Historians write to illuminate our shared past, to explicate the forces that shape our present.
But successive historical narratives also can create a series of veils, distancing the past from the present. The more recent dominates our thoughts. The horrors of the Second World War (the Holocaust, the atom bomb) obscure the horrors of the First World War (the trenches, the machine gun). We lose sight of the pain of the Oklahoma City bombing after the enormity of Sept. 11, 2001.
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Such veils can be drawn over positive aspects of history as well. When thinking about the civil rights movement in American history, we tend to begin in the mid-1950s, with Emmett Till and Rosa Parks, then Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, with W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington having earlier set the intellectual stage.
But the movement had much deeper and more tangled roots, and Margaret Garb's essential new book, "Freedom's Ballot: African American Political Struggles in Chicago from Abolition to the Great Migration," takes readers back to its origins in Chicago.
African-Americans worked for abolition, then led the fight against post-Civil War "black codes," and for the vote. As their numbers grew and they began to suffer residential segregation and violence at the hands of their white neighbors, African-American cultural leaders and politicians argued over how best to assert full citizenship. By 1920, Chicagoans had elected Oscar Stanton De Priest the first big-city black alderman and, subsequently, the first black U.S. representative to Congress since Reconstruction.
On the way to the narrative's culmination with De Priest, Garb introduces a cast of fascinating characters, some familiar (Ida B. Wells-Barnett) and some largely unknown. The most interesting of the latter might be John Jones, the son of a free mixed-race woman and a German-born father. Jones came to Chicago in the 1840s and, like so many other early Chicago settlers, made his money in real estate. He was part of the Underground Railroad and knew anti-slavery crusader John Brown. He was widely enough known that, after the Great Fire, his "wealth and status as a spokesman for his race had in 1871 propelled him to victory in citywide elections for the Cook County Board of Commissioners, making Jones the first black man elected to a public office in Chicago."
So Jones represents the beginning of African-American politics in Chicago, a politics that evolved through contentious arguments over how African-Americans could best improve their lives in Chicago and the nation. Should they, as Jones argued, throw their lot in with Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party? Or should they work with any party that would share the commonly expected "spoils" of political power, patronage jobs for their working people and municipal contracts for their businessmen? Should they integrate and ally themselves with extant parties, or assert a politics based on racial identity?
This emphasis on the multiple political positions that African-Americans grappled with is one of the most valuable aspects of this book. There was (and is) no such thing as "the" African-American community. Like any other group of Americans, though blacks had much in common, they also had huge differences of experience and opinion. The divide between King's nonviolence and Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" has roots as far back as arguments over proper strategies with which to resist the Fugitive Slave Act: instruct the local police to ignore it, or physically resist slave-hunters? Both options were discussed and exercised in Chicago.
Furthermore, the African-American community was, like the white community, divided along lines of class, gender, occupation and religion. Upstanding churchgoers wanted little to do with habitués of saloons; doctors and lawyers disdained janitors and waiters.
But outside pressure forced a degree of racial cohesion on African-Americans. Chicago is still one of the most segregated American cities according to 2010 census data, but it was not always thus. When African-Americans were relatively few in numbers in the 19th century — less than 2 percent of the population in 1880 — blacks and whites lived together in different Chicago neighborhoods in relative peace. Working class blacks lived in working class neighborhoods, while their more prosperous fellows socialized with the city's white elite, many of whom were political and economic patrons of striving blacks engaged in racial uplift.
Then the growth of European immigration to the booming industrial city created segregation, as groups such as the Irish and Italians, who were not themselves considered entirely white (in the systems Garb rightly calls "pseudoscience"), violently opposed integrated neighborhoods. Greedy landlords profiteered off the resulting black overcrowding in the emergent ghetto.
African-American politicians, even as they argued among themselves, clearly had a grasp of one neglected aspect of American politics: humor. Garb relates the tale of a resolution taken at a political conference in Chicago to raise money for recolonization — not of blacks back to Africa, but of Southern whites.
