Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972

Reviewed Work(s)

Fairclough, Adam. Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995, 477 pp.

Adam Fairclough's work on the civil rights movement in Louisiana represents the culmination of years of research by the University of Leeds professor. It shows in his book. Race & Democracy breaks new ground in civil rights history in two large ways: it analyzes in great detail how the struggle for civil rights occurred on a state level rather than on a national or on a community level; and it uncovers new and convincing complexities of civil rights history that only a state study spanning over fifty years could find.

Until now very few historians have looked at the struggle for civil rights on a state level. Louisiana was a particularly interesting case: while southern Louisiana harbored a history of European influences through language and religion, northern Louisiana remained Protestant, rural, and isolated from the cosmopolitan influences that marked New Orleans. For Fairclough, this cultural and social diversity made Louisiana "the most diverse and unique southern state" that nonetheless resembled other southern states enough to make the Louisiana movement "typical of how the civil rights struggle unfolded in the South." With a state study, moreover, Fairclough departs from previous civil rights historiography by concentrating on a local level that is not as confined as a community study but that is less broad than a national portrayal. Analyzing a state, he shows, reveals the "richness of texture" missing from national histories but without the "insularity and incoherence" of a local study.

Race & Democracy begins in 1915, chosen intentionally as the year when the New Orleans chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded. Much of Fairclough's story over the next forty years, 1915 to 1955, concentrates on local chapters of the NAACP throughout Louisiana, particularly in cities like Monroe and New Orleans where strong branches existed. Fairclough makes a point in focusing on the NAACP: though the NAACP tends to fall in the background of many civil rights studies, he argues, the pre-1955 NAACP clearly provided the local and national backbone for the struggle of the 1960s. As Louisiana shows, the NAACP often existed as the only civil rights organization in many communities and was responsible for bringing law suits and starting local voter drives when most African Americans remained scared silent. From 1928 to 1948, for example, the NAACP in Monroe, a city in the northeastern section of the state, was one of the strongest in Louisiana, battling disfranchisement and police brutality for decades before the national legislation of the mid-1960s. Thanks to the spread of labor activism in the South, Fairclough portrays, NAACP voices only grew louder and more radical as World War II came and went.

The NAACP faded from the scene in the late 1950s, however, thanks to a spate of massive-resistance bills inspired by Willie Rainach, Leander Perez, and other ultra segregationists that ultimately decimated local NAACP chapters around the state. One such bill--the "KKK law" that demanded publication of membership lists for state organizations--was actually resuscitated legislation that had been passed in the 1920s to stunt the Ku Klux Klan. As the NAACP waned in influence throughout the state, however, another civil rights group--the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) took its place as the dominant organization in the state. Fairclough's account of how the nonviolent direct action techniques of younger, more militant CORE activists sped the movement forward reads like many other accounts of the post-1960 struggle, though his observations of the interaction among local, state, and federal governments--especially in the Bogalusa movement of 1965--demonstrate the peculiar insights of a state analysis.

The fading of the NAACP and its replacement by CORE underlines another of Fairclough's main arguments. Much civil rights history discusses the movement as beginning some time around the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and ending some time around the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a line of progression that focuses on the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the organizational strategies of Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Many historians realized, however, that in order to understand the 1955 to 1965 phase of the movement, they needed to return to earlier decades to see how national changes like the New Deal or World War II provoked the sparks of the later civil rights movement. Fairclough departs from the pre-and-post-1955 dichotomy by emphasizing both the continuities and the discontinuities across the Montgomery Bus Boycott: "It is a central thesis of this work that black protest between the late 1930s and the mid-1950s constituted more than a mere prelude to the drama proper: it was the first act of a two-act play." Indeed Race & Democracy reads like a two-act drama, with the NAACP on center stage for the first half of the book and CORE on stage the second. 

Race & Democracy has much to offer. Extremely well- written, the book also weaves anecdotal evidence within a narrative riveting for its day-to-day analysis of goings-on throughout Louisiana such as the 1946 lynching of John C. Jones in Minden or the 1960-61 school desegregation crisis in New Orleans. Fairclough clearly appreciates the daily fight for civil rights that individuals undertook without discounting the enormous importance of federal intervention on a judicial, legislative, or executive level. Each chapter ends on a cliffhanger that flows easily into the next chapter, emphasizing the connectedness of struggle that underlined the Louisiana movement. And while Fairclough does not shy away from emphasizing the major ideological, generational, and personal disputes that often divided African-Americans, he also shows though analysis of different white southerners that the myth of the Solid South was just that: a myth.

Fairclough's tendency to focus on organizations such as CORE and the NAACP reveals the only minor shortcoming of his book: the lack of a deeper understanding of non-community leaders and non-activists--black and white--in civil rights change. For decades before the Brown decision, local YWCA's broke color barriers and propelled black and white women into civil rights activism. In 1960, moreover, New Orleans white women involved in political reform groups such as the League of Women Voters resisted the legislature's attempts to close down schools rather than integrate; their actions were fundamental in changing local white attitudes about token desegregation. Fairclough's tendency to focus on male leaders keeps these important characters in the background.

Race & Democracywill nonetheless long exist as the example to follow for state and local histories of civil rights. By emphasizing the great complexities, continuities, and discontinuities involved in social change, Fairclough gives us an appreciation of why the legacies of civil rights remain so complicated today.

Juliette Landphair
University of Virginia