At the Ottoline Club: Winning the War for Democracy

David Mitchell | June 21, 2017

“Winning the War for Democracy: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Black Civil Rights during the Second World War”, a talk given at NCH on 25th October 2016 by Dr Olly Ayers, Lecturer in History and Politics

Those present were: Dr Olly Ayers, Dr Lars Kjaer (Faculty of History), Dr Suzannah Lipscomb (Faculty of History), Dr Brian Ball (Faculty of Philosophy), Dr Daniel Swift (Faculty of English), Dr Naomi Goulder (Faculty of Philosophy), Dr Callum Barrell (Faculty of Politics & International Relations), Dr Mike Peacey (Faculty of Economics), Dr Charlotte Grant (Faculty of English), Dr Sebastian Ille (Faculty of Economics), Mr Nigel Urban (Faculty of Law) and Dr David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).

Olly’s was a talk of many parts: it ranged, in an exemplary way, from deep reflections on method and the relations between disciplines to the presentation of some of the findings of a recent research trip of his to the US. There was a highly instructive picture quiz at one point too. The first part of the talk and the concluding part of the subsequent discussion were concerned with contrasts between the different approaches and interpretations characteristic of legal, political, social, cultural and economic historians of the civil rights movement. The rest of the talk and a good deal of the discussion had a much more specific focus: the five-year history (1941-1946) of the Fair Employment Practices Committee, an agency which was set up by President Roosevelt under pressure from black protestors, and whose records Olly examined during his visit this summer.

The question to which this all pertained was the question of how US entry into the Second World War affected the progress of African Americans. Some scholars, said Olly, have argued that the war produced little change, others that it represented a ‘seedtime’ for the subsequent civil rights movement, and others still that it constituted a decisive ‘first phase’ of protest in its own right. In arriving at his own verdict on this, Olly noted that just as changes in the large-scale political situation are crucial to explaining the switch between 1896 and 1954 in the Supreme Court’s stance on ‘separate but equal’ development, so the last half-century’s shifts in scholarly orthodoxy concerning the civil rights movement have been driven to a significant extent by political motivations. In the 70s and 80s, there prevailed a rather restrictive account of the movement’s duration and character, of ‘neo-conservative’ inspiration. In understandable reaction against this, the now ascendant view is of a ‘Long Civil Rights Movement’, in which issues of race and class were inextricably intertwined, and which got underway in the 30s.

Neither outlook, Olly found, is sufficiently attentive to the evidence. The narrower conception fails properly to consider such episodes as the 1941 March on Washington and the ‘Double V for Victory’ campaign. Those who take the ‘long’ view, on the other hand, besides arguing in rather over-general terms, focus too much on attitudes and experiences, and not enough on structures and achievements. The furthest Olly might be willing to go would be to say we can detect a civil rights movement in the 30s and 40s, but not the civil rights movement, which was different in being based mainly in the south and being mostly Baptist-led. Inspecting the complaints brought by individuals to the FEPC bore out this judgement. The records bring out how practices of discrimination had come to be in a sense jointly sustained by management, unions and government; Olly drew attention to how the phrase ‘given the run around’ recurs in the complaints. But the kind of consciousness they suggest of the employment situation of blacks is very different from what came later.

The other historians present agreed with Olly in finding a familiar pattern here. Reading the sequence of events in reverse, we’re tempted to see as signs of what was to come certain events which ought rather be interpreted on their own terms. It can take certain bravery, said Lars, to resist the lure of continuities. Olly had also mentioned as problematic the likening of current Black Lives Matter protests to what went on in the 60s; Charlotte was keen all the same that the commonalities not be ignored. The reading of tribunals’ archives was another area about which reflections were exchanged, as Suzie and Olly compared her work on Protestant courts in sixteenth-century southern France with his similarly bottom-up investigations of the FEPC. Towards the end, we returned to more general methodological matters. Sebastian remarked on how ubiquitous are feedback and network effects when it comes to understanding social movements, and Brian and David, in turn, essayed something rather more abstract as regards the options we have in explaining and classifying such movements: must they, for instance, have social causes? Olly reacted amiably to this, declaring in favour not just of interdisciplinarity and of combining bottom-up with top-down approaches, but of limited and careful judgements on given historical moments.

David Mitchell

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy