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Ferguson looks at how black reformers in Atlanta used New Deal federal programs to advance their struggle for citizenship—and how they used their authority as agents of the state to impose a bourgeois "politics of respectability" that effectively stratified the black community.
This book is about the fulfillment of Du Bois's prophecy. It is a study of a group of black Atlantans and their struggle to lift the veil of racial subordination and to move the city's African American community from the margins to the center of civic life. It is also an investigation of how that struggle and its achievements were inexorably shaped by the parallel society that Jim Crow forced black Atlantans to build behind the veil. For, while black Atlantans were bound together by their shared experience of race in a society that segregated and oppressed them according to their ancestry, within the inner wheel of the black community their lives were as various as white Atlantans', whose color united them in white supremacy. Given their diversity, African Americans in the city chose a variety of often conflicting paths to release themselves from the subjugation of Jim Crow. Struggles over the legitimacy and efficacy of these manifold strategies consumed the internal politics of the black community during the Jim Crow era. The resolution of these conflicts would help define the contours of the postwar black freedom struggle, its strategies and objectives, and its achievements. It would also set the stage for the widening gulf between those African Americans who have been able to take advantage of positive recognition from the state since the New Deal and those consigned to remain at the margins of civil society.
It was with a question about the origins of this gulf, so visible and remarked upon today, that I began this study. Why was it, I pondered, that some African Americans had done so well despite the continuing inequalities they and other black people faced in the United States, while others had been left behind, equally marginal in American society as they had been before civil rights achievements and Supreme Court victories? In order to answer this question, I took my cue from Du Bois, both by examining the internal dynamics of the "wheel within the wheel" of the black community and by studying Atlanta. As it was for Du Bois, Atlanta continues to be a bellwether. Even more a black middle-class mecca than at the turn of the last century, "Hotlanta" today is a national center of African American education, culture, and politics. It has been ruled by a black mayor since the election of Maynard Jackson in 1973, and since 1970 its population has been majority black. Nevertheless, it continues to be home to some of the poorest African American urban neighborhoods in the United States.
What I found as I began to seek to resolve this paradox was that the New Deal marked a crucial era by favoring the members and program of a group of black reformers who aimed to incorporate African Americans fully in American society through the vast social reordering promised by the Roosevelt administration. Professionally trained as social workers, sociologists, teachers, economists, and lawyers, and most of them under forty-five years of age, this group of "social engineers," as some of them described themselves, became a crucial element in the New Deal's progressive left wing, which sought to overturn the South's extreme racial and class exploitation. While members of the Washington, D.C., "black cabinet" were the best known of this group, in states and cities across the region, African American bureaucrats and activists worked on the ground to achieve this aim.
No other city matched Atlanta, however, home to the South's largest population of college-educated African Americans and a crucial birthplace of the reform vision that drove the new generation of black elites. The city's numerous black postsecondary institutions, led by Atlanta University (AU), provided a base that acted as a nationwide magnet for social workers and social scientists. Students and graduates of W. E. B. Du Bois's department of sociology at AU and Forrester B. Washington's respected Atlanta School of Social Work (ASSW), members of Lugenia Burns Hope's settlement-house agency, the Neighborhood Union (NU), and black employees and volunteers of a full complement of black- and white-run social-work agencies, formed an unusually large and influential reform group unified in its devotion to uplifting black Atlantans.
Atlanta's environment of Jim Crow white supremacy inextricably shaped this group's perspective and program. In the year of Roosevelt's election, which marks the beginning of this study, black Atlantans were almost entirely excluded from public life. This exclusion was the product of a decades-long effort in Atlanta, in Georgia, in the South, and in the nation to oppress and marginalize black citizens by any means necessary. During this post-Reconstruction period, aptly called the "nadir" by one-time Atlanta University historian Rayford Logan, whites sought to circumscribe the meaning of black freedom to the narrowest of possible definitions. Officials disfranchised black Atlantans through the white primary and poll tax and separated them from whites through local statute and U.S. Supreme Court decree. This legal subjugation was reinforced by custom and by extralegal means. Racial "tradition" compelled social, economic, and residential segregation. White vigilantes regularly and effectively sought to maintain the racial order through antiblack intimidation and mob violence. As a result of these actions, black Atlantans lived beyond the pale of civil society. African Americans were largely unacknowledged except punitively by public officials who denied their citizenship and their contribution to city life.
