The Ticket to Freedom
The Ticket to
Freedom: The NAACP and the Struggle for Black Political Integration
by Manfred Berg
hardcover - 352
pages - University Press of Florida
publication date: 2005 - ISBN: 0813028329
[Further information on the author]
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the United States’ largest and oldest civil rights organization. After many years of neglect and faultfinding by contemporary activists, historians, and the media, Manfred Berg restores the NAACP to its rightful place at the heart of the civil rights movement. Berg reveals the group’s eminently political character as he assesses both its historical achievements and its failures. He suggests that while the NAACP did make significant gains in furthering the progress of America’s black citizens at the grassroots level, its national agenda should not be discounted. Berg challenges criticisms of recent years that the NAACP’s goals and methods were half-hearted, ineffective, and irrelevant and reveals a resourceful, dynamic, and politically astute organization that has done much to open up the electoral process to greater black participation.
Manfred Berg has skillfully
charted African Americans' hard-fought struggle in the twentieth century for
full integration into the political life of the United States. Yet, similar to the
quest for the Golden Fleece, the saga that unfolds in this book is epic and
bloody, and, the reward, comparably elusive.
Berg focuses on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose size, perseverance, nearly 100-year history, centrist political bent, and nationwide scope made it the natural hub of efforts for the vote. The association that Berg outlines, therefore, is not the doddering, rabidly anticommunist, plodding behemoth so often depicted in a spate of recent histories. It is no glossed-over hero, either. Rather what emerges from the pages of this well-researched, balanced monograph is a pragmatic, politically astute, and public-relations savvy organization. The NAACP had to be.
From the very beginning, the association was up against virtually insurmountable odds. The reality of early twentieth-century America precluded the customary use of the ballot box to "punish our friends and reward our enemies." The bulk of potential black voters were ensnared in the disfranchised South. The political parties, thus, had no need to calculate payoff or consequences and could, therefore, easily ignore those issues most salient to black Americans. The NAACP, with very few weapons in its arsenal, set out to change this.
Berg takes us from the shoestring founding of the NAACP in 1909 onward to an organization that developed the structure to simultaneously fight off all civil rights contenders for the throne as well as wage the struggle for political liberation. He provides an astute assessment of a series of NAACP-led voting rights cases. We see how the association heralded each one of those judicial decisions, including any that even remotely looked like a step forward, as a significant achievement. The strength of this Wizard of Oz public relations strategy was that it made the NAACP and the needs of the African American community seem a force to be reckoned with. The weakness was that if anyone really looked behind the curtain, he/she would see a minuscule number of African Americans who could even vote; an organization that for years had limited political influence, particularly in the areas that had the power to break open Jim Crow; and an organization with not enough financial resources to cover the range of legal challenges, lobbying efforts, and voter registration drives that this assault on disfranchisement required. Nonetheless, for years, the association pulled it off. Skillful leadership and enough victories to stoke the fires of hope, kept the NAACP growing, added to the mystique, and slowly but surely opened up the vote.
Yet, it took more than what the NAACP alone could deliver. And the book, although focused on the association, has to lose some of that focus when the civil rights movement pushes onto the scene. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) provided the direct action techniques and the beaten, battered, bruised, and dead bodies that compelled the United States government to eliminate a range of methods designed to disfranchise. To be sure, the NAACP remained a powerful player, particularly in providing the bail money, legal staff, and local branches that direct action proponents needed to sustain movement. It just no longer appeared, at this time, to be the player. Moreover, the NAACP had become so closely allied with the Democratic Party that the leverage that a minority population needed to keep both parties attentive had vanished. The decades-long strategy of using the black vote as the "balance of power" in closely contested elections devolved into something the Republican Party most certainly did not want, as it rolled out the "southern strategy," and something the Democrats could simply take for granted. This powerlessness, ironically enough, became strikingly apparent just at the moment when the number of registered African American voters skyrocketed. The timing could not have been worse. With SNCC spent, post-King SCLC floundering, and CORE gutted, the NAACP was the only major group in the political realm still standing. Yet, at this point, unimaginative leadership and then a desperate grab to catch up to the black community and its needs left the association with no effective, full-fledged strategy to deal with the issues that continued to result in black inequality and disfranchisement in post-Jim Crow America.
