American Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement

Anonymous Comrade writes: "American Prospect

Intellectuals' Inaction
by Steven Biel

Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement, by Carol
Polsgrove. W.W. Norton, 296 pages, $26.95

W.E.B. du Bois's statement that "the problem of the Twentieth Century
is the problem of the color-line" has been quoted, cited, and
paraphrased so often that, by the century's end, it had passed beyond
bold prophecy into the safe realm of Great Thoughts. But has anybody
pointed out the historical irony of Du Bois's famous line? Here was
one of the century's most important American public intellectuals
emphatically announcing the problem, which other important public
intellectuals proceeded to ignore. John Dewey, Walter Lippmann, Lewis
Mumford, Reinhold Niebuhr, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Hannah
Arendt, Mary McCarthy--for all of them, race was at best an
occasional topic, hardly central to their work.

The cosmopolitanism that animated American public intellectual life
through the 1950s contained a paradox: that the authority of these
intellectuals rested upon a universalism that was actually a
disguised form of particularism. Thomas Bender has observed that
Trilling's authority as a public intellectual came from the limits of
his perspective; he spoke to and for a white, educated, urban
middle-class audience. Trilling and his fellow intellectuals claimed
to speak for humanity, but they often wrote as if humanity stopped at
110th Street. As Ralph Ellison remarked in 1964, they failed to
"involve themselves either by their writings or their
our own great national struggle....The events set in motion by the
Supreme Court decision of 1954 and accelerated by the Civil Rights
Act of 1964, and which are now transforming not only the South but
the entire nation--events that are creating a revolution not only in
our race relations but in our political morality--have found them
ominously silent."

Carol Polsgrove's Divided Minds deftly narrates and explains these
silences and evasions. The Cold War, Polsgrove convincingly argues,
bears most of the blame. For Cold War liberals like Niebuhr and
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the repudiation of radicalism, the faith
(in Schlesinger's paraphrase of Niebuhr) "that men and women could
act more effectively for decency and justice under the banner of a
genuine humility than they had under the banner of an illusory
perfectibility," produced a "realism" that failed to grasp the moral
urgency of the civil rights movement.

Polsgrove, a professor of journalism at Indiana University, is blunt
about the failure of white intellectuals. When "faced with the
challenge of racial equality," she writes, "they hesitated--fearful,
cautious, distracted, or simply indifferent." But she also allows
that "it would be a mistake to heap too much blame on these
intellectuals as individuals." Instead, Divided Minds presents them
as "captives of their social world, prisoners of a closed society."

That "some intellectuals failed the challenge of their time,"
Polsgrove recognizes, did not escape the notice of other
intellectuals in the 1950s. Irving Howe, as editor of Dissent,
objected to Niebuhr's "counsel of patience" in the wake of the 1954
Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Montgomery bus boycott,
his preference for "organic processes of persuasion" by southern
moderates over federal intervention, and his support for the
"opportunistic" Adlai Stevenson. Howe expected "something a little
more forthright--a little more moral--from the foremost exponent in
the United States of the Protestant 'crisis theology,'" and he
frequently scolded his fellow intellectuals for embracing a
liberalism that, by espousing humility, complexity, and ambiguity,
too often slid into timidity and conformity. "The issue is very
simple," Howe wrote, "and those intellectuals who habitually worry
about the dangers of oversimplifying might here trouble themselves
about the dangers of undersimpifying."

Of course, the Cold War had more immediate effects on intellectual
discourse in the form of red-baiting, censorship, and
self-censorship. "While communism was used to taint the whole
desegregation movement with a broad brush," Polsgrove observes,
"Negro intellectuals in particular felt the sting of the Red chill."
After 1951, Du Bois, a "pariah" for his Communist sympathies, could
no longer find mainstream publishers for his work. Richard Wright and
Ellison were both vulnerable because of their Communist pasts; both
were "missing persons" as the movement gained momentum in the
mid-1950s--Wright in Paris, Ellison in Rome. It is a hard task for a
historian to write about what people didn't do or say, but Polsgrove
rises to it. Her brisk biographical vignettes offer a sobering
glimpse of intellectuals whose past and present ideologies kept them
aloof from the "great national struggle" that Ellison later invoked.

Had Polsgrove ventured further back than 1954 to begin her story, it
might have been even more sobering. Dwight Macdonald, who receives
only passing mention in Divided Minds, was for a time as outspoken on
race matters as his fellow New York intellectuals were silent;
Macdonald even proclaimed racial equality "The No. 1 Issue in 1944."
In the early 1940s, as Michael Wreszin details in his 1994 biography
A Rebel in Defense of Tradition, Macdonald was moving away from
Marxism and staking out a lonely anarcho-pacifist position against
U.S. participation in World War II. Increasingly estranged from his
colleagues at Partisan Review, he was also about to launch the
project for which he is best remembered--Politics, arguably the
finest radical magazine ever produced in the United States.
Macdonald's plans for Politics coincided with his involvement in A.
Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement, for which he and his
wife Nancy wrote a pamphlet called The War's Greatest Scandal: The
Story of Jim Crow in Uniform. Discrimination in the armed forces
quickly became Macdonald's cause célèbre. As he came to embrace
pacifism, Macdonald also looked to civil rights agitation as a model
of nonviolent direct action.