Elite black reformers shared this exclusion with all other African Americans during this period. Despite their superior schooling and credentials, white society lumped them with all other black people, meaning that their lives were circumscribed to the inner wheel of the black community, where they were forced to live, work, and conduct virtually all of their affairs among the penurious, unschooled, and overworked of their race. This shared exclusion was the basis of black reformers' efforts on the black community's behalf. Whether they liked it or not, they knew that their fate was intertwined with the majority of African Americans, and consequently, as one famous black reform slogan put it, they would have to lift if they wished to climb. Hence, for years before the New Deal, these leaders had worked to force local officials to acknowledge the citizenship of black Atlantans and to incorporate the black community into city affairs. Their frustrating, decades-long struggle for parks and schools, sewers and electricity for black neighborhoods, and black police and higher teachers' salaries, as well as efforts to prepare black Atlantans to assume full citizenship, attested to their confidence that the struggle would someday result in African Americans taking their rightful place at the center of civic life.
However beneficial these efforts were, they were not democratic. Beginning with Jim Crow's effective disfranchisement of African Americans at the turn of the century, black politics were limited to brokerage by a tiny group of literate spokespeople who negotiated on behalf of the black community with white elites. This group's stranglehold on influence with the outer wheel meant that its particular ideology and program for liberation began to represent all African Americans to the outer wheel with little or no accountability to the rest of the black community and with disregard to or dismissal of other strategies for freedom.
Atlanta is an ideal site to examine this elite's ideology and program, for in important ways the city was a well-spring for the "talented tenth." In fact, Atlanta was the birthplace of the term, coined by white Baptist educator Henry T. Morehouse in 1896 during the depths of the nadir. He believed that the masses of African Americans could best be controlled by liberally educated black "race managers" who would form a buffer between non-elite blacks and the white community. Eventually the school he helped found to achieve this aim, Atlanta Baptist College, would be renamed after him. Du Bois, who went on to found the NAACP, then subverted the accommodationism implied in Morehouse's meaning to refer to the group he believed would lead African Americans to full American citizenship through militant protest.
The contradictions of these two definitions, and the racial custodianship essential to both, had enormous implications for black reform efforts in the Jim Crow period. The ambiguity of black reformers' self-defined position as both controllers and liberators was encapsulated in uplift ideology, the most pervasive elite social philosophy of the first half of the twentieth century. As Jim Crow shut African Americans out of the political, economic, and social life of the outer wheel, black reformers in Atlanta sought to prove the citizenship of black people through the only expression available to them-their behavior. By demonstrating that African Americans lived by and aspired to the same moral and behavioral codes as the white middle class, black reformers sought to show that black Atlantans were deserving of full citizenship.
This outward-looking behavioral code evolved into what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has called the "politics of respectability." By teaching African Americans to live lives of bourgeois respectability, black reformers sought to find "common ground on which to live as Americans with Americans of other racial and ethnic backgrounds." Through these shared moral and behavioral standards, black reformers fought to be seen as "both black and American," working against white rhetoric which would "deny this possibility by isolating the 'Negro's place' within physical and symbolic spaces of inferiority." If African Americans were respectable in every way, they could refute the racist stereotypes that whites used to justify black subordination. The rhetoric of respectability, then, was a liberationist tactic to demonstrate African Americans' citizenship, deny white justifications for their imposed marginality, and move toward full inclusion in public life.
Yet by defining black citizenship in terms of behavior and morality, the politics of respectability was decidedly limited as an ideology of racial liberation. Most obvious, it excluded the legions of African Americans who did not and could not conform to the gender roles, public behavior, and economic activity deemed legitimate by bourgeois America but which the forces of Jim Crow white supremacy sought to prevent black people from achieving.
However, instead of simply excluding this group from their purview, black proponents of respectability asserted their citizenship in opposition to and at the expense of the black "masses," thus marginalizing the "unrespectable" even further. Identifying themselves as bourgeois missionaries of respectability, black elites claimed moral superiority and sought recognition of their citizenship by placing themselves above and as the natural leaders of what they considered the uncivilized and undeveloped majority of African Americans. Further, their efforts to uplift and liberate other black people would depend on their followers' adopting respectable behavior as a prerequisite for full citizenship.
