All Eyes are Upon Us

Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn


By Jason Sokol

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The Northeastern United States — home to abolitionism and a refuge for blacks fleeing the Jim Crow South — has had a long and celebrated history of racial equality and political liberalism. After World War II, the region appeared poised to continue this legacy, electing black politicians and rallying behind black athletes and cultural leaders. However, as historian Jason Sokol reveals in All Eyes Are Upon Us, these achievements obscured the harsh reality of a region riven by segregation and deep-seated racism.

White fans from across Brooklyn — Irish, Jewish, and Italian — came out to support Jackie Robinson when he broke baseball’s color barrier with the Dodgers in 1947, even as the city’s blacks were shunted into segregated neighborhoods. The African-American politician Ed Brooke won a senate seat in Massachusetts in 1966, when the state was 97% white, yet his political career was undone by the resistance to busing in Boston. Across the Northeast over the last half-century, blacks have encountered housing and employment discrimination as well as racial violence. But the gap between the northern ideal and the region’s segregated reality left small but meaningful room for racial progress. Forced to reckon with the disparity between their racial practices and their racial preaching, blacks and whites forged interracial coalitions and demanded that the region live up to its promise of equal opportunity.

A revelatory account of the tumultuous modern history of race and politics in the Northeast, All Eyes Are Upon Us presents the Northeast as a microcosm of America as a whole: outwardly democratic, inwardly conflicted, but always striving to live up to its highest ideals.



The Northern Mystique

FOR EDWARD BROOKE, THE NORTH PULSED WITH PROMISE. BROOKE first set foot in New England during World War Two, when his army regiment trained in Massachusetts. He was a native of Washington, D.C., and Washington was a Jim Crow city. When the war ended, Brooke moved to Boston and enrolled in law school. He voted for the first time in his life. And he did much more. Brooke was elected the state’s attorney general in 1962; four years later, he won election to the United States Senate. Brooke achieved all of this in a state that was 97 percent white. What constituted political reality in Massachusetts—an African American man winning one million white votes—was the stuff of hallucinations below the Mason-Dixon line.

At the same time, an open secret haunted America’s northern states. As the nation gazed at southern whites’ resistance to the civil rights movement—at the Klansmen and demagogues, attack dogs and cattle prods—many recoiled in horror. Northerners told themselves that such scenes emanated from a backward land, a dying region, a place apart. Yet rampant segregation in cities across the country rendered racial inequality a national trait more than a southern aberration. When black migrants streamed north during and after World War Two, James Baldwin reflected, “they do not escape Jim Crow: they merely encounter another, not-less-deadly variety.” They moved not to New York, but to Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant; not to Chicago, but to the South Side; not to Boston, but to Lower Roxbury.1

Here were the two sides to race in the Northeast, embodied in Brooke’s political success and in Baldwin’s cautionary tale. The cities of the Northeast were simultaneously beacons of interracial democracy and strongholds of racial segregation.

Both stories—seemingly contradictory stories—unfolded side by side, at the same moments, in the same places. Black neighborhoods congealed in the years after World War Two as segregated schools proliferated across the urban Northeast. The numbers of black northerners in poverty and behind bars would continue to grow. And yet these cities and states also incubated movements for racial equality. African Americans scored advances at the polls, in the courtrooms, and in the region’s cultural arenas as well.

The two stories are rarely told together. The North as a land of liberty holds power in the popular mind. When the idea of “northern history” enters into the public consciousness, it often comes attached to the American Revolution or the Civil War. This was the home of the minutemen, righteous abolitionists, and the noble Union army. Many schools still teach about slavery and segregation as distinctly southern sins. And the North continues to bask in its enlightened glow. To travel from Boston to New York is to take in Harvard and Broadway, high culture and high ideals. Northern states are blue states; they have powered American liberalism and provided the first black president with his largest margins of victory. To many Americans, the North remains a higher place.

To scholars, however, the North as a land of liberty has become a straw man. No reflective historian any longer believes it. Scholars have focused on the North’s dark side. They have shown slavery’s deep roots in New England and New York City. Histories of twentieth-century America reveal the North’s bloody record of racial violence, and its stunningly segregated landscape of affluent white suburbs and destitute brown cities. In recent works of history, the North and the South emerge as rough racial equivalents: the South had Mississippi; the North had the Boston busing crisis. If the progressive side of the North enters into these stories, it is depicted as a rhetorical mask that hides the reality of racism.2

The truth is that both stories are real, and they have coexisted—albeit uneasily. This kind of truth can be difficult to assimilate. It does not fit with a portrait of American history as the story of freedom. Neither does it jibe with an understanding of America as the story of oppression. The larger tale weaves together these warring strands—it is a story befitting a nation that boasts an African American president as well as staggering racial and economic inequality.

