Well Done, Brother Herb Shapiro
Herbert Shapiro died on October 17, 2012. He was eighty-three. The words that keep coming to me as I recall Herb are, meticulous scholarship and “fierce integrity.”
Herb’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. One is reminded of this in reading the unfinished autobiography of Rose Pastor Stokes that he co-edited with David L. Sterling. Stokes experienced an almost unimaginably difficult childhood in Augustova, Russia; London; and Cleveland, Ohio. At the age of eleven she went to work as a cigarmaker. She worked “ten or eleven hours a day” and was the fastest worker in the shop: “I sped up the others,” she recalls. At night, after work, she read Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and Les Misérables. When she was thirteen, over the protests of her parents but in an effort to help out with desperate family finances, she took a second cigarmaking job in the evening near their home.
After receiving a B.A. from Queens College, and an M.A. from Columbia University, Herb did his Ph.D work at the University of Rochester. His dissertation concerned Lincoln Steffens and the “muckrakers.” What I believe to have been his first significant publication was a volume in the D.C. Heath Problems in American Civilization series, entitled The Muckrakers and American Society. Therein Herb offered eighteen commentaries on the origins of what he called a “revolution in journalism,” and, significantly, why it “failed.”
The Ordeal of African Americans
Herb Shapiro’s first full-time teaching job was at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Dr. King’s alma mater, from 1962 to 1966. During most of those years I was teaching at nearby Spelman College, and my wife Alice and I came to know Herb and his wife Judy. Those were years in which sit-ins and picketing at downtown department stores and restaurants were almost continuous. It seems natural to suppose that it was in that unforgettable political atmosphere that Herb’s interest crystallized in what a colleague has called the “major focus of his professional life in both teaching and research,” African American liberation.
In 1966 Herb moved to the University of Cincinnati, where he remained until his retirement. Cincinnati is a notoriously racist community. It was there, in the 1830s, that several teachers and students at Lane Theological Seminary were so harassed in their efforts to assist African Americans in the city that they resigned, moved north, and founded Oberlin College. A volume Herb helped to edit on Northern labor and slavery before the Civil War contains several chilling newspaper accounts of conflict in Cincinnati between African American and Irish laborers. In recent years, Cincinnati has experienced a series of fatal encounters between young black males and the city police force. It was no small accomplishment that so passionate an opponent of racism as Herb was able to survive in, and contribute to, that community for almost fifty years.
Apart from scholarly activities, Herb is recalled by his colleague Roger Daniels for helping “to transform the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors into an effective collective bargaining unit, and [for participating] in two brief, successful work stoppages.”
It is possible to view Herb’s work in African American history as a single, inter-connected whole, although expressed in a series of books: an essay entitled “Afro-American Responses to Race Violence During Reconstruction” in Black Freedom/White Violence 1865-1900, edited by Donald G. Nieman;American Communism and Black Americans: A Documentary History, 1930-1934, edited with Philip Foner; and what is generally regarded as his masterwork, White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery. We must intensely regret that Herb was unable to complete a second volume on “the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and its aftermath.”
Herb’s essay on “Race Violence During Reconstruction” sketches a pattern familiar to participants in civil rights activity in the Deep South. African Americans, free at last, initially looked to Northern institutions like Congress and the Freedmen’s Bureau to make good on their rhetoric. When no help came, “some black spokesmen felt that political rights were the crucial issue” but others, “more realistically,” felt that “black economic independence could alone make equality possible.” The failure to achieve the freedmens’ demands for “forty acres and a mule” underlay the failure of Reconstruction. “The freedmen’s intense desire for land remained largely unsatisfied and they finally had to come to terms economically with their former owners.”
The collection of documents for the years 1930-1934, the so-called “Third Period” of international communism, was co-edited with Philip Foner and “gathered almost entirely from the newspapers, journals, and other publications issued directly by the Communist Party, or identified with it.” Therefore, for a three-dimensional narrative of what happened when African American sharecroppers seized these ideas and applied them in daily life, one must turn also to the work of Theodore Rosengarten and Robin Kelley.
