Mckiven on Eskew, _But for Birmingham: The Local and National..._
- fyi--aj wright//alabamahistory moderator.....
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Urban@... (October, 1998)
Glenn T. Eskew. _But for Birmingham: The Local and National
Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle_. Chapel Hill and London:
University of North Carolina Press, 1997. xi + 434 pp. Maps, notes,
bibliography, and index. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8078-2363-5; $19.95
(paper), ISBN 0-8078-4667-8.
Reviewed for H-Urban by Henry M. McKiven, Jr.
<hmckiven@...>, University of South Alabama
Race, Class, and Civil Rights in Birmingham
In the last decade or so historians have devoted increased attention
the the civil rights movement at the local level. All of these
studies have enhanced our understanding of grass roots mobilization,
but few have examined closely the sometimes difficult relationships
between local movements and national organizations. With this book,
Glenn Eskew not only fills that void, but also attempts to shed
light on the dynamic relationships among various groups in
Birmingham and how those relationships affected the outcome of the
Eskew places civil rights struggles within the context of a town he
believes to have been controlled by men who did the bidding of U.S.
Steel and other "absentee" corporations. These "Big Mules," "neo
Bourbons," or "industrial paternalists," (Eskew uses all three
designations) allied with "lower-middle-class" whites in maintaining
white domination of the best jobs in the city, or, as Eskew calls
it, the "race wage." This "race wage," the author argues, was part
of a broader design by U.S. Steel and other corporations to prevent
Birmingham from achieving its full potential. The man designated to
enforce segregation, the "race wage," etc. in the 1950s and 1960s
was sportscaster turned police commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor.
According to Eskew, the "Big Mules," through state representative
James Alexander Simpson, made sure that Bull Connor defended
segregation and their interests. Eskew supports his argument that
Simpson was a cipher for the "neo Bourbons" by pointing out that
Simpson's law firm did work for the Steel Corporation.
In a wonderfully detailed chapter, Eskew describes "Bull's
Birmingham." The picture that emerges is a grim one. Police
brutality against blacks or anyone who challenged the system was
common. Bombings of black residences took place regularly and
Connor's police did nothing. The police force during the 1950's was
full of corruption. If anyone threatened to blow the whistle,
Connor got rid of them. Connor did run into some political problems
in the mid 1950s, when a reform movement unseated him, but he went
back to his old constituency, "the lower-middle-class," and in 1957
returned to power as the champion of white supremacy.
Such was the situation blacks faced as they began their initial
efforts to dismantle the Jim Crow system. The local movement
against segregation was led by the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and
the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR).
Shuttlesworth had grown up in the Birmingham District, but according
to Eskew his experiences working in Mobile, along with a conviction
that he was doing God's work, moved him to adopt a strategy of
confrontation when dealing with the "white power structure."
Shuttlesworth and his organization demanded an immediate end to
discrimination in Birmingham. The ACMHR therefore represented a
departure from the accomodationist posture of a group of black
leaders that Eskew labels "the traditional Negro leadership class."
Led by the wealthy A.G. Gaston, this "traditional Negro leadership
class" promoted the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, an approach
Shuttlesworth considered inadequate. In fact, Shuttlesworth referred
to opposition within the black community as Uncle Toms at times.
Eskew explains at length the history of the ACMHR and its affliation
with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In 1962,
after a number of confrontations between the ACMHR and "the white
power structure," Shuttlesworth decided to invite Martin Luther
King, Jr. and the SCLC to Birmingham in hopes of finally achieving
the goals of the local movement. Coming off the difficult Albany,
Georgia campaign, King and his advisers were uncertain about their
next move and worried about going to Birmingham. Eskew provides an
excellent discussion of King's decision, capturing well the sense of
desperation the SCLC felt in early 1963. This is a key point, for
the need for a victory would govern King's and the SCLC's actions
during the Birmingham campaign.
The last four chapters tell the story of the Birmingham campaign.
These chapters alone are worth the price of the book. Eskew has
done his research and manages to explain it all to the reader while
capturing the drama, irony, tragedy, and, occasionally, dark humor
of this most important episode in the history of the civil rights
movement. The basic story is well known, but Eskew provides detail
that will force many professors and teachers to change their
lectures. He carefully reconstructs the division among whites at
the time, correcting past renderings of the story in which the white
population is portrayed as monolithic. More important, the author
is one of the few willing to criticize the way King left Birmingham.
This is not to suggest that Eskew fails to recognize the importance
of "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" and King's other contributions
to the movement. But he leaves little doubt about King's
willingness to accept less than Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR had
demanded in order to get a "victory."
_But for Birmingham_ is a book of many strengths. The narrative of
Birmingham during the 1950's and 1960's is very nicely done. But
when Eskew turns to explanations of why Birmingham was the way it
was, serious flaws emerge. Most troublesome is Eskew's argument
that corporate executives called the shots in Birmingham and were
largely responsible for the system of segregation there. Almost
every important conclusion he offers about white Birmingham is
rooted in this version of the "colonial economy thesis." For
example, the division in the "white power structure" that is so
critical to Eskew's thesis comes as the economy shifts from reliance
on heavy industry to a "service economy." According to Eskew, the
folks who directed the "service economy: were more willing to accept
the end of Jim Crow than the colonial masters of industry.
