Review: Better Day Coming, by Adam Fairclough


New York: Threshold Editions, 2008. 336 pp. $27.00 (cloth).

 

In August 1919, three white men brutally beat John R. Shillady in broad daylight outside his hotel. Shillady, also white, had come to Austin, Texas, as executive secretary of the NAACP to persuade state officials not to suppress its local branch. One of his attackers, a county judge, claimed that “it was my duty to stop him” because Shillady was there to “sow discontent among the Negroes” (pp. 105–106). In 1920, Shillady would resign from the NAACP, expressing despair for his cause: “I am less confident than heretofore . . . of the probability of overcoming, within a reasonable period, the forces opposed to Negro equality” (p. 109). And yet, not even a century later, the United States has elected its first black president—in an election in which race was hardly an issue. How did racial equality in America progress so far in so short a time? This is the remarkable story that Adam Fairclough relates in Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890–2000.

Fairclough succeeds in making his introduction to the struggle for black equality accessible to the general reader in two ways. First, he concentrates on events in the South, wherein particularly harsh forms of racial domination made it the logical focus of black efforts to achieve equality. Second, he follows the lead of fellow historian John W. Cell and classifies the approaches taken by various figures in his narrative as either “militant confrontation” (defiantly opposing racial oppression), “separatism” (working toward the creation of an all-black society here or abroad), or “accommodation” (gradually securing improvements from within the system of white supremacy) (pp. xi–xii). It is from this perspective that the book’s chapters examine prominent individuals, organizations, events, and periods of the civil rights movement.

Fairclough begins his narrative at a time when blacks were “more powerless than at any other time since the death of slavery” and had been “purged from the voting rolls” of the former Confederacy (pp. 15–17). He proceeds to examine the many different ways in which blacks fought against discrimination and oppression: from the intransigent, confrontational approach of Ida B. Wells, who campaigned against lynching in the 1890s; to the accommodation of Booker T. Washington, whose emphasis on black self-improvement over confrontation is characterized by Fairclough as “a tactical retreat in order to prepare the way for a strategic advance” (p. 63); to the separatism of Marcus Garvey, who proposed that blacks fight for an independent, united Africa (p. 126). Fairclough continues this kind of analysis throughout subsequent chapters, where we learn, among other things, about the involvement of the labor movement and the Communist party in the civil rights movement during the 1930s, the evolution of the NAACP’s strategy to include legal challenges to discrimination in education after World War II and then mass civil disobedience after 1955, and the rise and fall of the “Black Power” movement.

In addition to its broad scope, Fairclough’s narrative is engaging and empathetic. This can be seen in his discussions of two different instances of confrontational tactics. In a chapter devoted to the campaign against lynching conducted in the 1890s by Ida Wells, an outspoken black journalist, we see the thinking of this important early figure shift from an uneasy acceptance of lynching as a form of vigilante justice to an understanding of its political motive.

“Like many another person who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea . . . that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.” But here were three lynchings that stemmed from the determination of a white grocer to destroy his black business rivals. . . . She concluded that the true purpose of lynching was to “get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized” (p. 32).

Upon openly questioning the notion that black men raped white women, Wells had to flee the South for her life. But Fairclough reports that she successfully continued her campaign from afar, turning lynching into “a national, and then an international, cause célèbre” (p. 23).

The story of W. W. Kerr, a black postman in New Orleans who protested segregation in the South during the 1930s, at the height of white dominance, is an almost amusing profile of courage in the face of absurdity and protracted harassment by so-called superiors hell-bent on enforcing a blatantly unreasonable law. Kerr, a fair-skinned man, dared to ride in the white sections of streetcars:

Exasperated by this insubordination, Superintendent Ralph Handlin confronted Kerr. “I want to ask you a question. Are you a white man or are you a colored man?” Kerr hesitated—unsure as to the propriety of the question—before replying, “What do you mean by colored man, and what do you mean by white man?” Utterly taken aback, the white official blurted out, “Are you a white man of the Caucasian race?” Kerr must have savored the moment as he responded, “Yes.” Handlin, furious, jumped up and called Kerr a liar. “You associate with niggers, don’t you? You head up a nigger organization, don’t you?” Kerr explained that “my hair is smooth and dark brown, or grey, [and] my skin is as white as that of a great majority of the people in this community.” Because he looked Caucasian, he added, his presence in the black section of the streetcar might cause “confusion and disorder”—the very thing that the segregation law was designed to prevent (p. 181).

Kerr explained his refusal, for two years, to obey the segregation law: “As an individual, I am entitled to the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Throughout his narrative, Fairclough conveys at once the grave injustices of segregation, the difficulties in fighting it, and the humanity of its victims. And because Fairclough is appropriately selective in the details he chooses to present, the reader is able to retain the big picture of the struggle’s progress as he moves chronologically through the book.

Unfortunately, Fairclough’s focus on the tactical differences among advocates of black equality blinds him to the role of philosophical ideas in moving history. As a result, he misses making important points and sometimes draws unwarranted conclusions. For example, Fairclough tells us that the separatist Marcus Garvey once held secret talks with the Ku Klux Klan, because he agreed with its opposition to miscegenation. This Fairclough characterizes as a “spectacular lack of judgment,” failing to recognize that it is, in fact, a predictable result of Garvey’s philosophical position that the racial collective is more important than the individual (p. 126). In this respect, Garvey and the Klan were in perfect agreement.

And later, Fairclough draws an unwarranted similarity between, of all people, Louis Farrakhan and Thomas Sowell.

As Jesse Jackson’s star faded in the 1990s Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan rose to national prominence. On the face of it, his sudden popularity was remarkable. It reflected, in part, a wave of nostalgia for Malcolm X. . . . It also mirrored a profound crisis of confidence within the black community that meshed, in a strange way, with the conservatism of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era. Instead of looking to white people or the government to solve their problems, blacks needed to help themselves by building black-owned businesses. . . .

Although Farrakhan’s nostrums might be dismissed as wishful thinking, similar calls for self-help issued from the pens of respected black intellectuals, such as Thomas Sowell, an economist from Stanford University (p. 334).

Certainly, if one defined them in terms of nonessentials, one could characterize both Farrakhan and Sowell as advocates of “self-help.” But a reading of “What the Muslims Want” from Elijah Muhammad’s “The Muslim Program” shows that Farrakhan, as a racial collectivist, more closely resembles Garvey, whereas Sowell is a relative individualist who leans toward the protection of individual rights. Fairclough notes that those who fought for black freedom often bitterly disagreed. But if it is fair to ask what tactics best serve the cause, it is also fair to ask whether certain philosophical ideas, such as racial collectivism, are damaging to the cause because they focus on racial groups rather than individuals and their rights.

That said, failing to consider the important role of philosophical ideas in guiding the actors of history is a ubiquitous mistake in today’s cultural and intellectual milieu. In fact, one is unlikely to find any recently written introduction to the struggle for black equality that does not make similar kinds of mistakes. Fortunately, Fairclough does identify the intellectual positions of the various civil rights leaders, albeit in more conventional terms. The reader inclined to consider the role of philosophical ideas in the fight for racial equality will find in this book enough evidence to do so himself.

Those interested in the struggle for racial equality—in the momentous change for the better that America has witnessed over the past century—will find Fairclough’s Better Day Coming to be an excellent starting point for investigation. And those interested in regaining and preserving the freedoms that we have lost in America can both learn from and be heartened by the successful fight against long odds for the legal and social equality of blacks.

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