'We Live's in a Free House Such as It is': Class and the Creation of Modern Civil Rights
42 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2016
Date Written: July 29, 2016
The shift during the 1940s from American public concern with class to concern with race has become a commonplace in American historiography. Scholars have observed a "seismic" shift in which liberals "committed [themselves] to civil rights... [and] concerns with class division and the ill effects of capitalist civilization ... lost their primacy" on "the liberal agenda." They seem to assume at least a historical and perhaps even a natural correlation between government regulation and class on the one hand, and between individual rights claims and race on the other. But there is neither a natural correlation between race and rights nor a historical one. Racial concerns certainly became more prominent in the 1940s than they had been before, but that does not mean that the concept of "civil rights" encompassed race to the exclusion of class. The individual rights assertions one finds trapped in the NAACP's voluminous archives — particularly in the labor-related claims of southern agricultural workers — show voices actively pushing the Inc. Fund toward economics and class issues. But the NAACP lawyers marginalized, cabined, and outright repudiated those class issues through the complaints they pursued and those they ignored. By the 1950s, when the antisegregation strategy that eventually led to Brown coalesced, they had succeeded in writing class out of their story. They succeeded in writing it out of our story as well. The project of this Article is to recapture the nascent rights claims of southern agricultural workers largely overlooked by both the Inc. Fund and the historiography. Recapturing these claims offers two lessons. First, their very existence at the intersection of race and class undermines the historiography's description of both a temporal shift from one to the other and the natural correlations of economic regulation and race-based individual rights. The second lesson stems not from the existence of these claims but from their disappearance. Until now, it has been impossible to see the crucial choices the NAACP made because historians have ignored the potential cases the Inc. Fund left behind. Examining those cases illustrates the openness that characterized the creation of civil rights in the 1940s.
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