Why did a public intellectual so firmly dedicated to the civil rights
movement before the Brown decision have relatively little to say
about it in the 1950s? Macdonald's interest in race was contingent
upon his ability to maintain his radical faith. Though he continued
to think of himself as a dissenter, he responded to the Cold War by
shifting his concerns from politics--and Politics, which he shut down
in 1949--to culture. No longer a pacifist, he now described himself
as a "conservative anarchist." In this spirit, he denounced William
F. Buckley's opposition to the Brown decision by arguing that a "true
conservative" would wish to uphold the original intent of the 14th
Amendment and would therefore support the Court's belated agreement
with Justice John Marshall Harlan's dissenting opinion in Plessy v.
Ferguson, which Macdonald had published in Politics in 1945. But he
spent most of his intellectual energy in the 1950s attacking mass
culture instead of racism. Given her large cast of characters, it's
hard to fault Polsgrove for not including Macdonald, though his
odyssey provides especially strong support for her argument that the
Cold War "repressed" the public intellectual discussion of race.
(Polsgrove is careful to point out that the Cold War also "provided
liberals with an argument for racial change"; racism hurt the United
States in its ideological competition with the Soviet Union.)

The heroes of Divided Minds are those few intellectuals, black and
white, who resisted this repression by speaking out boldly and
consistently in support of the movement, most notably Lawrence Dunbar
Reddick, Howard Zinn, James Silver, and above all, James Baldwin.
Reddick, a professor at Alabama State University, participated in the
Montgomery bus boycott, described it in Dissent, collaborated with
Martin Luther King, Jr., on his first book, Stride toward Freedom
(1958), and wrote Crusader without Violence (1959), the first King
biography. He was fired by Alabama State in 1960 on the pretense of
Communist affiliations but really for his involvement with
Montgomery's lunch-counter sit-ins. Zinn's articles on the Atlanta
sit-ins--he was teaching at Spelman College at the time--initiated
his role as a "persistent spokesman" for the movement "in the
northern press." Zinn became a strategist and publicist for the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and wrote the
organization's first history, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964).
Silver, a University of Mississippi historian, persuaded William
Faulkner to speak out on desegregation at the annual Southern
Historical Association (SHA) meeting in 1955, reported on the South
for the Economist, supported James Meredith's attempt to matriculate
at Ole Miss, described Mississippi as "totalitarian" in a 1963 speech
to the SHA, and indicted the state (for a bigger audience) in
Mississippi: The Closed Society (1964).

Baldwin is the only figure to whom Polsgrove devotes an entire
chapter. The darling of the Partisan Review group in the late 1940s
and early 1950s, Baldwin came to revile their "impotence and
narcissism." Polsgrove recovers "the apocalyptic context" in which
his "Letter from a Region in My Mind" (soon to be the central essay
in The Fire Next Time) appeared in The New Yorker in November 1962,
"directly in the wake of the University of Mississippi and Cuban
missile crises." She charts its impact on others--the "fireworks" it
ignited, especially among white liberals--and its effects on Baldwin
himself. The essay "signaled a deeper alienation from his native
land, and a deeper radicalism than any he had expressed." Baldwin,
now "an icon of black anger," visited the South, appeared on the
cover of Time during the Birmingham crisis, and led the movement's
delegation in a famously confrontational meeting with Robert Kennedy
in May 1963. Polsgrove sums up Baldwin's intellectual heroism by
observing that he articulated, "in terms many white Americans could
understand, the anguish and anger Negroes had hidden from whites for
so long. Through his essays, interviews, and speeches, through
television appearances and press conferences, through conversations
in barrooms and living rooms, he stretched the limits of what could
be said."

By documenting the failure of public intellectuals to engage with the
most pressing issue of their time, Divided Minds ought to put an end
to any nostalgia for a postwar intellectual golden age. But Polsgrove
takes a wrong turn in her postscript, where she offers a stale
rehashing of the kind of jeremiad that Russell Jacoby presented with
such eloquence and provocativeness in The Last Intellectuals (1987).
"As a class," she complains, "American intellectuals--who claim
social resources in return for the time to think and reflect on the
culture--have abandoned their responsibility for society even more
completely than they had in the 1950s and 1960s." According to
Polsgrove, intellectuals are now prisoners of a different kind of
closed society: the proverbial "ivory tower" where "scholars and
serious writers write mostly for each other."

Granted, "intellectual life" mostly takes place "behind the walls of
universities"; the tenure process doesn't usually reward those who
try to write for a "general public"; there will always be professors
who are "careerists" or "jobholders" rather than public
intellectuals. No doubt there could and should be more intellectuals
taking on the "responsibility for publicly raising basic questions,
for everyone to consider, about what we as a society are up to." Yet
Polsgrove must be aware of the many contemporary scholars who write
for nonacademic audiences about important social issues, including
race: Cornel West, bell hooks, Eric Foner, Robin Kelley, Michael
Dyson, Lani Guinier, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to name just a few.
Polsgrove does herself and others a disservice by needlessly
bemoaning the absence of a public discourse to which her own book
makes a significant contribution."