Carol Anderson on taking eyes off the prize.

One of my favorite documentary series ever, Eyes on the Prize begins each of its episodes with a rousing rendition of the civil rights anthem:

You know the one thing I did right

was the day I started to fight

Keep your eyes on the prize

Hold on, hold on.

Keep your eyes on the prize,

Hold on.

The prize, according to the men and women marching in silhouette and singing with courageous gusto: full social equality.  The realization of that long-held and vigorously pursued goal was often thwarted by law and practice in the officially segregated South and actually segregated North. Nevertheless, during the period chronicled in Henry Hampton’s films, the modern civil rights movement vanquished legal apartheid.

According to many historians and movement members, the period from 1954 to 1965 or so represents a high point in the push for social justice in American history.  The beginning of the era is marked by the unanimous ruling in May 1954 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated facilities are inherently unequal.

That victory was the product of more than 20 years of ceaseless struggle by Thurgood Marshall, Jack Greenberg, Charles Hamilton Houston, Robert Carter and other members of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund-a history Richard Kluger writes about vividly in Simple Justice.

According to Carol Anderson, a professor at Emory University, the legal victory, as important as it was, came at the end of a decade in which the NAACP and others in the struggle for justice had taken their eyes off the prize, rather than beginning a time in which eyes were on the prize.

The difference in part is of definition. 

Anderson says the prize is human rights and social equality, not just the former. In her provocative and insightful book, Eyes Off the Prize, she details the fascinating and painful ways in which Cold War developments, determined opposition,  tepid behavior by allies and organizational rivalries interacted to have the NAACP give up the focus on international rights and issues, and instead retreat to a domestic emphasis.

Anderson opens her book at the end of World War II, and traces with intelligence and insight the interrelated rise of the Cold War and growth of efforts to establish international human rights.   On the one hand,  the attempt to codify the latter seemed inarguable, especially given the horrors of the Holocaust and other wartime atrocities. 

Yet Anderson shows effectively how the Soviet Union used that concept to attempt to score propaganda points against the United States because of its treatment of black people.  Unfortunately, they had plenty to point to, as Anderson explains in gruesome detail how many black veterans who had put their lives on the line to keep democracy safe were murdered when they returned to the country for which they had fought.

In an ironic twist, then, anti Communism became a vehicle to oppose the extension of the burgeoning concept of human rights to black people.

Some of the anti-Communists were people like Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, while others were some of the same implacable opponents to black equality in the United States like James F. Brynes.  He was Truman’s Secretary of State who had a lengthy pro-segregationist career in South Carolina, one of the states in which the legal fight that culminated in Brown v. Board began.

Yet, as bad as things were under Truman, they got far worse under Eisenhower.  Anderson has a gripping analysis of Truman’s ambivalent and pragmatic moves toward greater social equality for black people.  NAACP chief Walter White applauded Truman’s announcement that he planned to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission, yet Truman did very little after his initial statement to advance the plan.  On the other hand,  NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois supported Henry Wallace’s third-party bid for the presidency.

This disagreement was only one in an increasingly bitter series of interactions between DuBois and White: their internecine squabbling was another element in the retreat from international human rights that Anderson describes.

Even had White and DuBois been united, though, it’s not clear that the effort would have succeeded, in part because of the lukewarm support by human rights stalwarts like Eleanor Roosevelt and Universal Declaration of Human Rights architect Rene Cassin.   In some ways, Roosevelt’s actions, coming as a contrast to her previous support of black people in many significant and public ways, was even more difficult for people in the movement to accept than the expected and received opposition of people like Byrnes and other of his ilk.

In the end, through this stew of unhappy ingredients, the NAACP, despite serious and somewhat sustained attempts, did not succeed in reaching the prize under Anderson’s definition, instead taking their eyes off it to focus almost exclusively on the domestic front.

Her straightforward and extraordinarily well-documented work makes a for a quick and highly informative read.  I would say that she understates the significance of Brown v. Board. In my reading, it was far more than a domestic consolation prize, but the culmination of a 25-year struggle that provided the legal underpinnings under which so many other marched and sang and protested during the period Hampton depicts.  She of course might respond that I have bought into the hype around the modern civil rights movement.

In either case, this potential area of disagreement is a minor point when held against the broad scope and detail of the work, which is impressive indeed.   I don’t believe that Hampton’s series should be renamed, but I do think that Anderson’s work deserves as wide an audience as possible.

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