Sokol (History/Univ. of New Hampshire; There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975, 2006) exposes the troubled truth about the North’s racial integration.
The Northern states could point to the Southern states’ ongoing practices of Jim Crow legislation, white supremacist violence and suppression of voting rights with righteous disgust, but the author shows how, in unsubtle and pernicious ways, the North, too, was “at war with itself.” Sokol tracks the tireless work of a handful of reformers who helped uncover the hypocrisy of the Northeast’s practices in politics, housing and even sports. In 1939, the school superintendent of Springfield, Massachusetts, John Granrud, attempted to pioneer revolutionary hiring practices to incorporate a “crazy quilt of races, religions and ethnicities” and celebrate the plethora of differences within the student body. The school’s integration gained national notoriety and even a Hollywood film (It Happened in Springfield)—until a Democratic backlash shut it down in 1945. Claiming that there was no discrimination, the new superintendent asked, “why enact, or continue, a program to root it out?” The facts within ethnically divided neighborhoods like Brooklyn belied this smug attitude. The arrival of Jackie Robinson challenged Dodgers fans to “step away from the old prejudices,” not just in embracing the black ballplayer, but in the experience of integration in the stands at Ebbets Field. “Segregated housing,” Sokol asserts, “was the scourge of the North”—from the Robinson family’s travails at finding a welcoming community in Connecticut to the deeply divisive struggle to integrate Northeastern schools from 1957 onward. The elections of enormously influential African-Americans like Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke and New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm offered new champions to equality, while Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff challenged his colleagues to hold the mirror up to look inward and acknowledge racism’s intractable existence.
With sharp research and insights, Sokol follows this blithe and self-congratulatory legacy through the election of President Barack Obama.