University of Rochester

EVENT: Historians Shift Focus to the North in New Research about Civil Rights

September 3, 2004

A new generation of historians is approaching the civil rights movement in the United States from a different direction. While Rosa Parks remained in her bus seat and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for boycotts in Montgomery, Ala., what was happening in the North?

A conference at the University of Rochester this month will bring together scholars who are redefining civil rights from a northern perspective. “Northern Struggles: New Paradigms in Civil Rights,” scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 23, and Friday, Sept. 24, will examine the struggles for racial equality in the urban North that started a decade before the rise of the movement in the South.

Traditionally, the story of the civil rights movement begins with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and focuses on the fight against “Jim Crow” laws in the South that enforced segregation. But scholars are increasingly studying the fight against discrimination in employment, housing, and political representation in cities like New York and Detroit during and after World War II.

“Americans have looked at the civil rights movement in very divided ways,” noted Victoria Wolcott, assistant professor of history and conference organizer. “One view is that the southern movement was focused on integration and was successful, while the northern movement was focused on self-determination and largely unsuccessful.

“But that approach covers up the complexity of civil rights history,” Wolcott says. “For example, assessments of the ‘Black Power’ movement have usually focused on the violence ascribed to it, overlooking the work of black nationalists in non-violent ways, such as the election of black mayors.

“There is a debate about the writing of the history of the civil rights movement, and new scholarship explores urban decay, the growing segregation of cities, gender, and other issues that incorporate the grassroots activism of women and men in Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago as well as Montgomery, Birmingham, and Alabama,” Wolcott says.

Wolcott is the author of the book Remaking Respectability (2001), which examines the migration of southern African-American women to Detroit in the 1920s and 1930s. During the conference, she will present her current research on segregation policies in recreational facilities in the North.

Besides Wolcott, other presenters are Beth Tompkins Bates of Wayne State University, Steven Ward of the University of Michigan, Ula Taylor of the University of Southern California, Robert Self of Brown University, and Martha Biondi of Northwestern University. The individual presentations will be followed by a roundtable with all participants.

The conference opens on Thursday with the screening of a documentary on the Rochester race riots, July ’64. Producer Carvin Eison will introduce the film at 4 p.m. in the May Room in Wilson Commons on the River Campus. The screening and conference sessions are free and open to the public.

Thomas Sugrue of the University of Pennsylvania, author of the award-winning book The Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996), will deliver the keynote address, “Sweet Land of Liberty: The Unfinished Struggle for Racial Equality in the North,” at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Welles-Brown Room in Rush Rhees Library, and will discuss his current research. His talk is also part of the Verne Moore Lecture Series presented by the University’s history department.

All presentation sessions will be held starting at 9 a.m. Friday in the Welles-Brown Room. The conference concludes at 5:30 p.m. that day.

The conference is sponsored by the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies and co-sponsored by the Department of History and the Department of Political Science. For more information, contact the institute at (585) 275-7235.