only part.