Essay — From the October 2015 issue

Lifting as We Climb

A progressive defense of respectability politics

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Consider Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks was not the first African American arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white bus rider. But she was the person selected to be the face of black suffering and resistance. Listen to E. D. Nixon, a key organizer of the boycott, on why he refrained from rallying around the others who had been arrested before Parks:

Okay, the case of Louise Smith. I found her daddy in front of his shack, barefoot, drunk. Always drunk. Couldn’t use her. In that year’s second case, the girl [Claudette Colvin], very brilliant but she’d had an illegitimate baby. Couldn’t use her. . . . When Rosa Parks was arrested, I thought “This is it!” Because she’s morally clean, she’s reliable, nobody had nothing on her, she had the courage of her convictions.

Martin Luther King Jr. reiterated this point in his address announcing the boycott. “Mrs. Rosa Parks is a fine person,” he declared. He was happy that she would be the community standard-bearer, for “nobody can doubt the height of her character.” At the conclusion of the victorious boycott, after a lawsuit got rid of segregated seating, King again recognized the importance of maintaining an exemplary image and reputation. A flyer he and his colleagues in the Montgomery Improvement Association distributed stated that victory

places upon us all a tremendous responsibility of maintaining, in the face of what could be some unpleasantness, a calm and loving dignity befitting good citizens and members of our race. . . . Remember that this is not a victory for Negroes alone, but for all Montgomery and the South. Do not boast! Do not brag! . . . If cursed, do not curse back. If pushed, do not push back. If struck, do not strike back, but evidence love and goodwill at all times.

Participants in the electrifying Freedom Rides and sit-ins of the early 1960s were given detailed instructions about what to wear (jackets for men and dresses for ladies) and how to act (be courteous and refrain from retaliating even if assaulted). Their leaders, including James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were doing what many leaders routinely do: packaging their campaigns in ways designed to blunt the opposition of their enemies, to elicit solidarity from supporters, and to induce acceptance from the uncommitted. Recall the dignified black teenagers who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, while bands of snarling, foulmouthed white hooligans sought to torment them. Remember the determined activists who demanded service at segregated lunch counters while screaming white thugs doused them with ketchup and mustard. A vivid snapshot is provided by none other than James J. Kilpatrick, the racist journalist who fiercely opposed the civil-rights movement yet expressed grudging admiration for the youngsters who carried off the sit-ins with such splendid tact:

Here were the colored students, in coats, white shirts, ties, and one of them was reading Goethe and one was taking notes from a biology text. And here, on the sidewalk outside, was a gang of white boys come to heckle, a ragtail rabble, slack-jawed, black-jacketed, grinning fit to kill. . . . Eheu! It gives one pause.

The attentiveness to image and reputation that was so central to the civil-rights movement in its most productive phase (1950–65) had been presaged by the efforts of groups like the Woman’s Convention (W.C.) of the National Baptist Convention, an organization of black churchwomen that did important work at the turn of the twentieth century, following the dismantling of Reconstruction. The W.C. established kindergartens, orphanages, and old folks’ homes; conducted training classes for new mothers; created a school to professionalize domestic service; offered counseling and comfort to prisoners; provided forums in which black women shared their impressions about their condition and how to elevate it; and served as the institutional sponsor for protests against all manner of social vices, including the racist mistreatment of African Americans through lynchings and other Jim Crow outrages.

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and NAACP protesters picketing a lunch counter, 1960 © Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and NAACP protesters picketing a lunch counter, 1960 © Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

“The politics of respectability” was coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1993 history of the W.C. to describe the group’s approach. According to Higginbotham, the W.C. “emphasized reform of individual behavior and attitudes both as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform of the entire structural system of American race relations.” To counteract the racist dogma that portrayed black women as dirty, dishonest, lazy, irresponsible, and lascivious, the group stressed that black women could be clean, honest, hardworking, frugal, responsible, and chaste. The W.C. protested against racist limitations imposed on blacks, but it also stressed blacks’ own capacity to improve oppressive conditions even under those limitations. A 1915 statement by the W.C.’s executive board is characteristic: “Fight segregation through the courts as an unlawful act? Yes. But [also] fight it with soap and water, hoes, spades, shovels and paint to remove any reasonable excuse for it.”

Stoicism suffused the W.C.’s preachings. The group demanded that blacks work to keep the cage of segregation from imprisoning their inner lives. “Men and women are not made on trains and on streetcars,” declared Nannie Helen Burroughs, the W.C.’s most outstanding leader. “If in our homes there is implanted in the hearts of our children . . . the thought they are what they are, not by environment, but of themselves, this effort [by segregationists] to teach a lesson of inferiority will be futile.” Higginbotham observes that “the Baptist women spoke as if ever-cognizant of the gaze of white America.” Determined to avoid looking bad in front of white folks, the W.C. fielded “an army of black Baptist women [who] waged war against gum chewing, loud talking, gaudy colors, the nickelodeon, jazz, littered yards, and a host of other perceived improprieties.” Their efforts were at times predicated on a belief that blacks needed to elevate themselves to reach parity with their Euro-American peers. Higginbotham notes, however, that sometimes “the Baptist women’s emphasis on manners and morals served to reinforce their sense of moral superiority over whites.” Urging blacks to display “proper conduct” on streetcars, the W.C. suggested in 1910 that

a certain class of whites have set a poor example for the Negro . . . by making it a point to rush in and spread out, so that we cannot get seats. . . . We have seen our people provoked to act very rudely and to demand seats, or squeeze in, and almost sit in the laps of the “spreaders.” Here is an opportunity for us to show our superiority by not squeezing in. . . . Let us at all times . . . remember that the quiet, dignified individual who is respectful to others is after all the superior individual, be he black or white.

Themes sounded by the W.C. were echoed time and again. Thurgood Marshall carefully screened potential clients before agreeing to represent them in the landmark cases that created the legal groundwork for the civil-rights revolution. “Mr. Civil Rights” withheld his services and the backing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People where he doubted that a person would be willing and able to present a good face to the public. He was similarly calculating in criminal cases. In his campaign for legal reform, Marshall did not proceed like conventional defense attorneys, who are generally indifferent to the culpability of their potential clients. To the contrary, he often declined to commit his scarce resources to the defense of those he believed to be guilty. He did not want the standing of the NAACP belittled by association with criminals. He viewed the reputation of his clients, his organization, and himself as important resources in the struggle to advance the fortunes of black America.

The effort to present the civil-rights movement in a fashion that would generate sympathy and admiration paid off. Segregationists attempted repeatedly to suppress the NAACP by making affiliation with the group a disqualification for public employment. They also tried to obtain NAACP membership lists so that members could be publicly identified and intimidated. Courts, however, thwarted those efforts with decisions that protected the NAACP, and thereby ratified Marshall’s long-term cultivation of its reputation. Later, judges who could have plausibly ruled against demonstrators arrested for disorderly conduct and similarly amorphous offenses instead ruled in their favor, prompted to an important extent by sympathy and respect. On March 2, 1961, nearly two hundred protesters refused to leave the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse when ordered to do so. Taking care to avoid blocking vehicular or pedestrian traffic, the tightly organized demonstrators stood their ground, praying and singing religious and patriotic songs. In an opinion by Justice Potter Stewart, the Supreme Court quashed the prosecutions that resulted from the protest, concluding with admiration that the demonstrators were engaged in protected expression in its “most pristine and classic form.”

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is the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School. His review “Old Poison, New Battles” appeared in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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