Posted in 20th century America, Christianity, Civil Rights, conservative politics, gender studies, Ku Klux Klan, marginalization, racism, religion

Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Lisa McGirr’s book, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, is an interesting study of the grassroots conservatism that developed in Orange County, California beginning in the late 1950s.  The stories are both enlightening and disturbing as McGirr traces how this group learned to shift the conservative movement away from radical right-wing organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society to develop high levels of respectability for themselves—enough to successfully elect Ronald Regan to the Presidency in 1980.  The big turning point for these conservatives was Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat.  He lost support for opposing the 1964 Civil Rights’ Act and Social Security.  Another contributing factor was his campaign’s association with the John Birch Society.  Republican moderates were alarmed by Goldwater’s nomination acceptance speech where he stated, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”[1]  Following this defeat, but still concerned with “law and order” and “morality,” conservatives shed their extremist language to attract a more mainstream audience.[2]  The 1966 gubernatorial campaign for Reagan was their first real victory.

McGirr’s overriding question considers “how conservative political ideology, often considered an antimodern worldview, attracted a large number of people in the most technologically advanced and economically vibrant of American locales.”[3]  She shows that the Orange County  conservative movement embraced some aspects of modernity while rejecting others.  Right-wing evangelical Protestantism offered meaning through community and morality, and helped to ease fears of looming social upheaval (Communism, integration, birth control and abortion, to name a few).  It also embraced consumerism and entrepreneurial endeavors, which were key aspects of the technological economy that flourished in the region since the end of World War II.

McGirr’s resources included newspaper articles, interviews, sermons, magazines, poitical newsletters, McGuffey Readers, court proceedings transcripts, presidential election statistics, letters, ACLU papers, and the papers of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and other politicians discussed in the book.

This book connects with others on this site in a number of ways.  For example, Estrid Kielsmeier, a woman in the suburbs who ran coffee klatches to gather support for Barry Goldwater’s election, is an example of an ordinary woman who found a way to effect change in her community and the world at large.  She was part of a network of women who “organized study groups, opened ‘Freedom Forum’ bookstores, fill the rolls of the John Birch Society, entered school board races, and worked within the Republican Party, all in an urgent struggle to safeguard their particular vision of freedom and the American heritage.”[4]  And while I would not compare the integrity of the works of Estrid Kielsmeier to Ella Baker, both women worked hard for what they believed in.  “Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations.”[5]  And even though Baker’s primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom, she dedicated herself to making the entire world a better place for everyone.

[1] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 140-141.

[2] Ibid., 186.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 4.

Posted in 20th century America, African Americans, Civil Rights, gender studies, marginalization, racism, resistance, urban studies, violence

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Barbara Ransby outlines the focus of her biography, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement as follows:

Ella Baker played a pivotal role in the three most prominent black freedom organizations of her day: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; pronounced “snick”). She worked alongside some of the most prominent black male leaders of the twentieth century: W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, George Schuyler, Walter White, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael. However, Baker had contentious relationships with all these men and the organizations they headed, with the exception of SNCC during its first six years. For much of her career she functioned as an “outsider within.”

Yet, Baker did not work as a sole female activist, nor were her struggles confined to African American communities. “Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations.” And even though Baker’s primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom, she dedicated herself to making the entire world a better place for everyone. Ransby points out that Baker was involved in more than thirty major political campaigns and organizations, “addressing such issues as the war in Vietnam, Puerto Rican independence, South African apartheid, political repression, prison conditions, poverty, unequal education, and sexism.”

Ransby attempts to sum up Baker’s life and work at the end of the book. She notes Timothy Jenkin’s eulogy at a SNCC reunion in 2000 where he describes Baker as being the “mortar between the bricks.” But Ransby disagrees. She likens Baker to a patchwork quilt, noting that “like the quilting tradition itself, [Baker’s] life work was collective work.”
Ransby, who is also an activist, admits that she came upon Ella Baker’s story in her search for “political role models, not research subjects.” But Ransby refers to Baker as a “biographer’s nightmare.” Being a very private person, Baker left little personal correspondence that Ransby could assess. Her public voice and presence as documented in over thirty archival and manuscript collections of organizations and individuals across the country is what remains. Ransby incorporated numerous oral interviews into her research and even conducted a number of the interviews herself. In addition, Ransby consulted published books, theses and dissertations, newspapers, and a variety of other sources.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement connects with the themes of gender and racism explored in other books on this site. Baker defied gender restrictions of her time, not unlike Dorothea Lange. Both books address how these women fought for those less fortunate than themselves and how they changed as women and human beings as a result of their struggles.