The Northeast has been, and remains, the most American of regions. This is not because it is a glittering model of freedom and democracy. It is because the Northeast has long held genuine movements for racial democracy, and for racial segregation, within the same heart. The Northeast best illuminates the conflict that stands at the center of American race relations.

As late as 2011, the head of Boston’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) noted that his city still had an unsavory reputation among African Americans. “Boston is definitely a city that has two sides,” reflected Michael Curry. “Maybe we should own that.” He referred to Boston’s abolitionist heritage on the one hand, and its history of white racism on the other. He was hinting that Boston’s inhabitants should find a way to embrace that ambiguity. By contrast, most other American cities have one-sided racial histories. The side of racism, segregation, and oppression has always won out.3

This book does not downplay the brutality of racial violence or the persistence of segregation. Indeed, it documents this ugly history. But it takes seriously the advantages that African Americans have had in the North, and it makes much of the region’s traditions of political and racial progressivism.

Among the advantages of northern life, none was more important than the fact that African Americans could vote. Blacks exercised this crucial right of American citizenship. As their numbers grew after World War Two, they influenced the political culture of northern cities and states, making these places more malleable and more democratic. African Americans elected some of their own. They placed their hands on the levers of urban political machines. They forced white officials to support civil rights legislation at the local and national levels. Their electoral clout also fueled interracial and multiracial coalitions, creating an atmosphere in which white voters would support black candidates.

All of this helps to present a history of recent America in which the election of a black president was imaginable—and possible. Barack Obama’s election is pictured here not as a shocking break from America’s racial past, but as the triumph of one of its strands. The campaigns and careers of many black Northeastern politicians—Ed Brooke, Shirley Chisholm, and Deval Patrick, among others—show that Obama has forerunners in the realm of electoral politics. There were traditions of interracial politics upon which Obama could draw. The Northeast, more than any other region, supplied those historical antecedents.*

Many of the Northeast’s African American leaders were descended from southern slaves. Their forebears had participated in the migrations to the North. Those transplants believed most deeply in the region’s promise. But they also rubbed against its sharpest edges—shunted into its ghettoes, assigned to its crumbling schools, filtered through its menial jobs. African Americans remained suspended between the Northeast’s reputation and its economic realities. Some of them made it to the top, leading states and cities, showcasing and confirming the region’s mystique; many more lay at the bottom, still clawing and grinding, mute testaments to the bankruptcy of that promise. They explored the contours of a place that leaped far ahead of the rest of America. And yet it also reflected, illuminated, and reinforced the nation’s worst demons.

That the Northeast possessed these two sides does not mean they forever fought to a standstill. They changed in shape and form and degree. At certain moments in the twentieth century, the white backlash won out. At other times, interracial progress stepped to the fore. The overall story contains forward marches and backward retreats, triumph and failure, and everything in between.

The North’s mystique had a chronology, and a dynamic history, of its own. It soared to prodigious heights in the 1940s, inspired by the democratic ambitions of World War Two and nudged along by the rising black freedom struggle. Northeasterners saw themselves as leaders. Their cities were models for the nation and the world. With the “Springfield Plan” of the early 1940s, the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, declared war on racial, religious, and ethnic prejudice. In 1947, Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough set the pace for experiments in interracial democracy. Though these wartime and postwar struggles did not establish equality in economics or power, they laid cultural foundations for the coming years. Yet after the war, racial segregation became more entrenched in neighborhoods and schools. Northern blacks began to wage assaults on such conditions. The NAACP often led the charge. In 1964, for example, the NAACP took aim at the segregation that existed in Springfield’s schools. A long legal battle ensued.

Just as northern school segregation was coming to light in the 1960s, interracial politics had its beginnings. Some white northerners embraced this promise, as seen through Ed Brooke’s Senate election in Massachusetts and Shirley Chisholm’s congressional triumph in Brooklyn. The difference is that while Brooke won more than one million white votes, Chisholm crafted a diverse coalition of African American, Puerto Rican, and white voters—including the Jews of Crown Heights as well as the Polish Catholics of Greenpoint. Still, racism flourished and inequalities continued to deepen in Brooke’s Massachusetts as well as Chisholm’s Brooklyn. Victories at the ballot box were significant but fragile.

