Empowering the Black Masses
Book chronicles civil rights, Black power movements in America’s ‘first capital.’
Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia
By Matthew Countryman
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006,
Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia joins a growing body of literature on the civil rights and Black power movements in the North that is radically challenging the way historians conceptualize those movements in particular and the post-World War II period generally. Chronicling the struggle for civil rights in a city rich in the icons of freedom, Matthew Countryman skillfully illuminates how America’s first capital and “cradle of liberty” left much to be desired in the arena of Black civil rights.
Countryman’s rich study begins in the 1940s and ’50s, when the future looked bright for civil rights organizers and activists. Adding to an increasingly familiar scholarly narrative, he notes how the promise of these liberal reforms failed to reach the masses of Blacks outside the South. Despite an impressive public record on civil rights, which included one of the nation’s first fair employment practice laws and a 1951 ban on racial discrimination, the majority of Philadelphia’s Black population endured high unemployment, poor housing and substandard education, indicative of Northern-style apartheid. In stark contrast to its commitment to civil rights on paper, in practice the city often failed to guarantee not only fair employment practices but also suitable access to a broad range of social and human services as well. The inability to achieve redress through established channels of communication like the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission eventually led large numbers of Black Philadelphians to seek alternatives outside of the system.
In the early 1960s, Philadelphia activists flourished, led in large part by Baptist minister Leon Sullivan and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Sullivan and the NAACP spearheaded a large number of boycotts and other demonstrations aimed at defeating discrimination by labor unions, corporations and even government agencies charged with providing vital services. These highly successful campaigns not only bore fruit in the city itself — in the form of new employment opportunities for Blacks — but also influenced the U.S. Department of Labor, which eventually adopted the “Philadelphia Plan” as a model for its highly touted national program to root out discrimination and prejudice in the construction industry.
But there remained rumblings of discontent, especially among those still not benefiting from the gains made by civil rights activists. Thus, by the mid-1960s, a new crop of leaders, many of whom were increasingly influenced by the Black power movement, helped to reshape the contours of civil rights activism in Philadelphia. By focusing attention on this often overlooked segment of the Black community, more militant leaders, like Cecil Moore, endeavored not only to engage the needs of working people in the struggle for civil rights but also to make a case for community control over community institutions. As Countryman explains, Moore and his supporters were able to marshal preexisting “civic and social networks” from “church women’s groups and Black-led trade unions to North Philadelphia youth gangs” to participate in many successful protest campaigns.
Despite the successes of these initiatives, growing numbers of Blacks remained cautious about the limits of mainstream civil rights strategies for achieving fundamental social change. Here, in a major contribution to the available literature, Countryman records in careful and elaborate detail the rise of distinctive but complimentary forms of Black self-help ideology that emerged during the mid-to-late 1960s in an effort to address these concerns. Most notably, Sullivan called for Blacks to develop the capacity for self-help by resurrecting the Booker T. Washington notion of a “hand up” instead of “hand out” move toward social change. Through an agency called the Opportunities Industrialization Centers, Sullivan and his supporters emphasized job training and education as the keys to Black empowerment and appealed to mainstream policy makers on both sides of the political divide. They embraced Sullivan’s program as an alternative to the more nationalistic and revolutionary expressions of self-help offered by such groups as the Black Panther Party.
Countryman, like Dr. Peniel Joseph in his groundbreaking Waiting Til’ The Midnight Hour, persuasively argues that the widespread commitment to grassroots organizing related to Black power in the city ultimately helped to encourage an extensive array of organizing activities that collectively served to deepen the base of the city’s Black leadership while empowering the Black masses.
Countryman’s engaging study is an important contribution to a growing body of literature that is sure to change the way we think about and teach the struggle for Black civil rights in the 21st century.
— Dr. Yohuru Williams is associate professor of history and co-director of the Black studies program at Fairfield University. Countryman is an associate professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan. Up South recently claimed the Liberty Legacy Foundation award as the best book on civil rights in 2006.
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