"The solution was for Congress to allocate $100 million to fund the emigration of white citizens 'who may desire to settle in other and more favored states, free from Afro-American majorities.' The funds would provide the migrating whites with 'free transportation and lunch.'"
The biting humor makes Garb's serious point: "The resolution, with its caustic tone, signaled that black Americans, at least those intellectuals and activists attending the Chicago convention, were weary of debating whether or how they could accommodate white America. If white Republicans would not protect African American interests, then black voters would simply forge their own institutions."
Such institutions were part of a dynamic involving African-American churches, social and fraternal organizations (for both men and women), newspapers, promoters of civic virtue, labor organizations, and a huge variety of conferences and conventions.
Eventually, this process of engagement on multiple conflicted fronts culminates with the career of De Priest. This man's career was no unalloyed gold. Garb writes that "De Priest's campaigns divided the black electorate and were tainted by corruption, demonstrating the complexity of black politics. His victories emerged out of a larger arena of urban black politics convulsed by internal debates over ideology and agendas, split among aspiring activists, and fueled by South State Street's 'bright lights' entrepreneurs."
Nothing for African-American politicians in Chicago was ever simple or straightforward, given the complexities of their multifarious constituencies and the challenges they faced from white politicians.
De Priest's machine had a lamentable legacy, as it was co-opted effectively by the white Democratic Party. Black voters mattered, but only so far as they would keep black aldermen and congressmen who cooperated with the white ethnic machine in power. That voting bloc would turn out in force to bring Harold Washington to the fifth floor of City Hall in 1983, but before that it was used primarily to perpetuate white power.
As Mike Royko wrote in "Boss," regarding the 1963 mayoral election that saw Richard J. Daley win with only 49 percent of the white vote: "The enormous black vote had given Daley his victory. The people who were trapped in the ghetto slums and the nightmarish public housing projects ... had given him his third term. They had done it quietly, asking for nothing in return. Exactly what they got."
But before African-American voters could be sold out by their own leaders and used by white leaders, they first had to make themselves a formidable part of the political process. This involved first gaining emancipation from slavery; then the right to vote; then full citizenship. Throughout her book, Garb illuminates the two-steps-forward, one-step-back process by which African-Americans in Chicago and beyond accomplished this Herculean feat, and she fills in the gaps in our historical memory between our city's black founder, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, and the era of Harold Washington and Barack Obama.
Two other compelling aspects of the book, for me, are unstated implications for contemporary politics. First, despite the election of Obama as president, we clearly do not live in a post-racial America. Overt racism may no longer be acceptable in polite conversation among most people, but as recent incidents such as comments by "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson, scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy and banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling remind us, we have a long way to go before it truly is the content of one's character rather than the color of one's skin that determines one's status in our country. The concerns that motivated Jones and De Priest still matter.
Second, the arc of African-American activism, from arguing for manhood and mere citizenship to full equality, resonates with the 21st century debate over immigration reform. Like freed slaves, undocumented immigrants (who are mostly Spanish-speaking Latinos) are economically exploited and, as noncitizens despite sometimes decades of living in the United States, they lack the vote that might inspire — or compel — elected officials to address their plight. Like their African-American forebears, so-called "illegal aliens" often live in self-imposed (or other-enforced) ghettos and miss out on educational and economic paths that might improve their lives. Garb's story of waiters' strikes in Chicago echo contemporary restaurant and fast-food workers acting in concert in recent "living wage" protests.
Garb is a historian first and foremost, and so doesn't explicitly make these points. But they lurk in the story of black Chicagoans from the 1850s to the 1920s.
This is a well-written book. Far too often, historians write primarily for other historians, and jargon and academic-speak can obfuscate rather than illuminate our history. Thanks to Garb's deep research, her lively prose and her narrative virtuosity, her compelling story of African-American pioneers in the ongoing — and unfinished — struggle for civil rights is that rare book that adds something new to our national conversation about race, cities and America, for scholars and general readers alike.
Bill Savage is distinguished senior lecturer at Northwestern University.
By Margaret Garb, University of Chicago, 306 pages, $50Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun