Lazerow on Fergus, 'Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980'

Devin Fergus
Jama Lazerow

Devin Fergus. Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980. Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South Series. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009. Illustrations. 364 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-3323-6; $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-3324-3.

Reviewed by Jama Lazerow (Wheelock College) Published on H-NC (January, 2010) Commissioned by Judkin J. Browning

"The Hidden Transcript of the Liberal-Black Power Dialogue": Toward a New History of the Sixties

Malcolm X, black nationalist and avatar of the so-called Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, understood how it worked.  "It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong," he said in one of his most widely read and frequently listened-to speeches, "what do you do?  You integrate it with cream, you make it weak.  But if you pour too much cream in it, you won't even know you ever had coffee.  It used to be hot, it becomes cool.  It used to be strong, it becomes weak.  It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep."[1]  Malcolm was talking about the perils of integration and more broadly about the perils of infiltration, in this case what he saw as a hijacking by President John F. Kennedy of the March on Washington in 1963.  For Devin Fergus, the metaphor aptly describes how liberalism tamed Black Power (which he identifies with black nationalism, as it was at the time)--and in the process helped heal a fractured nation (if it also, in ways not generally understood, paved the way for the rise of the New Right).  In his sure to be controversial new book, Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980, Fergus takes on just about everyone in arguing that we have all gotten the story wrong, mainly because historians have been toiling away in separate vineyards, operating on untested assumptions, failing to look in the right places for evidence, and often misinterpreting the evidence they have.

Fergus, a political historian with a keen interest in historical sociology, law, and theory, is after some very big game here.  The book is what in polemics would be called an "intervention," and as such it is largely heuristic.  His main targets are:  first, the new scholars of Black Power, whom he labels "isolationists" because, though taking their subject "on its own terms," they have walled themselves off from the mainstream historiography of American political history by "silenc[ing] the dialogue between liberalism and Black Power," and thus have "reified the master narrative [they wish] to revise"; and second, an older group of political historians--"the principal school of thought in the profession"--which, though acknowledging that dialogue, misunderstands its nature and its consequences by insisting that the liberal "coddling" of black nationalists hastened the nation's "unraveling" (pp. 238, 6, 241, 232).[2]  But, if Fergus thinks globally his work is local.  The book is composed of several finely etched and well-documented case studies drawn from the "progressive" Piedmont of North Carolina in the late 1960s and 1970s:  bracketed by two projects, the cultural nationalist Malcolm X Liberation University [MXLU] (chapters 1 and 2) and the public project Soul City (chapter 6), the heart of the book is about a group (the Black Panther Party [BPP], chapter 3) and a cause heavily influenced by that group (the Joan Little murder case, chapters 4 and 5).  The conclusion, a long and sprawling chapter in its own right, contains over a dozen more local examples (which interweave events, organizations, and individuals) beyond the borders of North Carolina, in an attempt to make the argument general.  In every case, at least in Fergus's telling, both sides of the dialectic--Black Power and liberalism--proved protean forces, the one susceptible to "contamination" because it drew on civic as well as racial nationalism, the other because it was more than willing to provide "operational space" in the effort to incorporate dissident voices.  The resultant portrait of both--and of the nation in this era--is then very different from what we have seen before.  It is also a rather intricate portrait, one that, given the constraints of a short review, can only be sketched in a most condensed form.

