Last week, while Judge Charles W. Pickering was being smeared in the United States Senate as a racist, I was quite by accident reading volume one of Allan Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union, published in 1947. Nevins was a distinguished historian back in a time when distinguished historians neither made up their facts, as in the case of this past year’s winner of the Bancroft Prize, Michael Bellesiles nor plagiarized, as in the case of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. Nevins’ histories of the years leading up to the Civil War and of the Civil War itself are exemplary works of scholarship. They are also the work of a standard New Deal historian, a paragon of 1940s liberalism.
Judge Pickering’s opponents, all heirs to this New Deal heritage, now find American blacks in a parlous condition. Apparently all that is needed to send them down the road to Jim Crow again is a Pickering or two on the appellate bench. This is a terrific reversal for blacks. They were doing so well during the Clinton Glory, and they were doing even better after the New Deal. Consider how Professor Nevins described the blacks’ condition in the late 1940s, nearly two decades before the Civil Rights laws of the mid-1960s granted blacks the freedoms of the Bill of Rights.
Beginning his meditation on post-World War II American blacks, Nevins started with American slaves:
“They encountered a full portion of sorrow and ignominy….” Yet even before the Emancipation Proclamation “they were by no means wholly unrequited. They did earn by their toil one bright jewel which their kinfolk left free in African villages never gained…a brighter heritage for their children. Could they have lifted their gaze from the sordid setting of their drudgery and looked down the generations to come, what would they have seen? Their descendants thronging into schools and colleges; becoming skilled artisans, businessmen, professional workers, and artists; seizing opportunities such as the Negro race in all its errant, thwarted history had never enjoyed; rising to light, laughter, and shining achievement.”
That is how a Pulitzer Prize-winning progressive saw the American black circa 1948 from his vantage point at Columbia University. It was a sanguine view held by many a liberal Democrat in those golden post-New Deal days.
And the professor went on:
“The hovel and hoe, which seemed to lead to nothing, fell away to a road opening upon wide vistas; and within a hundred years Negro endeavor was flowering into poetry and fiction, song and sculpture, scientific discovery and scholarly achievement. The accomplishments of the Negroes in closing the gap between the white race and themselves have been wonderful, and in one sense those accomplishments have been built upon the foundation laid by the humble slaves.”
What has occurred since those great days of hope? Why is race still the liberals’ burning issue?