The blossoming of interest in black history since the 1950s was directly linked to the rise of Martin Luther King and the post-Second World War Civil Rights Movement. The advances achieved in desegregation and black voting rights since the 1950s suggested that this was a destination that King's children, and African Americans as a whole, would ultimately reach. In the inter-war years there were indications that some scholars were willing to examine the more depressing realities of black life, most notably in a series of academic studies on lynching. The book discusses the approach of Du Bois to the academic studies on black migrants from a sociological perspective. When African American history began to command more serious attention in the mid-1960s, the generation of historians who had had direct personal experience of the Great Depression and the Second World War began to reach the age of retirement. The book also examines the achievements of race leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, the Black Power Movement and Black Nationalism of the 1960s. In a 1996 study, political scientist Robert C. Scholarly debate on the African American experience from the 1890s through to the early 1920s gathered momentum with fresh studies on the spread of racial segregation and black migration to the cities. The rise of feminism and popularity of women's history prompted academic researchers to pay attention to the issue of gender in African American history. Stereotyped depictions of African Americans in US popular culture are also discussed.
This chapter focuses on four broad chronological periods of the study of black American history. The first era of scholarship in African American history lasted from 1882 down to 1909. The leading writers on black history in this period were African Americans. The second era of scholarship lasted from 1909 through to the mid-1930s. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the leading figures of this period. The third era of African American scholarship lasted from the mid-1930s through to the end of the 1960s. In the late 1930s and early 1940s a new generation of black historians such as Benjamin Quarles and John Hope Franklin, began to take over academic leadership in African American history. The fourth era of scholarship in African American history dates from around 1970. The post-war Civil Rights Movement continued to have a profound influence on the development of African American historiography.
Although Martin Luther King had been martyred in 1968, he had at least claimed to have a vision of a future promised land. The advances achieved in desegregation and black voting rights since the 1950s suggested that this was a destination that King's children, and African Americans as a whole, would ultimately reach. Booker T. Washington's autobiographies had a fascination for his fellow citizens of all races, in that American social values at the turn of the century tended to lay undue emphasis on individual achievement at the expense of group experience. The painstaking quality of Louis Harlan's research, combined with his prolific scholarly output, established him as unquestionably the leading modern authority on Washington by the 1980s. Although careful to present a balanced picture of his subject, it was also clear that Harlan himself was generally unsympathetic to the Tuskegeean's accommodationist philosophy.
The 'Great Migration' from 1915 to 1925, during which some 1.25 million blacks left the South to settle in major urban centres of the North like New York and Chicago, was an issue that attracted the attention of white Americans. This chapter discusses the approach of W. E. B. Du Bois to the academic studies on black migrants from a sociological, rather than a historical perspective. The emphasis on cultural awareness and achievement during the Black Power era highlighted the fact that African American cultural history remained a largely neglected area of twentieth century black history. In an influential 1937 article the African American scholar and leading inspiration of the Renaissance, Alain Locke, famously recorded what appeared to be a virtual obituary for the movement.
There are a number of reasons why earlier scholars neglected the 1930s and early 1940s. When African American history began to command more serious attention in the mid-1960s, the generation of historians who, as young adults, had had direct personal experience of the Great Depression and the Second World War began to reach the age of retirement. Growing awareness of the acute economic problems suffered by many African American communities during the 1980s and the 1990s perhaps drew some scholars to the 1930s, a decade when economic deprivation was also one of the most pressing problems experienced by black Americans. One consequence of the new interest in the 1930s has been a growing awareness of the efforts of civil rights activists of the period, both white and black Americans, whose work had previously gone largely unrecognized by historians.
The preoccupation with Martin Luther King in early studies on the post-war Civil Rights Movement can be explained by a number of factors. When eschewing a biographical approach, early historians of the Civil Rights Movement typically sought to achieve insights into their subject through traditional political and institutional studies. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s raised difficult ethical issues for religious leaders of all faiths, but the moral challenge was perhaps most painful of all for southern Jewish communities. The relationship between black civil rights and US foreign policy was another little-explored area that attracted the attention of scholars in the 1990s. Members of a long persecuted minority it was easy for Jews in the region to empathize with the experiences of African Americans. At the same time active support for the civil rights campaign carried the risk of provoking anti-Semitic violence and retaliation by segregationist groups.
The achievements of race leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael generally took more subtle, less tangible, forms. These included community empowerment, heightened racial pride and consciousness, and a decolonization of the black ghetto mind, rather than specific political initiatives to address the physical problems of the inner cities. Thus scholars in the 1960s and 1970s concluded that the Black Power Movement was lacking in any true substance, meaning or accomplishments, and was therefore not worthy of serious study. Transcribed and edited with the assistance of African American journalist Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X quickly became regarded as the authoritative account of his life and became an inspirational text for Black Power leaders of the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the 1970s and 1980s academics were beginning to make a welcome, if overdue, contribution to the understanding of Black Nationalism of the 1960s.
The historiography of the African American experience since 1980 is, for obvious reasons, less expansive than for earlier decades. The subject matter of the first studies of the African American experience in the last two decades of the twentieth century has been influenced by a number of factors. In common with early works on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s there has been a tendency for researchers to concentrate primarily on nationally known leaders and major political and legislative developments. In a 1996 study, political scientist Robert C. Smith concluded that since the 1970s the black Civil Rights Movement had 'been almost wholly encapsulated into mainstream institutions; co-opted and marginalized'. A notable historiographical development of the late 1990s was a sudden proliferation of studies on Louis Farrakhan, leader of the black separatist organization the Nation of Islam.
The first tentative indications that times were changing came in the 1960s and, more particularly, the 1970s. The sustained civil rights protests of these years contributed to growing interest by scholars in examining the strategies of protest and accommodation adopted by African Americans in earlier periods. The daily lives of black slaves in the antebellum South became an especial focus for academic study. Historian Daniel Leab's line of enquiry typified what by the 1980s had become a dominant trend in studies by cultural historians, namely to explore the origins, character and significance of stereotyped depictions of African Americans in US popular culture. The 1990s saw both rapid and unprecedented developments in the academic study of popular culture. In part this interest can be seen as reflecting the cult of celebrity that enveloped the leading stars of sport, music, film and television entertainment at the close of the century.
This chapter presents some concluding thoughts on black civil rights discussed in this book. During the 1950s and 1960s the spread of more liberal attitudes and values, reflected in the rise of Martin Luther King and the post-war Civil Rights Movement, inspired scholars to investigate the African American past. Scholarly debate on the African American experience from the 1890s through to the early 1920s gathered momentum with fresh studies on the spread of racial segregation and black migration to the cities. The rise of feminism and growth in popularity of women's history in the closing decades of the twentieth century prompted academic researchers to pay more attention to the issue of gender in all periods of African American history. Whether writing about the 1890s or the 1980s historians began to recognize the importance of class divisions in African American communities and the civil rights struggle.