The central figure in Fergus's story of the MXLU (1969-73) is Howard Fuller (later Owusu Sadaukai), a mid-60s transplant from Chicago who came to work in an antipoverty agency in Durham and quickly got involved in housing protests that in turn got him into trouble, not so much with the local liberals who had hired him, but with right-wing forces in the state like future United States Senator Jesse Helms, and ultimately with the administration of Lyndon Johnson.  The inability of local liberals to protect him, however, increasingly soured him on a liberal racial agenda.  His growing sense that some autonomous power base was necessary for any racial progress moved him to a separatist position, first in the fight for a Black Studies program at Duke University, and ultimately in the establishment of an independent institution that could help build "a strong African nation," MXLU.  But the university was not quite independent, receiving a significant proportion of its funding from the Episcopal Church, monies it lost largely because of internal opposition from prominent African Africans in the church, not primarily from its white moderate and liberal members.  The university's problems, then, had more to do with class than race.  From the beginning, Fergus says, the project bore a liberal imprint in President Fuller's insistence that the students police their own behavior lest they draw unwanted attention "from the white community"; by 1972, he says, Fuller "appeared to prioritize nonviolence and negotiation" (p. 88).  Indeed, the granting agencies involved in funding MXLU "operated in classic Gramscian hegemonic fashion"--in the language of that day, they "co-opted the project"--an example of the way liberalism "filtered messages as much as it funneled resources" (pp. 89, 246).  As long as the money flowed, Fuller accommodated, Fergus says; when it was withdrawn, in part because of opposition from the black middle class, he moved out of the liberal orbit and to a structural critique of capitalism and advocacy of armed revolution.

If money from white liberals acted as a break on revolutionism in the case of MXLU (Fergus refers to this as a "hidden history of remittance"), legal protection from white liberals in the form of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) served the same function in the case of the North Carolina BPP (p. 89).  The Panthers constitute the heart of Fergus's case--their chapter is the longest in the book (titled appropriately "From Rebellion to Reform"), and they stalk the pages of the book once introduced.  This is perfectly logical.  For Fergus, as for most scholars, the Panthers are the paradigmatic black radicals of the age:  "the most dissident of all Black Power groups," "the most notorious black nationalist group" (p. 130).  In Winston-Salem, North Carolina (earlier attempts to establish Panther groups in Charlotte and Greensboro were problematic and short-lived), the Panthers lasted longer (dissolving in 1978) than any other official chapter on the East Coast.  Here, they entered local politics directly in 1974, establishing the basis for what would become known as the "Panther seat" in the North Ward, occupied for years by the former leader of the organization, Larry Little.  The genesis of that political saga--emblematic, Fergus says, of a larger transformation--was a successful appeal of a contempt charge against Little in a concealed weapons case.  The appeal was carried to the U.S. Supreme Court by the state ACLU.  And that, along with their representation in other court cases (and here too money from the Episcopal church), aided in what Fergus calls "the BPP's migration to moderation" (p. 94).

Fergus recognizes that there were other factors involved in that migration--for example, the national party's reaffirmation of the community programs, now called "survival programs pending revolution," and its active involvement in conventional electoral politics, both in the wake of a bloody schism that rended the BPP in early 1971.  He also acknowledges that the Panthers from their earliest days had embraced elements of a civic nationalism, evident for instance in the intonations of the Declaration of Independence and echoes of the Bill of Rights in their founding document, the Ten-Point Platform and Program ("What We Want, What We Believe").  For that reason, he asserts that the relationship with the ACLU was less a "radical ideological departure" than a route to what the Panthers had sought from the beginning but were prevented from doing because, as he quotes one local Panther saying about those days, "we were standing in court all the time" (pp. 93, 94).  He quotes Little saying something similar in 1974, though with a twist:  "Our goal to transform the system is still there, but our methods have changed" (p. 126).  At the same time, Fergus insists that the party in Winston-Salem survived because it "transformed itself," presumably in its embrace of a social-democratic program to be enacted through legal and traditional political means, which he calls a "political metamorphosis and revamped social agenda" (p. 114).  Though Fergus emphasizes the abetting role played by white liberals in this, could the Panthers have undergone a metamorphosis without marking some kind of radical ideological departure?