Berg's book is an outstanding analysis of both the NAACP and the ongoing struggle for the right to vote. And, equally important, it strongly suggests the limits of the ballot as the sole "ticket to freedom."
The American Historical Review
Vol. 111, No 5 (Dec 2006)
One of the more remarkable gaps in the historiography of the long struggle for
black equality in the United
States has been the absence of a
comprehensive history of the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP), the oldest and best-known civil rights organization in
the country. Manfred Berg's remarkable new book, "The Ticket to
Freedom": The NAACP and the Struggle for Black Political Integration, is a
wonderful contribution that begins to close that gap.
Berg examines the history of the NAACP through the lens of politics, and particularly the long battle for the right to vote. This approach allows him to break free of the tendency among journalists and historians to limit the NAACP to the standard narrative in which a small cadre of lawyers used the courts to challenge segregated schools, culminating in victory in Brown v. Board of Education, a fight that, while vitally important, tends to understate the scope and ambitions of the organization. Berg restores the importance of politics and voting to their rightful place in the NAACP's history and in so doing adds depth to our understanding not only of the NAACP but also of the political world in which it operated. Even with this particular emphasis, Berg provides the closest we yet have to a comprehensive history of the organization. The focus on suffrage, far from being a limiting factor, instead allows Berg to explore and recapture the NAACP's larger relevance since its inception in 1909.
From the very beginning, when a small group of black and white intellectuals founded the organization; the NAACP had to deal with not only white supremacy and inertia on- the race question but also a host of factors that limited, challenged, and shaped its growth. Over the course of its long history the NAACP confronted internal divisions, membership and funding difficulties, and most of the usual problems that beset organizations. But it also had to address problems and limitations posed by two World Wars, a potentially devastating pair of Red Scares and general anti-Communist witch hunts, presidential administrations that tended to range from the hostile to the indifferent, and increasingly ardent and violent white resistance, oftentimes fueled by the rhetoric and actions of local, state, and national political figures. Even within the civil rights movement, the NAACP confronted the rise of competing organizations that challenged what they saw to be the tepid tactical approach of the association and later the very ideological foundation of an integrated America that was at the heart of the organization's program.
Berg presents a sympathetic but not uncritical picture. Indeed, part of his mission seems to be to redeem an organization that, for all of its importance and visibility, historians increasingly have tended to recognize in the breach. Berg's NAACP is not tepid and cautious. Instead it is vibrant and visionary, tackling multiple issues through the courts of law and public opinion, occasionally supporting direct-action challenges where necessary but aware that its long-term vision sometimes required it to forgo viscerally satisfying confrontations in order to maintain the course.
Inevitably this brought the leadership into conflict with members within the NAACP-most notably co-founder W. E. B. Du Bois-and also from without, such as the challenges that groups like the Congress of Racial Equality, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and advocates of Black Power posed over the years. Sometimes these squabbles could be petty, regarding territorial jealousy or personal rivalries. Oftentimes, though, there were important principles and strategies at issue.
"The Ticket to Freedom" is gracefully written and lucidly argued. The fluidity of Berg's writing style is all the more impressive when one considers the book's origins. Originally a Habilitationsschrift, a second dissertation that is common in the German doctoral system, the book began its life as a monograph in his native language. It stands as an important accomplishment in any language and is one of the most important new books on the history of the civil rights movement to emerge in recent years. One hopes that Berg's work will serve as a catalyst for further scholarship on an organization that may have fallen out of fashion among scholars but that deserves serious and more comprehensive study. Berg reminds us of the NAACP's primary importance in the struggle not just for political rights but also for human rights.
Journal of Southern History,
Volume LXXIII, No 3(August 2007)