Editor’s note: This excerpt from the book’s conclusion links the work of Lawrence Reddick, one of the most notable African American intellectuals of his generation, to the challenges that continue to confront the world today.
This book has sought to cast Reddick not in the individualistic frame so typical within popular biography but rather in the spirit of mutuality, collaboration, and solidarity that animated his life. From this vantage point, we begin to see how one man’s story has the power to reveal a great deal about the larger world in which he lived. More profoundly, it tells us about our own world, and about ourselves.
This point was driven home in April 2018, when the editorial board of the Montgomery Advertiser broke its silence about its complicity in white supremacy. The editorial, “Our Shame: The Sins of Our Past for All to See,” followed the creation of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—an Equal Justice Initiative memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, that documents the more than 4,400 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950. In the wake of white supremacists on the march in places like Charlottesville, Virginia, and with the U.S. president only emboldening them, the Montgomery Advertiser finally spoke out. “We were wrong,” the board declared. “We propagated a worldview rooted in racism and the sickening myth of racial superiority.” In particular, “The Advertiser was careless in how it covered mob violence and the terror foisted upon African-Americans from Reconstruction through the 1950s. We dehumanized human beings. Too often we characterized lynching victims as guilty before proven so and often assumed they committed the crime.” The editorial then provided concrete examples of their racist coverage, which they confessed had played a role in “the history of these dastardly, murderous deeds.” “We must never be as wrong as this again,” the board concluded.
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Had Reddick been around to read this, he likely would have responded, “What took so long!?” After all, his 1939 dissertation had carefully analyzed southern newspapers in the run-up to the Civil War. Way back then he had detailed southern newspapers’ participation in white supremacy, and he had explained how periodicals that were controlled by the white ruling class should only be expected to serve its interests. Reddick would have appreciated the novelty of a prominent southern newspaper like the Advertiser taking such a stand, but he also would have been frustrated by its carefully constricted admission of guilt. It did not wade past 1950 and confess to the paper’s continued racism, such as its ridiculing of the civil rights movement and its leaders, or its reckless amplification of Governor John Patterson’s Communist slanders against Reddick himself. Nor did it pause to admit its collusion with slavery, even though it had been regarded as “the leading paper of the Confederacy” during the nineteenth century.
This tendency to only occasionally glance at history, and then to only selectively take responsibility for it, was precisely what Reddick and other black thinkers considered the great tragedy of the United States. They dedicated endless energies to counteracting Americans’ historical ignorance, which they knew crippled the country from dealing productively with its problems and made life worse for everyone. “History . . . is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past,” James Baldwin expressed in a celebrated remark. “On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” Reddick understood history in the same capacious terms, and he worked tirelessly to provide not only African Americans but all Americans with a usable past—one true and messy and complex enough to allow Americans to link the past with the present and to glimpse paths through the morass. His story has much still to teach us.
Above all, Reddick underscores in bold terms how black thought matters. If Reddick’s life should teach us anything, it is that scholarship at its best is organically connected with larger social struggles—that it both grows out of and informs contemporary concerns. The rise of Black Lives Matter, of the African American Intellectual History Society, and of other variants of the twenty-first century’s freedom struggle testify to a growing hunger and still urgent need to take black thought seriously. For too long black voices, like those from other nonwhite and marginalized groups, have been muffled and disregarded within mainstream America. Reddick did as much as anyone to chronicle and protest that marginalization, but it still prevails from the halls of Congress to Hollywood studios to academic disciplines like U.S. intellectual history, which now incorporate some black voices while nevertheless refusing to centralize them. Yet it is precisely these voices—these perspectives—which the country so desperately needs right now. Black perspectives are not less important because they have been regularly excluded from the corridors of power. Rather, it’s through observing their very marginalization that we can better understand and critique the powerful. In other words, it is on the peripheries of power where many of the most innovative ideas are generated. Reddick’s decision to consistently situate himself within those peripheries—from black colleges to underfunded libraries to protest organizations—helps to explain why his perspectives continue to provide a wellspring of insight into American life.
Black thought also matters because it is frankly the most American, the most democratic thought of all. Reddick’s bold calls for democracy, justice, equality, dignity, and self-determination for all peoples, which he voiced throughout his long life from the Great Depression to the Reagan Revolution, all testify to this fact. From their spaces of oppression, African Americans somehow found a way not merely to survive but to thrive. They did so by often adopting a higher moral code than white Americans, and especially by committing more fully to America’s founding ideals, which white Americans routinely preached but rarely practiced. By marginalizing black perspectives like Reddick’s, Americans are thus diminishing the best parts of their own tradition and culture, and they are losing sight of who truly embodies the principles they espouse. In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, Reddick’s mentee Martin Luther King Jr. expressed this in a way that only he could: “One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths . . . facing jeering and hostile mobs and the agonizing loneliness of the life of a pioneer. They will be old oppressed, battered Negro women . . . who rose up with a sense of dignity and with [their] people decided not to ride segregated buses. . . . They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting-in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream.” Yet over half a century later, that day has not yet arrived, and it does not seem near.
Black thought points the way forward. How better to overcome racial divisions than to commemorate black freedom fighters rather than white slaveowners or Confederate generals, as Reddick called Americans to do? How better to confront the “post-truth” era than by drawing on the black tradition of plainly speaking truth to power, which Reddick exemplified? How better to resist the rise of white supremacy or even global climate change than to remember the fundamental truth—so regularly spoken by black activists like Reddick—that human beings have more in common than not and that they are stronger together?
Perhaps as much as anything, Reddick’s life and thought, like those of his comrades, should steady us in our own unsteady times. When we glimpse the profound, earth-shattering changes that occurred during Reddick’s lifetime, including most dramatically the end of Jim Crow and global decolonization, we should be reminded that even the most stubborn and oppressive regimes are not beyond the forces of history. All regimes, all empires, and indeed all of human existence will come to an end with time. But as Reddick’s struggle reminds us, that larger truth should not tempt us into indifference or lethargy, for that history is yet to be written. People must actively refashion the world to make it a more just and habitable place. Reddick and his generation showed this time and again, and their example should be a call to action today.
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Even as we confront our own inevitable limitations in changing the world, Reddick implores us to recognize that it’s the struggle itself that’s meaningful, regardless of the conclusion. W. E. B. Du Bois once wrote, “Life is not length of days nor plethora of pleasure, but satisfaction of work attempted.” Certainly by that measure, Reddick’s life was one well lived. Few people ever pursued so variously or committed so fully to a life of purposeful struggle. If others should follow his example, then perhaps, as Reddick once dared to dream, we may “survive the days of anguish that are upon us.” “Even in a mad world,” he mused, “the spirit of man may yet prevail.”
Copyright © 2020 by David A. Varel. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.org
David A.Varel is an affiliate faculty member of history at Metropolitan State University-Denver. He also wrote “The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought” (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2018). He earned his PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2015 and has held appointments at universities across the country, including Case Western and the University of Mississippi. In 2020, he published an article in The American Historian that prompted the Organization of American Historians to remove the name of a “Lost Cause” scholar from its book award in Civil War and Reconstruction history.