Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965–1980
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Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965–1980

Title Details

Pages: 376

Illustrations: 9 photos

Trim size: 6.000in x 9.000in



Pub Date: 04/15/2009

ISBN: 9-780-8203-3324-3

List Price: $36.95


Pub Date: 04/15/2009

ISBN: 9-780-8203-3323-6

List Price: $120.95

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Published with the generous support of Sarah Mills Hodge Fund

Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965–1980

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In this pioneering exploration of the interplay between liberalism and black nationalism, Devin Fergus returns to the tumultuous era of Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Helms and challenges us to see familiar political developments through a new lens. What if the liberal coalition, instead of being torn apart by the demands of Black Power, actually engaged in a productive relationship with radical upstarts, absorbing black separatists into the political mainstream and keeping them from a more violent path? What if the New Right arose not only in response to Great Society Democrats but, as significantly, in reaction to Republican moderates who sought compromise with black nationalists through conduits like the Blacks for Nixon movement?

Focusing especially on North Carolina, a progressive southern state and a national center of Black Power activism, Fergus reveals how liberal engagement helped to bring a radical civic ideology back from the brink of political violence and social nihilism. He covers Malcolm X Liberation University and Soul City, two largely forgotten, federally funded black nationalist experiments; the political scene in Winston-Salem, where Black Panthers were elected to office in surprising numbers; and the liberal-nationalist coalition that formed in 1974 to defend Joan Little, a black prisoner who killed a guard she accused of raping her. Throughout, Fergus charts new territory in the study of America's recent past, taking up largely unexplored topics such as the expanding political role of institutions like the ACLU and the Ford Foundation and the emergence of sexual violence as a political issue. He also urges American historians to think globally by drawing comparisons between black nationalism in the United States and other separatist movements around the world.

By 1980, Fergus writes, black radicals and their offspring were "more likely to petition Congress than blow it up." That liberals engaged black radicalism at all, however, was enough for New Right insurgents to paint liberalism as an effete, anti-American ideology—a sentiment that has had lasting appeal to significant numbers of voters.

Drawing upon an impressive array of previously untapped sources, Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics challenges both commonplace assumptions and received academic wisdom about the nature and impact of the Black Power movement. It is guaranteed to spark debate over the specific relationship between American liberalism and African American nationalism during a pivotal time in the nation's history.

—William L. Van Deburg, author of New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975

Fergus has made a compelling case for an explicit relation between black nationalism and American liberalism. With exquisite research, he illustrates that Black Power stands at the center of much of our current political discourse. Suddenly the rhetoric of people like Patrick Buchanan makes more sense. What a grand contribution!

—Eddie S. Glaude Jr., author of In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America

With the publication of Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965–1980 Devin Fergus has produced an important and significant work of scholarship. The book has numerous qualities: it is meticulously researched; the empirical base is original and innovative; the scholarship is impressive and timely; and it is superbly written. But above all Fergus sets out a new challenge to two major parts of US history—the content of liberalism and its accommodative capacity, and the complex role of Black Power ideology and actions in American political development. Overturning conventional views, he convincingly argues that American liberalism was much more important in taming, shaping, and responding positively to black nationalists than is generally understood by scholars. In developing this innovative argument Devin Fergus presents a new and powerful intellectual voice. It will be widely adopted and cited.

—Desmond King, author of Separate and Unequal: African Americans and the U.S. Federal Government

Devin Fergus has written a provocative reinterpretation of the relationship between Black Power and liberalism. His compelling narrative of the freedom struggles in North Carolina in the late 1960s and 1970s establishes the state as a key battleground in the post-Civil Rights era.

—Robert Rodgers Korstad, author of Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century

In his sure to be controversial new book, Fergus takes on just about everyone in arguing that we have all gotten the story wrong, mainly because historians have been toiling away in separate vineyards, operating on untested assumptions, failing to look in the right places for evidence, and often misinterpreting the evidence they have.


By digging deep in the sources, Devin Fergus's fascinating book reveals how much of the history of Black Power remains unwritten. His focus is the piedmont of North Carolina, mainly in the 1970s. By then, the movement had abandoned violence and learned how to work within the system. White liberals play a crucial role in this account, not because they co-opt, ignore, or betray the movement, but because liberal money and support helped create space for authentic black institutions. Analytically rigorous, this book offers case studies of real narrative power, and proof that the time for a reassessment of black power—and of liberalism—has arrived. This book begins that reassessment.

—Allen Matusow, author of The Unraveling of America

Devin Fergus’s Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics is an essential text for understanding the complex dance between black liberation and the liberal establishment that prepared the ground for the phenomenal rise of the Barack Obama generation of politics.

—Komozi Woodard, Esther Raushenbush Professor of History, Public Policy & Africana Studies, Sarah Lawrence College

While Liberalism, Black Power and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980 indeeds sheds light on both the conservative and liberal politics at play in the history of the Black Power movement, Fergus crafts a believable argument that is applicable in a variety of global contexts. Fergus's books is thus recommended not only to historians of twentieth-century America, but also to anyone interested in how fringe nationalist movements wield power within conventional political frameworks.

North Carolina Historical Review


Outstanding Academic Title, Choice magazine

About the Author/Editor

DEVIN FERGUS is an assistant professor of modern United States and African American history at Vanderbilt University.