All this, then, raises the critical questions of just who the Panthers were, how they evolved, and why--critical, because of the particular weight Fergus places on the "soft power" of liberalism in this story.  Fergus distinguishes the Panthers from the cultural nationalists of the era, which they themselves did at the time of course.  On the one hand, he also characterizes them as "the most internationally-oriented of all Black Power groups," as "always on the cosmopolitan cusp of black nationalist thought and action," and as "left nationalists" (pp. 174, 175, 176).  On the other hand, he depicts them as having been "freed ... from the almost Manichean struggle between black and white, good and evil" by their support for Joan Little during the mid-1970s (p. 171).  That case, involving a young North Carolina woman accused of murdering her jailer apparently after he had raped her, became an international cause célèbre in some measure because of the efforts of local Panthers.  The rhetoric of cosmopolitanism here, with a "defense ensconced in liberal universal terms," again created "operational space" for the kind of liberal-Black Power "entente" that Fergus says characterized the era--in this instance, via a change of venue from conservative Beaufort County, where the killing took place, to Raleigh, where white liberals had helped elect a black mayor (p. 167).  That cosmopolitanism, however, on all sides masked an inward conservatism, which in the case of the Panthers was revealed in a deep and pervasive culture of sexism among male leadership, at a time when the national leader of the party was a woman and the membership was predominantly female.  To the extent that we can credit Fergus's evidence here--compared to other evidence in the book, it is surprisingly thin and problematic, in my view--it makes the case for the Panthers' engagement with liberals, but the BPP seems more retrograde than progressive in this instance.

Fergus's final case study--what he calls the "synthesis" that arose out of the dialectic of the MXLU (thesis) and the BPP (antithesis)--is Soul City, an ultimately failed attempt to build a black-run city in a rural area of North Carolina northeast of Raleigh along the Virginia border (1969-80).  The brainchild of Floyd McKissick, a lifelong civil rights activist who moved from nonviolent and legal protest in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to Black Power as head of CORE at the moment it embraced Black Power (1966-67) and finally to support for Richard Nixon and the Republican Party, Soul City embodied the logic of what he had seen in Europe in the late 1940s--namely, that massive government projects for capital investment like the Marshall Plan could stabilize a region, engender local self-determination of its people, and ultimately insulate it from revolt.  In the process, Fergus notes, the man who had struck fear into the hearts of white liberals in the late sixties through his advocacy of Black Power "ultimately became accountable to them" (p. 200).  The liberals here are the Democrats in Congress, whom Nixon was forced to work with to remain "politically relevant," and who held the purse strings (p. 201).  Those strings, as Fergus tells it, were a constant tug on McKissick, who agreed in due time to integrate a town he had envisioned as all-black, campaigned for Republicans, and advocated the project by touting North Carolina as a "right to work" state.  He even held out an olive branch to the New Right avatar, Helms, who, in return, would portray Soul City as the domestic equivalent of "detente":  an example of government--(liberal) Democratic and (moderate) Republican--"throwing money" at problems.

Early on in the planning for Soul City, Panther Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver would call McKissick's efforts the "advent of the neo-colonial phase of our particular situation in the United States."[3]  For Fergus's argument, Cleaver's language, if not his analogy, is apt:  Soul City represented the absorption of racial nationalism into the civic nationalist discourse of a liberal democratic nation.  In the process, Fergus insists, the nation became stronger not weaker.  That is, far from being a "causative agent in the United States' putative nervous breakdown" of the late 1960s and 1970s, Black Power played a role "in the national road to recovery" (pp. 252-253).  What became weaker, rather, was black nationalism, in the form of Black Power, as it pulled "back from the brink"--exactly as Malcolm had predicted.


[1]. Malcolm X, "Message to the Grassroots," Detroit, November 10, 1963, reprinted in George Breitman, ed., Malcolm X Speaks:  Selected Speeches and Statements (New York:  Grove Press, 1965), 16.

[2]. Fergus's copious notes offer critical appraisals of dozens of scholars.  Emblematic of the two "schools," however, are Peniel E. Joseph's Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour:  A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York:  Henry Holt and Company, 2006); and Allen J. Matusow's The Unraveling of America:  A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1984).  The latter's thesis, though challenged by sixties scholars since the late 1980s, remains influential.  See, e.g., Mark Hamilton Lytle, America's Uncivil Wars:  The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2006).

[3]. "Eldridge Cleaver Discusses Revoluton:  An Interview from Exile," The Black Panther, October 11, 1969, reprinted in Philip S. Foner, ed., The Black Panthers Speak (1970; New York:  Da Capo, 1995), 109.

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Citation: Jama Lazerow. Review of Fergus, Devin, Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980. H-NC, H-Net Reviews. January, 2010. URL:

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