Exploring Political Networks in the Post-Civil Rights Era

AHA Session 16
Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Denver Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Heather Thompson, Temple University
Joseph H. Crespino, Emory University

Session Abstract

Many popular and scholarly works perpetuate the idea that the 1970s marked the decline of modern liberalism and the meteoric ascendance of the conservative right.  Top-down treatments of President Nixon’s policies and grassroots studies of conservative activists do much to further this assumption.  But in the suburbs of Boston, the District of Columbia, and throughout the South, networks of community members, local politicians, and interest groups worked together to both challenge the Federal Government’s policies about race and civil rights and, also, to shore up support for them.  This panel focuses on the ways that the work of these various networks across the country resisted and adapted to the processes of political realignment, and it aims to revise conventional political narratives about the post-Civil Rights era. 

In the 1970s, second-wave feminism achieved its broadest constituency and achieved a series of legal, social, and cultural advancements that drew upon the language of the civil rights movement.  In metropolitan Boston, white middle-class suburban liberals’ grassroots feminism campaigns challenged the crumbling of the postwar liberal order and shed light on the linkages between the civil rights and feminist movements.  These suburban feminists relied on the contacts, networks, and tactics that they had established through civil rights activism.  At the same time, they cast their campaign against discrimination in terms of personal prejudice, thereby disassociating the movement from earlier efforts to create structural rather than individual equality.

Conservatives also engaged with this language of personal responsibility.  It remained a cornerstone of the Right’s political philosophy.  But for the Right, the idea that local government could be responsible for the law and order of the country’s cities had been crushed by the urban riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  To combat the rampant crime that presidential candidate Richard Nixon believed characterized the post-Civil Rights era, he launched a “law and order” campaign that played on the nation’s racialized fears.  As president, Nixon made D.C. the focal point of this campaign.  He drew ire from black Washingtonians and helped resuscitate networks of civil rights activists that had lay dormant after the 1968 riots.  Like the feminists in suburban Boston, black community activists drew on the ideals and tactics of liberalism to counter Nixon’s challenge to the postwar political order.

The African American backlash to Nixon’s law and order measures was symbolic of their nation-wide rejection of the Republican Party.  In the 1970s, black voters were increasingly wary of the party.  This deeply troubled black Republicans who, for years, had warned of the risks associated with neglecting the black vote.  The party’s devastating losses in the 1976 election opened a small window for the GOP to pursue the black vote.  By looking at how these three movements each repurposed the language and ideology of the civil rights movement, this panel seeks to complicate the oversimplistic framework of political realignment in the 1970s and, at the same time, join the larger endeavor to expand the geographic, chronological, and ideological boundaries of the civil rights movement.

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