The northern mystique was bruised and battered in the 1970s, and ultimately beaten by the school busing controversy. In 1970, at the instigation of Connecticut’s Abraham Ribicoff, the Senate erupted in a heated debate over northern segregation. And in 1974, blood was spilled in the streets of Boston. The Northeast no longer seemed like a land of breakthroughs. It became a mirror for America’s troubles—shaping and reflecting, rather than surmounting, the nation’s racial and political divisions. The 1970s witnessed the fall of the North.

The old interracial ideals dissolved in a vapor of racial strife and economic hardship. Factories were shuttered in the 1970s and 1980s; white residents departed the region’s once-proud cities, leaving behind impoverished urban cores that many racial minorities called home. First in Hartford, then in New York City and New Haven, African American mayors rose to power. As black poverty worsened, however, the electoral triumphs seemed emptier than ever.

In the early twenty-first century, the northern mystique began to rise from the ashes. Massachusetts, and then the nation, was reborn by a new black politics. Deval Patrick ran for governor in 2006, asking Bay State residents to “vote your aspirations.” He encouraged the citizens of Massachusetts to position themselves on the frontier of interracial democracy—to see themselves as a model once again.4

At its broadest, this book tells the story of a region, and a people, first standing as the nation’s beacon—then as its mirror, its outcast, and finally as a harbinger.

WHILE THE SOUTH WAS WEIGHTED DOWN BY ITS RACIAL HISTORY, all blood and terror and tragedy, it made a certain sense that a humorist dared to unwrap the riddle of race in the North.

Margaret Halsey first gained notoriety for her 1938 satire of British life, With Malice Toward Some. She worked in an interracial canteen during World War Two, and her writing took a more serious turn. Halsey greeted the postwar world with a slim but devastating volume entitled Colorblind: A White Woman Looks at the Negro. Her upbringing on the outskirts of Yonkers, New York, had approximated that of many whites in the prewar Northeast. “There were no Negroes in the rather remote suburban neighborhood where I grew up, and none in the grammar school I attended. The only mammy I had was the white lady who had put herself to the inconvenience of bearing me, and as a child I never saw Negroes except in the streets and stores.” To Halsey, the African Americans who populated northern cities were truly invisible men and women: “Nobody ever talked about them at all.” Such an existence produced within her a combination of “innocence, ignorance, indifference, and inexperience,” an amalgam she thought quite typical among white Americans of every region. Even so, Halsey believed that if America would ever solve its “race situation,” those who resided above the Mason-Dixon line would lead the way. “The North has a greater responsibility than the South because it has the superior equipment for dealing with the problem. . . . It is a richer section of the country, with all that that implies in terms of general levels of health and education. And while many Northern citizens are prejudiced against Negroes, that prejudice is not usually trained into them so intensively.” Here was the northern mystique, or at least one iteration of it. Halsey portrayed the North, in relative terms, as a place of cultural and racial enlightenment.5

There was nothing straightforward about white northerners’ racial attitudes. Impulses toward democracy and discrimination warred within a single mind or body; beliefs in equality were just as dogged as crass stereotypes. As Halsey reflected, “there is not room for these two reactions—the democratic one and the popular-legend one—in the same person at the same time. Not, that is, if the person is to be at all comfortable.” Colorblind demonstrated this excruciating discomfort—the unease resulting from whites’ attempts to unify two opposites, to stride toward racial progress even as they nursed vicious stereotypes and policed the boundaries of racial segregation.6

At the time of Colorblind’s publication, James Baldwin was twenty-one years old and just beginning his writing career. While only ten miles separated Baldwin’s childhood world from Halsey’s, his native Harlem and her “remote suburban neighborhood” could scarcely have felt farther apart. Still, the two writers arrived at strikingly similar conclusions about race in the North. The white northerner “never sees Negroes,” Baldwin wrote in 1961. “Northerners never think about them whereas Southerners are never really thinking of anything else. Negroes are, therefore, ignored in the North and are under surveillance in the South, and suffer hideously in both places.” Though Baldwin bought into no great notions about northern progress, he knew the power of the mystique. “Northerners indulge in an extremely dangerous luxury. They seem to feel that because they fought on the right side during the Civil War . . . they can ignore what is happening in Northern cities because what is happening in Little Rock or Birmingham is worse.” He questioned the premise that one region was more enlightened than the other. Baldwin related with approval his own brother’s observation that “the spirit of the South is the spirit of America.”7

