An Imperfect Assessment of Movement Flank Actions.
Reviewed by Mary Nell Morgan
Vol. 12, No. 1, 1990, pp. 12-13
Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954 1970 By Herbert H. Haines (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. 1988. 244 pps. $24.95).
Herbert Haines’s analysis in Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream challenges the popular notion that so-called radical blacks did more to harm than to help the civil rights movement during the activism of the late I950s and throughout the 1960s. Haines examines external financial support, which he calls “exogenous income,” to test his thesis. The various sources of “exogenous income” are individuals, churches, labor unions, foundations, corporations, miscellaneous organizations (such as social and fraternal groups), and the government.
Using the concept of “radical flank effects,” which he defines as the helpful or harmful consequence for moderates of radicals’ actions, he argues that an increase in external financial support indicates helpful effects, while the converse indicates harmful effects.
“Radicalism” is a relative term. It is important to understand this, Haines insists, if one is to understand social movements by suppressed people. Any suggestion to change is likely to be considered radical. Indeed, the mainstream civil rights organizations of the 1960s–especially the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)–were once considered radical Haines argues, and this is the crux of his thesis, that it is precisely the emergence of radical alternatives which motivated white support of, rather than white backlash against, the so-called black moderates once themselves called radical.
Using seven civil rights organizations to form a continuum, moving from left to right, moderate to radical, beginning with the National Urban League and ending with the most radical, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee–with the National Association of Colored People, the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Regional Council, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Congress of Racial Equality in between in that order–Haines presents funding information for the years from 1952 to 1970. There are, however, numerous gaps in the income information and several areas of concern which, Haines admits, make his argument imperfect.
Fully 46 percent of the exogenous income is either estimated or missing: three pages of footnotes, in small print, are offered to explain this! Despite this data deficit, Haines proceeds with his argument. Observing that from 1957 there was a general increase in the exogenous income of the moderate groups, a “dramatic increase in the level of exogenous income for the movement as a whole during the 1960s,” and a general decrease after 1965 for the more radical SNCC and CORF, Haines concludes that the radicals benefitted the treasuries of the moderates.
I focus on the financial question because it is, by far, the dominant theme in Haines’s argument. To a lesser extent, he looks at legislation enacted in response to actual and threatened violence by radical groups like the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers as a way the radicals benefitted the moderates. “The most important pieces of legislation. affecting the rights of black Americans–the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965–were all enacted in the midst of an unprecedented racial crisis which seemed to reflect a widespread rejection by blacks of gradualist, legalistic means.” Since these laws were responses to old NAACP and NUL demands, such as integrated schools and protected black franchise, they are considered positive radical flank effects; an indication that when given the option between radical and moderate demands, government officials chose the later.
Another area of my concern is the question of how the continuum of organizations was selected. It is not clear how Haines decided which organizations to include. Very early in the introduction Haines states that the book’s focus is on “…black protest in both its civil rights and nationalistic forms…” As already noted, Haines refers to the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers as groups whose growing appeal to blacks and whose direct action approaches–which included abandoning nonviolence as a philosophy–led to greater acceptance of the moderate alternative. Yet these organizations are not included among those for which he analyzes income. Given the apparent difficulty encountered in acquiring income information for most of the organizations studied, perhaps the absence of any reliable data of this kind for these groups led
to their omission.
As a final concern, I register a complaint which I no longer regard as minor. It is particularly pertinent, because it is of an error which crops up over and over again. I refer to the account of the circumstances which led to Mrs. Rosa Parks’s arrest. Haines states what has become usual: Mrs. Parks refused to go to the back of the bus as required by law and upon refusal was arrested. The more accurate account is that Mrs. Parks was occupying a seat in the first row designated for “colored.” When all of the seats in the “white” section were taken, it was customary in Montgomery for the bus driver to force blacks out of their seats, beginning with the first row of seats for “coloreds.” This practice was guided by the principle that no white person should stand while a “colored” was seated. Mrs. Parks was told to give her seat to a white male. She refused, saying she was tired from her day’s toil. Upon refusing she turned her head and looked out the window, ignoring the threats of arrest. She was arrested and the Montgomery Bus Boycott followed.
The version of the incident given by Haines–and even the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently gave a similar account on the television program A Different World–proliferates. Indeed, it seems to be emerging as a modern myth. Several of my students have told me that the only version of the Rosa Parks incident they had heard was that given in Haines’s book and “confirmed” by Jackson. In fact, I have been presented with the argument that the inaccurate version is better because it gives a more dynamic posture to Mrs. Parks and the occasion which is widely accepted as the moment which sparked the activism of the modern civil rights movement. This is similar to saying that if one says that Columbus discovered America in 1492 that is not falsifying history, because indeed he did discover the Americas for Europe.
Despite the problems noted above, this book is worth reading. I especially recommend it to persons interested in the funding sources of the civil rights movement.
Mary Nell Morgan, is associate professor of political science at Xavier University of Louisiana, currently on leave to serve as visiting associate professor of American Studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs New Fork. Early in her career, in the mid-1970s, Dr. Morgan was a research assistant at the Southern Regional Council.