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FW: H-South Review: Baca on Eagles, _Outside Agitator_

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi..aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington [mailto:binningt@uiuc.edu] Sent: Tuesday, May 28, 2002 7:00 AM To:
    Message 1 of 1 , May 28, 2002
      fyi..aj wright // ajwright@...

      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington [mailto:binningt@...]
      Sent: Tuesday, May 28, 2002 7:00 AM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: H-South Review: Baca on Eagles, _Outside Agitator_

      Published by H-South@... (May 2002)

      Charles W. Eagles. _Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights
      Movement in Alabama_. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press,
      2000. First published University of North Carolina Press, 1993. xi + 335
      pp. Maps, notes, bibliography, and index. $24.95 (paper), ISBN

      Reviewed for H-South by George Baca, gbaca@..., Department of
      Anthroplogy, Goucher College

      Up From Romanticism: New Histories of the Civil Rights

      Thirty-five years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the
      Voting Rights Act of 1965, scholars are gradually moving away from romantic
      narratives of the Movement to more judicious examinations of the history of
      African Americans' struggle for Civil Rights. Gone is the idealistic
      optimism that the passage of Civil Rights legislation would erase the color
      line. Instead, scholars are beginning to explore how such legislation has
      redrawn the color line and reconstituted racial subordination through the
      principle of racial equality. [1] The emergence over the past decade of
      this more critical reading of the Civil Rights Era has led historians to
      turn their attention away from romantic narratives of national events and
      charismatic leaders to focus on unknown figures, little known events, and
      local social history. In the sprit of this revisionist thrust in the study
      of the history of the Civil Rights era, the University of Alabama Press has
      reissued Charles W. Eagles' important study of the killing of a civil
      rights worker in Alabama.

      On August 16th 1965, Tom Coleman, a fifty-two year old white Alabaman shot
      Jon Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire. The stories of
      these two men and the local historical context of Lowndes County, Alabama
      -- an impoverished black belt agriculture area that remained a hotbed of
      resistance even after the 1965 voting rights act -- provides the plot and
      setting for Eagles' provocative narrative that sheds light not only on this
      Civil Rights activist, but also on the social context that produced such
      intense reaction to integration throughout the South. His analysis,
      moreover, illuminates a local struggle for civil rights at the same time
      that the Federal government was gradually consolidating the Movement within
      the bureaucratic institutions of the State.

      Tom Coleman's slaying of Jonathan Daniels occurred one week after the
      passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Watts Riot in Los Angeles,
      yet garnered scarce national attention, overshadowed as it was by the
      racial strife emerging in northern and western cities. Eagles' study makes
      an important contribution to Civil Rights literature as he illuminates the
      shifting contours of racial politics at the dawn of the post-segregation

      Bloody Lowndes County and an Outside Agitator

      In the first chapter Eagles describes the life history that led Jonathan
      Daniels, a seminarian from Keene, New Hampshire to answer Martin Luther
      King's call to all clergy to protest the bloody confrontation between
      Alabama State police and civil rights activists on the Edmund Pettus
      Bridge. Daniels stands apart from the stereotypical "liberals" and
      "hippies" invading the South in support of the freedom struggle. Apart from
      being a graduate of the Citadel, Daniels, up to a week before deciding to
      join SCLC in Alabama, defended Bishop Charles C.J. Carpenter's position
      that Episcopalians outside of his diocese were not welcome to work for
      civil rights in Alabama.

      A combination of mainstream democratic ideals, existential philosophy, and
      a fairly conservative interpretation of Episcopal doctrine motivated
      Daniels to participate in the Movement. After the events of "Bloody Sunday"
      in Selma, he became convinced that participation in the Selma protest meant
      that he had "found the existential opportunity that he had been looking for
      -- a chance to create his beliefs and become his real self through action"

      In each succeeding chapter Eagles deepens the narrative to elaborate the
      social and political context in which Daniels' activism grew in order to
      understand how white southerners could view him, and other civil rights
      workers, as an "outside agitator." Such contextualization includes a
      thorough examination of the history of the civil rights movement in Selma
      (chapter two), the social history of "bloody" Lowndes County (chapters
      three and four), and the development of the Lowndes County's local movement
      to end segregation (chapter five). Lowndes County, which after the Civil
      War had become the center of the South's peonage system (97), continued to
      be one of the poorest counties in the nation during the 1960s as
      fifty-eight percent of its households had no automobile, only twenty
      percent had telephones, and only half had indoor toilets, sewers, or septic
      tanks (108-9).

      Chapter six describes Stokely Carmichael's efforts to augment the local
      civil rights movement in Lowndes County following the slaying of the civil
      rights worker Viola Liuzzo on March 22, 1965. Jon Daniels was inspired by
      Carmichael's courageous drive to desegregate this county, notorious for its
      hostility toward any attempts to change the customary segregation. Daniels
      chose to work in Lowndes County, therefore, because it "offered him the
      greatest challenge for Christian witness and the best opportunity for
      existential action and meaning" (32). While in Lowndes County, Daniels
      worked exclusively with blacks, primarily on SNCC projects that focused on
      voting rights. He was involved in organizing mass meetings, voter
      registration, integration of the local offices of the U.S. Department of
      Agriculture's agricultural stabilization and conservation service, and in
      encouraging local blacks to end racial segregation in the schools.

      Daniels' work in Lowndes County culminated in an aborted demonstration in
      Fort Deposit, the largest and most commercially developed town in the
      county. On August 14, three days following the Watts Riot, SNCC workers
      helped Lowndes activists organize a demonstration in Fort Deposit. All of
      the protesters were arrested, including Daniels and Stokely Carmichael and
      jailed for six days. Upon release, Daniels ventured to a small grocery
      store to buy refreshments for his fellow activists as they awaited
      transportation out of the county. His exchange of words with Tom Coleman, a
      52 year old government employee, ended in a shotgun blast to Daniels' chest.