As a flowering of recent scholarship has shown us, the rhetoric of respectability infused the language of elite black reformers of every stripe during the first decades of the twentieth century. Its ubiquity pointed to the hegemonic power of the racial ideologies undergirding Jim Crow. However, during the nadir of the early twentieth century, the focus of most respectability literature, this ideology had few implications. Marginalized politically, economically, and socially, black reformers lacked the resources and power that would allow them to pursue their ambitious agenda. They found it impossible to develop large or influential constituencies for their program among whites or the black people they intended to serve. Instead they found themselves trapped within the accommodation of race management. Nor would the forces of Jim Crow allow them to distance themselves physically or symbolically from the poor. Born of futility, uplift ideology reflected the marginality of all African Americans to the polity in the early part of the twentieth century.
Only with the recognition of African Americans by the state during the New Deal did blacks begin to escape this marginality and uplift ideology begin to have material implications for African Americans. Atlanta's black reform elite immediately recognized the New Deal's potential as a tool to escape its borderline position and to advance black citizenship. Hired into federal agencies as social workers, adult education teachers, and "Negro Division" directors, these black bureaucrats worked from within the New Deal's social work meritocracies, manipulating them as much as they could to advance their long-held goals for the black community. Thus black reformers were not simply recipients of federal programs; rather, they shaped federal activity to help bring some black Atlantans from the social, economic, and political margins in ways never intended or dreamt of by white New Deal administrators. To borrow from historian Lizabeth Cohen, they made their own New Deal.
Atlanta's black reformers were in a particularly good position to take advantage of these opportunities. Dominated by university-trained professionals eligible for work in federal bureaucracies, this group's position within the black community and the city strengthened during the 1930s. In other places in the South and the nation where entrepreneurs and professionals like physicians and lawyers figured prominently, the black elite's influence declined due to economic hardship during the Depression. These groups also had fewer opportunities to use the New Deal than Atlanta's social workers, teachers, and economists. Further, in industrial cities nationwide, elite African Americans faced an insurgent working class that threatened their claims to race leadership. While Atlanta's black workers certainly were not quiescent and supported radical movements such as Communism, the vast majority lacked the mobilizing opportunities of industrial work. Hence, the black reform elite's vision and program was unusually dominant in Atlanta.
The relative security of Atlanta's educated elite meant that they responded positively to a shift in strategy among national black leaders away from Morehouse's accommodationism toward Du Bois's militance. Responding to working-class demands and the New Deal's interest-group politics, a new generation of reformers called for a program of assertive and independent action on the part of the black community, rejecting the conciliatory tactics of an earlier generation. This important turn was reflected in the pages of the NAACP's mouthpiece, The Crisis, the National Urban League's Opportunity, and much of the black press. As the NUL's Lester Granger put it, although the black intellectual class had lost touch with working-class issues and concerns, in the "state of confused despair and bitter disillusionment" that characterized the Depression, "lay the seeds of a new racial attitude and leadership." George Streator, W. E. B. Du Bois's 1930s assistant, characterized this new spirit as one attuned to the concerns of the majority of black Americans and based on "mass initiative, mass organization, and mass pressure," including "more democracy, more local control, and wider participation by an ever-growing number of people in the affairs of any and every organization." This strategy marked a sea change in elite reformers' perspective. Badly burned in the 1920s by coalition politics with whites, and suffering even greater exclusion from white-controlled society and economy during the privations of the Depression, many younger (and some older) black reformers turned inward in the 1930s, focusing on what Du Bois called the "internal self-organization" of the black community. This strategy required educated black reformers to make common cause with all African Americans in order to achieve their citizenship aims. While they still would be engineered and led by the "talented tenth," the boycotts, protest meetings, civil court cases, and electoral strategies of this new program all relied upon mass support, both physical and financial.
Excerpted from Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta by Karen Ferguson Copyright © 2002 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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|Pt. I||Life at the Margins|
|1||The Wheel within a Wheel: Black Atlanta and the Reform Elite||19|
|2||A Road Not Taken: The Radical Response to the Great Depression||46|
|Pt. II||The New Deal|
|3||Carpetbaggers and Scalawags: The New Politics of the New Deal||73|
|4||Lifting the Taboo: The Black New Deal in Atlanta||94|
|5||Unwanted Attention: Black Workers and the New Deal||117|
|6||The New Face of Black Activism||136|
|Pt. III||The New Deal and Local Politics in Black and White|
|7||A Jungle World Breeding Jungle Life: The White Campaign for Slum Clearance and Public Housing||165|
|8||A Laboratory for Citizenship: The Black Campaign for Slum Clearance and Public Housing||186|
|Pt. IV||Wartime Atlanta and the Struggle for Inclusuion|
|9||The Inner Wheel Breaks Out: Wartime Atlana and the Urban League||221|
|Epilogue: The Politics of Inclusion||253|