FW: Dupont on Wilson, _Race and Place in Birmingham_
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From: H-Net Reviews [mailto:books@...]
Sent: Friday, January 19, 2001 2:49 PM
Subject: Dupont on Wilson, _Race and Place in Birmingham_
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-South@... (December, 2000)
Bobby M. Wilson. _Race and Place in Birmingham: The Civil Rights
and Neighborhood Movements_. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman &
Littlefield, 2000. x + 275 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index.
$69.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8476-9482-8; $25.95 (paper), ISBN
Reviewed for H-South by Robert Dupont <rldupont@...>,
Metropolitan College, University of New Orleans
Local History and Global Analysis
The publishers of _Race and Place in Birmingham_ classify the work
within the fields of Geography and Race Studies. It might also be
included within Political Science, Social Science and History.
H-South regulars expecting a traditional history monograph should be
warned. _Race and Place in Birmingham_ demands a considerable effort
of its readers, but those equal to the challenge will enjoy a fresh
interpretation of the civil rights and neighborhood movements in
Birmingham. At the same time, most readers will experience a more
difficult but impressive analysis of modern capitalism and its
effects upon social movements, as well as the author's prescriptions
for societal change.
Wilson seeks to explain the dynamics of the two social movements in
Birmingham not only as local phenomena, but also as the result of
"larger structural and institutional forces" (p. 2). He begins with
an analysis of postmodern politics as the replacement for interest
group politics and pluralist theory. Whereas pluralist politics
separated politics from private life, Wilson argues, postmodern
politics provides the occasion for emancipation and development of
different identities. Though class figures heavily in Wilson's
analysis (and even more heavily in his prescriptions), class is only
one aspect of a individual's identity. The postmodern world enables
new identifies (individual and social) to emerge. Birmingham serves
as the case study to illustrate the larger dynamics of national and
international capitalism as well as local social movements.
Wilson's description of modernity indicts the tendencies of the
nation state toward homogeneity, uniformity and standardization.
These characteristics conform too closely, he argues, to the
dominant features of capitalism, thus putting the power of the state
in the service of the ideological/economic system. Wilson briefly
recapitulates the history of Birmingham to establish that city's
post-Civil War experience as an example of modernization. From
pre-modern slavery to the Prussian route, Birmingham becomes
industrialized and adopts twentieth-century capitalism without
disturbing its race practices. In fact, the conditions of racism
promoted segmentation of labor and helped to conceal economic
The Great Depression and the policies of the New Deal restructured
the black community and created conditions favorable to the civil
rights movement. The decline of tenant farming and the
concentration of black population in urban areas--along with the
rise in black churches, colleges and businesses--provided the
context for social and political change. In other parts of the
United States, pluralist politics in urban areas absorbed black
voters without giving up real power. But the race policies of
Birmingham allow no such accommodation. Furthermore, Wilson argues,
the post-depression political economy emphasized stability and
increased consumption--factors that further suppressed class
differences. In Birmingham, an emerging black middle class favored
peaceful change and negotiation instead of direct confrontation.
Black identity begins to mature in the South after World War II.
The worldwide anti-colonial movement combined with domestic changes
and the writings of black intellectuals to nurture resistance based
on racial identify, not class. In Birmingham, the white response to
even tentative black requests for change was widespread, including
local action, appeals to the state legislature, the organization of
Citizens Councils and resistance by white unions. For a time,
neither the political nor economic institutions of the city would
alter the status quo. Change came to Birmingham only when that
economic and political consensus broke down.
Wilson tells the story of the "Battle for Birmingham" (Chapter 8)
succinctly. This is not a comprehensive history of local civil
rights, but rather an example of his larger thesis. Under pressure
from local blacks, the national government and, most important, the
national and international press, the power elite of the city split.
Although the political leadership remained adamant, the economic
leadership began to weight the damage being done to the city's image
and interests. The city adopted a new form of government, accepted
biracial negotiating committees and eventually repealed segregation
ordinances. These events, according to Wilson, were the result of
post-World War II economic changes that--by the 1960s--tipped the
political balance in favor of modest political reform. In the
Fordist economy that came to the South, the appearance of efficiency
and the ability of communities to attract capital investment was
crucial. Racial turmoil became incompatible with economic
development. "This moment was one of the few in U.S. history where
blacks benefited from market forces in their struggle for racial
equality. Capitalists attempted to avoid places with stigmas of
racism" (p. 107).
The years after Birmingham's most difficult troubles saw an increase
in the national welfare state and the development of specific,
national urban programs such as the Community Action Program (CAP)
and Model Cities. Wilson admires the grass roots process inherent
in CAP, but views Model Cities as an attempt of municipal leaders to
recapture control of anti-poverty efforts. Furthermore, national
welfare policies tended to reinforce the assumption of those opposed
to anti-poverty programs that blacks benefited disproportionately.
Income distribution improved under such programs, but Wilson regrets
that anti-poverty efforts weakened class identity and made no
lasting changes in the structure of the capitalist system.
The capitalist system itself evolved toward the end of the twentieth
century. The post-Fordist economy, according to Wilson, is
international and highly competitive; investment capital is both
flexible and mobile. Within metropolitan areas such as Birmingham,
white flight and capital flight occur together, leaving greater
concentrations of blacks in the central city. In the international
arena, corporations move plants, investments and job opportunities
with ease. The resulting dislocations in the labor market have
weakened unions and cowed local officials into offering larger and
larger inducements to maintain and attract both capital and the jobs
that accompany the investments. National politics is driven to the
right and emphasizes market values to the detriment of
distributional policies and equity concerns. City planning follows
the general trend by adopting standards that are ostensibly
objective, but in fact serve corporate and elite needs.
Wilson illustrates one possible response to this bleak landscape by
describing the rise of the neighborhood movement in Birmingham.
From 1945 to 1975 thirty black-led civil leagues emerged to affect
policy. By the 1990s, the neighborhood associations numbered over
one hundred. These associations provide a channel for local
concerns and serve as training grounds for political leadership.
Wilson hopes that their presence will offset the modernist view of
planning as normative and uniform in favor of a process that
The concluding chapter of _Race and Place in Birmingham_ identifies
a dilemma at the core of the book: the postmodern politics of race
identity and neighborhood encourage atomization and consequent harm
to collective action. The exclusiveness associated with black
identity, for example, may have served the cause of civil rights,
but is inadequate to face down global corporate power. Wilson
identifies a need for organizing principle that transcends the
constraints of race and place (and ethnicity and gender). For
Wilson, a renewed awareness of class provides the opportunity for an
organizing theory. "The politics of the 1960s were not diversionary
or reactionary, but they did contribute to a politics of desire,
which is a critical precondition of achieving a real class
struggle." In this view, postmodern politics provides a transition
toward the reorganization of politics on a "global scale" (p. 212).
Wilson suggests that such politics might organize around such issues
as environmental justice and the promotion of an eco-friendly
_Race and Place in Birmingham_ suffers from several examples of
careless editing. Some points are made repetitively, and arguments
from one chapter are apt to show up again in another. The
vocabulary of Marxian analysis can be cloying, and the reader
searching for the noble story of civil rights in Birmingham may give
up before encountering the historical facts. This is not a book
that would be automatically useful in a seminar on civil rights
history, for example. But Wilson's view of class and postmodern
politics is argued effectively, and the history of Birmingham
provides a dramatic backdrop to the larger argument. Readers are
advised to persist through the occasional weaknesses, to appreciate
the research, to admire the depth of the analysis, and to consider
seriously the point of view.
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