Unfortunately, Eskew offers little evidence of "corporate" hostility
toward the civil rights movement. The best he does is to show that
James Simpson did work for U.S. Steel. Eskew leaps from this to the
conclusion that U.S. Steel backed Connor. Such a conclusion simply
defies logic, unless there is a smoking gun we do not know about. A
lawyer's client cannot be held responsible for the political views
of the lawyer. Surely many good lawyers take political positions at
odds with clients whose interest they defend in court or other
Eskew's contention that corporations defended segregation because
the "race wage served their interests is no more convincing.
Supposedly corporations paid whites a premium wage in order to keep
them divided from blacks. At the same time, outside corporations
conspired, at least indirectly, to retard Birmingham's development.
Readers will see this and accept it as a truism in history circles.
But Eskew's confidently stated colonial economy argument has been
repeatedly challenged, and for good reason. First of all U.S. Steel
saved a company--Tennessee Coal and Iron--from collapse. If the
Steel Corporation wanted to eliminate its competition, why not let
TCI go under. Instead U.S. Steel fought a long anti-trust suit that
grew in part from its purchase of TCI and then pumped millions into
the community in wages, benefits, and investment in updated
Birmingham's economic problems cannot be explained with the colonial
economy thesis. Nor can one explain segregation in the work place
as a part of a larger strategy to slow Birmingham's progress. The
"race wage" was not the brainchild of corporate executives alone.
Indeed, the only examination of racial segregation at individual
Birmingham companies I know of finds some improvement for blacks
during the first two decades of the twentieth century despite white
workers' protests. Moreover, Eskew himself found at least one
Steel Corporation executive who appeared to be at least a racial
moderate, especially when compared to many of his employees in
Working class whites since Birmingham's earliest years demanded
preferential treatment and, as Eskew attests, generally got what
they wanted. Robert J. Norrell and Herbert Hill have convincingly
demonstrated that labor organizations insisted upon white preference
in the work place and went to court to defend segregated jobs and
lines of promotion. Eskew acknowledges all of this but still
manages to relieve the white working class of responsibility. When
Eskew writes about relevant court cases he leaves out the
involvement of organized labor despite readily available evidence to
the contrary. But this distortion is minor compared to the way the
author simply defines class in a way to exclude skilled whites from
the working class. Skilled whites become the "lower middle class,"
with no explanation, that allied with corporate executives in
defense of Bull Connor and segregation. Eskew tells us real white
workers--the unskilled--supported black aspirations. Judging from
this book, however, there is no existing evidence of this working
class racial accord. One wonders why unskilled whites would not
have desired preference over blacks in promotion policies. Eskew's
own voting data, moreover, appears to contradict his statements
about workers' behavior. Bull Connor turned to them and to the
skilled portion of the white working class everytime he got into
trouble. Perhaps corporate executives voted for Connor and defended
him, but his base was Birmingham's white working class and he knew
Eskew's analysis of divisions in the black community is more
persuasive, though it suffers throughout from key contradictions and
unsupported assertions. Both problems arise in regard to Eskew's
assessment of community support for Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR.
The author at times seems to be arguing for the ACMHR as the voice
of the black masses. Yet when we get to the Birmingham campaign
itself we learn that the SCLC looked to school children because
adults were unwilling to participate. Eskew does us a service by
revealing just how ambivalent local blacks were, but confuses the
issue with his repeated attempts to portray the black masses as a
radical vanguard. It appeared to this reviewer that the men Eskew
disparages as the "traditional Negro leadership class" did more to
advance the cause of black equality than the masses did, though
their approach may have been inadequate.
All in all _But for Birmingham_ is a book historians and others will
want to read. Many will undoubtedly want to give it some awards.
The book certainly contains as fine a description of Birmingham and
what happened there as I have seen. But when Eskew moves from
narrative to analysis he overreaches. The author's explanations for
the behavior of various groups in Birmingham, while rich in detail,
fall short because the author simply accepts notions about southern
history and its racial and class system that should be challenged.
Unfortunately the profession does not reward young historians who
take on certain long accepted "truths." Professor Eskew, in the
end, played it safe.
. McKiven, Henry M. Jr. _Iron and Steel: Race, Class, and
Community in Birmingham, Alabama, 1875-1920_(Chapel Hill and London:
University of North Carolina Press, 1995).
. Robert J. Norrell, "Caste in Steel: Jim Crow Careers in
Birmingham, Alabama." _Journal of American History_ 73 (December
1986): 669-94. Herbert Hill, "Race, Ethnicity and Organized Labor:
Opposition to Affirmative Action," _New Politics_ 1 (Winter 1987):
Copyright (c) 1998 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be
copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to
the author and the list. For other permission, please contact