Race and Party Politics in the Age of Civil Rights and the Southern Strategy

Saturday, April 17, 2021, 5:30 PM - 6:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Politics


In recent years, historians of the Black Freedom struggle and of racialization in the United States are highlighting the continuity of white supremacy in American history. The recent debates on the 1619 Project, the ongoing struggle against mass incarceration, and the rise of Donald Trump have led many to highlight the continuity of white supremacy in U.S. history. This panel invites a discussion of a moment of political rupture and realignment in the black freedom struggle. It revisits the political choices of African American activists and political figures in the 1960s, as they struggled to forge alliances with the Democratic and Republican Party leaders. David Greenberg explores the fractions that emerged in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the mid-1960s by examining John Lewis’s decision to ally himself with the Lyndon Johnson administration after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Brett Gadsden examines the political conundrums faced by Arthur Fletcher, an African American official in the Nixon administration. The paper highlights Nixon’s shallow and fleeting support for Fletcher’s vision of racial equality as opposition to affirmative action strengthened in the early 1970s. Finally, Frank Guridy historicizes the phenomenon of black celebrity athletes ties to the Republican Party politicians. He traces this political tendency to the Nixon era, when he used his extensive ties to the professional and collegiate sporting world to incorporate black athletes into his Black capitalist agenda. Such bonds have been forged, he argues, on the patriarchal bonds forged by prominent black male athletes and Republican Party politicians. The eminent historian Carol Anderson will chair the panel and will offer reflections on the alliances forged by black activists and U.S. presidents in this era. In this way, the panel invites a re-examination of this well-known moment in U.S. political history and African American activism to pose new questions about the political outcomes of the moment when the Civil Rights Movement was making significant gains while facing new obstacles posed by the reconstitution of reactionary politics.

Papers Presented

From Nixon to Trump: Black Athletes and Republican Party Politics

One of the seemingly paradoxical aspects of Donald Trump’s political ascendancy has been his ability to cultivate support from a select number of black male celebrity athletes, even as his movement has been largely defined by white supremacist politics. Indeed Trump has regularly drawn upon his ties to the sports world in the 1980s, when he owned the New Jersey Generals pro football franchise, to cultivate “friends” from the Black athletic celebrity set: from Jim Brown, the Tiger Woods, to Alan Page. Though Trumpism has helped trigger unprecedented forms of black athletic activism, it has also been legitimized by support from black male celebrity athletes. This paper locates this dynamic in the political alliances forged during the presidency of Richard Nixon, who drew upon his longstanding contacts in the sporting world to court supporters among athletes across the racial spectrum. The paper argues that the linkages between conservative politics and black celebrity athletes reveals the patriarchal bonds forged by elite black athletes and white men that shaped the larger process of desegregation during the 1960s.

Presented By
Frank Andre Guridy, Columbia University

John Lewis Goes to the White House: The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Politics of Accommodation

As chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis was called “militant” in news media, owing to his belief in direct-action methods to force desegregation and his defiant speech at the 1963 March on Washington. But within SNCC Lewis soon came to be seen as woefully insufficient in his militancy. By 1966, he was denied a new term as chairman in favor of the radical Stokely Carmichael. Accounts of that transition typically emphasize Carmichael’s renunciation of nonviolence, his embrace of Black Power, and the collapse of interracial cooperation within the organization. But an equally important reason for Lewis’s ouster was his keenness to work with Lyndon Johnson’s upcoming White House Conference on Civil Rights. Despite his anger at Johnson for refusing to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic convention, Lewis had become persuaded of the president’s willingness to fight for civil rights—especially after he signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The divisions over whether to work inside or outside the system would prove debilitating to SNCC—and lead Lewis eventually to pursue what has become a storied career in elective office.

Presented By
David Greenberg, Rutgers University–New Brunswick

"I’m not sure they want an activist over there": Arthur Fletcher, Affirmative Action, and Nixon’s Retreat from Civil Rights

In 1969, Arthur Fletcher was appointed Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Nixon administration. Fletcher was thus charged with implementing the Philadelphia Plan, an affirmative action plan designed to advance the inclusion of African American workers in trades unions and provide access to construction jobs that, historically, had been reserved for white men. Fletcher’s efforts to advance this agenda are cited as examples of Nixon’s commitment to economic opportunity. Commentators thus note a certain enigmatic quality about the president’s support for racial equality, especially in light of his broad embrace of an electoral strategy that was increasing focused on winning support from white voters. This paper highlights the administration’s shallow and fleeting support for their black appointee, in the face of a bipartisan backlash against his work, to stress a more consistent arc about Nixon’s approach to civil rights which proved foundational to a broad backlash against civil rights in the 1970s.

Presented By
Brett V. Gadsden, Northwestern University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Carol Anderson, Emory University
arol Anderson, Charles Howard Candler Professor and chair of African American Studies, is a nationally recognized historian, educator and author. Her research focuses on public policy, particularly the ways that domestic and international policies intersect through the issues of race, justice and equality in the U.S.
Her most recent book, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy (2018), has been long-listed for the National Book Award and a finalist for the PEN/Galbraith Award for non-fiction. She also is the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, which was a Washington Post Notable Book of 2016 and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner.

Presenter: Brett V. Gadsden, Northwestern University
Brett Gadsden is Associate Professor of African American Studies and History at Emory University and a historian of twentieth century United States and African American history. His first book, Between North and South: Delaware, Desegregation, and the Myth of American Sectionalism, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) chronicles the three-decades-long struggle over segregated schooling in Delaware, a key border state and important site of civil rights activism, education reform, and white reaction. His work has appeared in the Journal of African American History and the Journal of Urban History. He is also the recipient of fellowships and grants from the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Libraries, National Academy of Education, Spencer Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, American Historical Association, Hagley Museum and Library, and Delaware Heritage Commission. His manuscript-in-progress, titled “From Protest to Politics: The Making of a ‘Second Black Cabinet,’” explores the set of historical circumstances that brought African Americans into consultative relationships with presidential candidates and later into key cabinet, sub-cabinet, and other important positions in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations and opened to them unprecedented access to centers of power in the federal government.

Presenter: David Greenberg, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
David Greenberg is a Professor of History at Rutgers University. He is the author or editor of several books on American history and politics including Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image (2003); Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency (2016); Calvin Coolidge (2006); and Alan Brinkley: A Life in History (2019). Formerly an acting editor of the New Republic magazine, he now writes regularly for Politico and other scholarly and popular publications. He has won awards and fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Center, the ACLS, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and the Leon Levy Center for Biography. He holds a PhD in history from Columbia University and a BA from Yale. He is writing a biography of Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights leader, for Simon & Schuster.

Presenter: Frank Andre Guridy, Columbia University
Frank Guridy is Associate Professor of History and African American & African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of the award-winning, Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). He is also the co-editor of Beyond el Barrio: Everyday Life in Latino/a America (NYU Press, 2010), with Gina Pérez and Adrian Burgos, Jr, and he has published in various scholarly and online publications. After the publication of Forging Diaspora, his research shifted to the relationship between sport and society in the United States. His recently completed book, The Athletic Revolution: How Texas Changed American Sporting Culture explores the entanglements between capitalism, the black freedom struggle, and second-wave feminism during the 1960s and 70s. The book will be published by the University of Texas Press later this year.