Except for one critical distinction. It was the difference of history, of regional heritage—the spell that the past cast over the present. “The Southerner remembers, historically and in his own psyche, a kind of Eden in which he loved black people and they loved him,” Baldwin wrote. “Historically, the flaming sword laid across this Eden is the Civil War. . . . Everything, thereafter, is permitted him except the love he remembers and has never ceased to need.” The result was an “indescribable torment” that afflicted “every Southern mind.” This hysteria was the white southerner’s alone. “None of this is true for the Northerner.” White northerners took their regional history in stride.8

In the North, the burden feels light: the burden of the past, the weight of history, the stories and sagas that form its fabric. To northerners, collective history does not bewitch. It looms as a source of aspiration and inspiration.

Those who came up in Dixie shouldered the “burden of southern history,” in historian C. Vann Woodward’s famous formulation. The past was an encumbrance to unload; history was something to overcome. Transplanted Mississippian Willie Morris, an author and the editor of Harper’s magazine, carried within him the “agonies I had seen in my own past.” Agony and anguish were the names for the southerner’s ordeal. By contrast, the northern experience admitted of no such torment. In the Northeast, the past operated differently. It was something to affirm.9

There is in the North a mystique about the past that continues to influence the present. It is a set of ideas and ideals, a cultural complex that interacts with the stuff of electoral politics, public policy, urban and suburban landscapes, and structures of inequality. During and after World War Two, this regional mystique held its greatest strength in the corridor from Boston to Brooklyn. In this same time period, it would meet its stiffest challenge—a challenge posed by millions of black migrants from the South and by the burgeoning civil rights revolution.

As many northerners saw it, their region stood not as the embodiment of a painful duel between two American traditions. Instead, they fought nobly on one side of that battle. The Northeast’s unique spirit grew out of a selective interpretation of its past: this story featured the Pilgrims, who sought freedom on the shores of the New World, and the Puritans. John Winthrop, the Puritan leader, famously declared: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Connecticut’s citizens bound themselves to key democratic principles in the first written constitution. And whereas New England’s settlers led the way toward one vision of American liberty, New Yorkers pioneered a form of intercultural pluralism. In the words of historians Frederick Binder and David Reimers, New York City fashioned a “climate of interethnic harmony” from its founding.10

Boston and New York became de facto capitals of the nation. To Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Boston was the “hub of the universe.” E. B. White, the author and essayist, observed that New York “is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village—the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying that the way is up.” The Northeast, as the site of the Revolutionary War’s beginnings, also became known as the birthplace of American freedom. It was not that chattel slavery bypassed the Northeast, but that it died there decades before the Civil War. When the war broke out, Northeasterners took up arms against the slave South. After the Civil War, newly freed slaves relied upon northerners in Congress—those Radical Republicans who pursued the “unfinished revolution” known as Reconstruction.11

This story of the Northeastern past reigned in the regional imagination. It accented the adventuresome spirit of the Puritans and played down the extent to which they excluded all who believed in different creeds. It scarcely acknowledged settlers’ persecution of Native Americans, the centrality of African slavery in many northern cities, episodes of brutal racial violence like the New York City Draft Riots, or the fact that Jim Crow laws had their origins in Massachusetts. In the region’s collective history, the narrative of freedom had no room in it for these less savory realities.

Northeasterners of various stripes found uses for the lofty version of regional history. Into the middle of the twentieth century, the mystique helped to frame how northerners would grapple with the stormy present. The mystique informed African Americans’ expectations, raising their hopes for equality and deepening their frustrations when the hopes went unfulfilled. Even when the rhetoric about liberty rang hollow, northern blacks could embarrass white leaders for failing to actualize this version of history. African Americans thus exposed the gap between the unceasing language of freedom and the inequalities that defined northern life.

