“What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes asked in his 1951 poem “Harlem.” That question inspired Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), as well as innumerable jeremiads about the glacial pace of civil rights progress in the United States. While not responding to Hughes directly, Julian Maxwell Hayter offers his own answer to the famous inquiry in The Dream Is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia. Hayter chronicles the influence of the civil rights movement on Richmond politics from the 1950s through the 1980s. The Dream Is Lost covers the careers of several major players in city politics during this period, but it focuses on the grassroots activism of the Richmond Crusade for Voters. Founded in the late 1950s by middle-class black professionals and still active in the 2010s, the group fought against segregation and various forms of black disenfranchisement while supporting diverse political candidates and campaigns. Hayter argues that local groups like the Richmond Crusade paved the way for passage of the federal Voting Rights Act (1965) and then harnessed the power of newly enfranchised black voters to send progressive black and white leaders to state and local offices from the 1960s through the 1980s and beyond. Despite attempts by the city’s white political elite to dilute black voting power through suburban annexation in the late 1960s, the Crusade and the U.S. Department of Justice forced the city to shift from at-large city council elections to district elections, which saw the first black majority council and first African American mayor elected in 1977. “The dream is lost” (152), observed a black activist at a Crusade conference a mere five years after the watershed election of 1977. Much had changed in a short amount of time. On the national stage, Ronald Reagan’s presidency reoriented the Justice Department (and eventually the Supreme Court) so that enforcement of civil rights and racial remedies were no longer federal priorities. In Richmond, a new generation of black technocrats began to replace the civil rights activists in city offices. Elected in 1982, Mayor Roy A. West embodied this changing of the guard, focusing on urban development, black entrepreneurship, racial reconciliation, and getting tough on crime. Although West’s election represented the beginning of the end for the Crusade’s ability to unify and organize black Richmond, Hayter argues that black political power and pluralism had always been the organization’s goals. In a sense, then, the ability of a black mayor like Roy West to chart a conservative course independent of Crusade influence suggests that the civil rights group became a victim of its own success. If the story ended there, this book would have fit very nicely with a shelf of local movement histories produced from the 1980s through the 1990s. Yet Hayter understands that the “dream” was more than election-night victory parties for black candidates. With copious data on continued school segregation and increasing concentrations of urban poverty along with lags in black middle-class income gains relative to those of whites, Hayter proves decisively that if the dream was true equality, it was in a very real sense “lost” in the 1980s and 1990s. Ironically, this happened just as historians penned triumphalist narratives of the civil rights movement. In addition to contributing to an ongoing shift in civil rights scholarship from sanguine stories to cautionary tales, Hayter complicates historiographies of the urban “crisis” and suburban flight. Here is a southern city (perhaps the quintessential southern city) where black political empowerment and growing impoverishment echoed trends in Cleveland and Detroit as much as Atlanta or Charlotte. With one eye on the national story and the other on Richmond, Hayter admirably contextualizes the gains made by African Americans in this era even as the larger dream of equality slipped away. The great strength of this book—namely its focus on political and economic data—also constitutes its primary weakness. Nonspecialists will long for fewer numbers and more narrative. Hayter painstakingly chronicles city-council elections that took place every two years from the 1960s through the 1980s. Battles over suburban annexation and school segregation are similarly data-driven chronologies. Although Hayter’s inner policy wonk gets a little carried away with political calculus, there is something to be said for this fine-grained analysis. Several years ago, a Department of Justice lawyer complained to me about the “cultural turn” in history, arguing that civil rights lawyers needed the kind of hardnosed political and economic analyses that were once the gold standards of our discipline. If the Department of Justice needs expertise on voting rights and urban policy, they need look no further than this book and its author. On a deeper level, Hayter’s work begs a reconsideration of the historical cycles of dream deference that Langston Hughes recognized so long ago. Discussing the persistence of urban poverty and institutional racism that plague cities like Richmond, Hayter concludes, “Unless these matters take a turn for the better, it seems likely that the histories of the American civil rights movement and of the backlash against that movement will be written much like the histories of Reconstruction” (245). Perhaps, then, this book fits not only into the historiography of the Second Reconstruction but also into scholarship on what should rightfully be called the Second Redemption. Despite its title, however, The Dream Is Lost does not simply replace triumph with defeat. Hayter is far too smart for that. His book suggests that even when the dream seems most lost, it is found again by a new generation. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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