      Eagles' narrative is innovative in the way he relates Daniel's biography to
      that of his killer. Instead of representing Daniels' death as the tragic
      ending of a heroic act, in chapters seven and eight he delves into
      Coleman's biography to seriously consider white culture in this
      impoverished black belt community. Coleman's biography adds texture and
      dimension to the Lowndes County's political economy highlighting as it does
      the interconnection between local customs of race relations to economic
      forces that developed from the post-slavery peonage system. Such a
      perspective expands analysis of "race" to include the topic of "whiteness"
      and the contradictory feelings and sentiments whites expressed in the face
      of changing patterns of race relations in the South. It would have been
      easy to represent "the white community" monolithically in order to beatify
      Jon Daniels (which the Episcopal Church did). Instead of getting a picture
      of the typical southern community's resistance to racial change, we see
      something that is atypical in Lowndes County.

      Reconceptualizing Civil Rights' History

      In _Outside Agitators_, Eagles' innovative use of the social history of
      Lowndes County uncovers important details of a little known story in a
      forgotten place that nonetheless challenges conventional views of the Civil
      Rights Movement. Moreover, his depiction of this event, at a momentous
      juncture in American history yields important insights into the
      transformation of the civil rights struggle from a movement to a federal
      institution. The problem is that Eagles did not use his empirical findings
      to challenge preexisting interpretations of the struggle for racial justice
      and the function of race in national politics.

      Perhaps part of the problem derives from how American historians generally
      have framed research on racial matters by the assumption that racism in the
      US is a contradiction in American values. Such a view resonates with
      American political culture in that it sees racism as the exception (e.g.
      _America's Dilemma_ or _This Country's Unfinished Business_) that proves
      the rule of American Exceptionalism. Accordingly Eagles' innovative
      research begs for new conceptual frameworks. Or, in Eagles own words, in a
      recent review article:

      "The literature on the movement now needs . . . to be invigorated by new
      works that will challenge the established chronology, add greater
      detachment, and correct the imbalance now pervading the scholarship. The
      innovation may come from the imaginative monographic work, new syntheses,
      and more likely, from _new bold reconceptualization_ of the movement's
      history (emphasis added)." [2]

      Bold new reconceptualizations of the Movement's history, and I should add,
      the study of "race" and racism, could come from the insights of scholars of
      nationalism and state formation found in the disciplines of anthropology,
      sociology, and historiography outside of the U.S. Over the past three
      decades, students of nationalism have applied the analytic concepts of
      ethnicity, nation, and the State to understand "race" as a framework of
      ranked categories within social hierarchies. Accordingly, racism is not a
      contradiction in "America," instead it is part of the practical logic of
      the modern nation-state. Studies of American racial politics could
      therefore benefit from the insights of work done on such subjects as
      communalism in India, Mestizaje in Latin America, regionalism in Europe,
      and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka -- to name only a few examples. [3]

      A related shortcoming of the text is that Eagles' does not analyze the
      changes in racial politics outside of the narrative of progress. Thus he
      accounts for changes in the racial patterns since the fall of Jim Crow by
      proffering the view that the lives of African Americans have "improved"
      because of community action and federal spending. We cannot adequately sum
      up the changes in African American lives over the past three decades as
      merely improvement. Relations of power and the Federal State have been
      transformed by a new regime of race relations management. Therefore civil
      rights laws have reconfigured racial patterns in terms of important changes
      in the US political economy.

      By merely labeling these changes as improvement, we have no analytical
      purchase on the type of changes that have occurred, the effects of such
      transformations, and the limitations of the legal system that distributes
      rights according to racial categories. Moreover such labels do not grapple
      with the important question of class politics within the categories of
      "white" and "black" communities. We must begin to analyze how national
      structures of power use minority-majority power dynamics to retain
      contradictions in the idea of the nation within a coherent political
      structure. This view could transcend American political mythology and
      challenges us to think about how Civil Rights Legislation has reconstituted
      rather than erased racial subordination.


      [1]. See Tali Mendelburg, _The Race Card: Campaign Strategies, Implicit
      Messages, and the Norm of Equality_ (Princeton, 2001) for an analysis of
      how politicians, since the fall of Jim Crow, use the principle of racial
      equality to make subtle appeals to race in order to mobilize voters. See
      Robert Smith, _We Have no Leaders: African-Americans in the Post-Civil
      Rights Era_ (Albany, 1996), Cathy Cohen, _The Boundaries of Blackness: Aids
      and the Breakdown of Black Politics_ (Chicago, 1999), and Adolph Reed,
      _Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era_
      (Minneapolis, 1999) for three diverse interpretations of how the federal
      institutions have redrawn the color line over the past thirty years and the
      important role of black leadership in these new configurations.

      [2]. Charles W. Eagles, "Toward New Histories of the Civil Rights Era,"
      _Journal of Southern History_, (November 2000), 843.

      [3]. See Gyanendra Pandey, _Remembering the Partition: Violence,
      Nationalism, and History in India_ (Cambridge, 2001), Claudio Lomnitz,
      _Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism_ (Minneapolis,
      2001), Bruce Kapferer, _Legends of People, Myths of State: Violence:
      Intolerance, and Political Culture in Sri Lanka and Australia_ (Washington,
      1998), Brackette F. Williams, _Women Out of Place: The Gender of Agency and
      the Race of Nationality_ (New York, 1996).

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