This was nothing particularly new in America—the white embrace of freedom with one hand and the tightening of the rope with the other. But it had a different urgency in the decades after World War Two. The civil rights movement exposed the enormity of the chasm that separated America’s ideals from its practices. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to this as a distinctly American pathology, one rooted deeply in history. “Ever since the Declaration of Independence, America has manifested a schizophrenic personality on the question of race,” King wrote. “She has been torn between selves—a self in which she has proudly professed democracy and a self in which she has sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy.” This American schizophrenia has played out most powerfully in the Northeast. No region professed democracy more proudly than this one. And in the Northeast, the battle between racial democracy and its antithesis actually seemed like a fair fight—at least for a time.12

UTTER THE PHRASETHE SOUTH,” AND ABSORB THE IMAGES IT INVITES: plantations and porticoes, white necks burned red by the sun, black backs whipped raw. Southern history is filled with extraordinary images of racism. The cast of characters ranges from antebellum slaveholders to hooded Klansmen. “The South” carries an established meaning in the American mind.

In contrast, Americans’ impressions of the North are far more diffuse. This makes the North both easier and harder to think about, to write about, and to argue about than the South. There is an opening to define “the North,” and to give it a story, yet few previous definitions to set oneself up against.

Twenty-first-century political maps paint the regions in red and blue, signifying two worlds at war inside one national soul. To many northerners, the South still feels foreign—marked by its politics, culture, and race relations, even its weather and its food. In turn, many southerners hold fast to their regional identity, separating themselves from elitist liberals up north. Comparisons inevitably begin with prominent touchstones: Union against Confederacy, snow versus sun, New England foliage juxtaposed against Mississippi magnolias, Vermont maple syrup and Georgia pecan pie. Southerners, in twangs or drawls, still boast about life’s easier rhythms and slower pace. Northerners, through hard Boston accents or the coarse cadences of Brooklyn, continue to think of their environs as the hub of the universe; the South stands as retrograde or inscrutable or both.

Through the centuries, the North has been defined as all that the South was not. Historian James Cobb asserts, “Not only was the North everywhere the South was not, but in its relative affluence and presumed racial enlightenment, it had long seemed to be everything the impoverished and backward South was not as well.” Perceptions began to change in the late-1960s. African Americans forced southern whites to bury their Jim Crow signs; buildings burned in northern cities; the ugly faces of resistance to integration appeared in Chicago and New York and Boston.13

Southern journalists raced to deliver Dixie’s eulogy. They argued that the South’s problems had become similar to others across America; inequities now lurked in the texture of society rather than the letter of the law. According to Harry Ashmore, the longtime editor of the Arkansas Gazette, “the race problem is no longer the exclusive or even the primary property of the South.” The most important difference between North and South had vanished.14

Through the 1960s, scholars as well as civil rights leaders questioned the racial meaning of the Mason-Dixon line. In 1961, historian Leon Litwack opened North of Slavery with a trenchant observation: the Mason-Dixon line “is a convenient but often misleading geographical division.” Malcolm X stood before a Harlem audience in 1964 and declared: “America is Mississippi. There’s no such thing as a Mason-Dixon line—it’s America. There’s no such thing as the South—it’s America. . . . And the mistake that you and I make is letting these Northern crackers shift the weight to the Southern crackers.” Malcolm’s rhetoric was more fiery, but his message was the same.15

In a 1964 book, historian Howard Zinn argued that the South had only distilled the national essence into its purest form. Dixie was America at its crudest. If the rest of the country had long attempted to conceal or dismiss the racial blights all over its face, then the South, leaping onto the front pages in the 1960s, acted as a mirror that showed America its imperfections. Zinn listed a number of stereotypically southern traits—racism, provincialism, conservatism, violence, and militarism—that were actually basic American ones. “The South . . . has simply taken the national genes and done the most with them. . . . Those very qualities long attributed to the South as special possessions are, in truth, American qualities, and the nation reacts emotionally to the South precisely because it subconsciously recognizes itself there.” Zinn titled his book The Southern Mystique.16

In most definitions of the North, it was everywhere other than the South. Historian Thomas Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty, published in 2008, defined the North as every state outside of the Old Confederacy. Sugrue’s “sweet land” encompassed Los Angeles, Seattle, and even Wichita, Kansas, as well as Philadelphia and New York. Civil War scholar Richard Current had gone further. In Current’s 1982 lectures, he asserted that “defining the North” was a “less serious difficulty” than defining the South. The North was “simply the rest of the country.” The region was tied together by a common lack—that it was not the South.17

Kirkpatrick Sale, a writer and scholar, identified two competing regions: the Northeast and the Southern Rim. In Sale’s 1975 Power Shift


On Sale
Dec 2, 2014
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Jason Sokol

About the Author

Jason Sokol is the Arthur K. Whitcomb Associate Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire. The author of two critically acclaimed books on the history of the civil rights movement, Sokol lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

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