Who Let Them In? Reconsidering Boundaries of Civil Rights and Black Freedom Movement Narratives

AHA Session 49
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Columbia Hall 6 (Washington Hilton)
Tyina Steptoe, University of Washington Seattle

Session Abstract

Motivated by the theme of “Disagreement, Debate, Discussion,” the proposed panel’s central purpose is to interrogate current historiographical frameworks for Civil Rights and Black Freedom Movement histories.  Focusing on the antebellum era, Dana Weiner's paper extends civil rights history back to the mid-19th century western United States through an examination of how African American reformers in California during the 1850s and 1860s pursued their full rights using legal procedures and direct action campaigns. Dave Gilbert uses cultural history methods to reconceptualize “class” in an analysis of how blacks in the early 20thcentury urban north fashioned “New Negro” identities through the marketplace and in tension and collaboration with white America. Brenna Greer asks how  successful post-World War II black capitalists contributed to civil rights agendas through non-activist activities, claiming that what she terms “civil rights work” was often problematic and non-progressive, precisely because it occurred within postwar capitalism. Finally, Peter Pihos traverses boundaries within civil rights and black freedom stories between blacks and law enforcement by examining the experiences of Renault Robinson, an African American Black Power advocate and Chicago police officer during the 1970s.

Collectively, the four proposed papers push the narrative boundaries of the black freedom struggle in terms of when and where these battles took place, who waged these battles and how. As a panel, our goal is to invite (re)consideration of how we—as a culture and a discipline—tell the story of how African Americans in the United States have combated racism, sought their civil rights and freedom, and asserted their equality. Generally, this history is presented as a mid-20thcentury political or legislative contest between black activists and white supremacists or power structures, which took the form of non-violent, legislative, or militant protest. As a panel, we hope our papers will highlight and bring into question—with the purpose of debating, but also complicating and even moving beyond—current trends prominent in the current civil rights and black freedom movement historiographies, including the “long movement” and the “cultural turn.” We believe this panel will be of interest to African American history and movement scholars in particular. Among this population, we expect our individual or collective assertions regarding the limits and potential of current movement historiographies might elicit strong, but productive reactions.

We have invited Tyina Steptoe to chair our panel because her experience teaching and writing in topics of African American history across regional, cultural, and temporal borders assures she will guide a dynamic session with plenty of audience participation. In terms of format, each panelist will speak for a total of fifteen minutes (with brief biographical introductions from the Chair). After completion of all four presentations, the panel chair will moderate a question and answer session. We have elected not to have a commentator because we want to allow more time for the audience members to ‘disagree, debate, and discuss’ the premises we put forth.

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