In Herb’s survey of the years leading up to the Montgomery bus boycott, his chapter on “The Emergence of Dr. King” calls for special attention. Herb was well aware of criticism of Dr. King among staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who referred to King as “de Lawd” and in 1966 endorsed Black Power. These critics considered King “too conservative, too conciliatory to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, too inclined to seek the plaudits of the respectable, too comfortable with the black bourgeoisie, and as fundamentally unwilling to lead a genuinely militant mass struggle against racism.” Herb dissented from that critique, offering in its place an extremely detailed and impressive account of the gradual development of the Montgomery boycott as a nonviolent mass movement. Especially interesting is his account of the support for Dr. King and the Montgomery effort by W.E.B. DuBois. Herb discovered that DuBois perceived the boycott and its aftermath as an affirmation of independence from the existing major parties. He considered that the right to vote would empower the people to take back control of local government. The right to vote would make possible access to a constellation of rights, such as a free local press, and public schools accountable to the community. DuBois was responsive “to the need for a less doctrinaire model of socialism and also to the new reality of mass civil rights activism.” Writing in 1957 in an Indian journal, DuBois called the Montgomery events “a most interesting proof of the truth of the Gandhian philosophy.” But DuBois also emphasized the need for an economic program, like that of Gandhi’s.
The Larger World
Herb ended his treatment of Dr. King in the years after Montgomery by calling attention to Dr. King’s embrace of the tactic of “jail, no bail,” and by insisting that those who viewed Dr. King’s later opposition to the Vietnam War as “an unprecedented departure from his course were ignorant of the record.”
Herbert Shapiro himself joined other academics who, in the 1960s and 1970s, set aside less pressing matters to protest the Vietnam War. His essay “The Vietnam War and the American Civil Rights Movement,” in a collection edited by Walter Hixson entitled The Vietnam Antiwar Movement, is especially important. This is so because SNCC itself, in celebrating its bicentennial, notably neglected its opposition specifically to the Vietnam War and, more generally, to United States neo-colonialism and imperialism.
Herb’s essay gathers in one place a multitude of facts that demonstrate the early opposition of both foot soldiers and leaders in the civil rights movement to the United States’ escalating involvement in this “vicious, racist and imperialist war” (words of Vincent Harding quoted by Herb). Herb’s typically dense scholarship added the fact that in the era of war in the Philippines, civil rights spokespersons like Moorfield Storey and Bishop Alexander Walters had spoken out in opposition, and in the 1920s the NAACP, led by James Weldon Johnson, supported the effort to end American occupation of Haiti.
Among civil rights leaders who protested the Vietnam War before 1965 were Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph, who later felt constrained to keep silent. Similarly James Farmer, at the 1965 convention of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), condemned the war personally for making impossible the so-called war on poverty, but persuaded the gathering to retract a resolution concerning the administration’s “immoral policy of racism” abroad that demanded an immediate withdrawal of all American troops from Vietnam.
Dr. King, Herb demonstrates, chose a different course. Precisely in 1965 he began to call for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam. At the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in July 1965 King said: “I’m not going to sit by and see war escalated without saying anything about it. ... The war in Vietnam must be stopped.” Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, leaders of the NAACP and Urban League, privately begged Dr. King to be quiet about Vietnam, according to Herb. Herb’s sensitive account states that in 1966 many of King’s most forthright statements about the war were in his sermons at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and other settings away from the media spotlight. Little by little, he persuaded the SCLC board to condemn the war as a “sordid military adventure.”
Dr. King’s address at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 was his crossing the Rubicon. He was condemned by the NAACP, Ralph Bunche, the Jewish War Veterans, Jackie Robinson, Carl Rowan, the New York Times andLife magazine. He kept on keeping on. On the day he was assassinated there was a scrap of paper in his pocket listing “Ten Commandments of Vietnam” that he planned to use in a forthcoming speech in New York. The commandments included: “Thou shalt not believe that the generals know best/Thou shalt not believe that the enemy’s victory means communism/Thou shalt not believe that the world supports the United States/Thou shalt not kill.”
In an essay published in 1998 by the Cambridge University Press as part of a volume on Identity and Intolerance, Herb took on larger historical issues. Entitled “Racism and Empire: A Perspective on a New Era of American History,” his article began by asserting that American historians were wrong to regard American imperialism in the 1890s as “an aberrant, temporary phenomenon.” As might be expected from an historian of African American struggle, Herb called attention to “the evidence that our colonial adventures spurred the fuller flowering of racism that has endured.”
President Theodore Roosevelt, for one, “rejected the thesis that the color question was essentially one of class,” insisting that it would be unrealistic to expect blacks to accomplish “out of hand” what it had taken Caucasians thirty generations to bring into being. When annexation of Hawaii was temporarily obstructed, Roosevelt described the failure as a crime against “white civilization.” Herb Shapiro concludes his grim survey with the remark that in embracing racism as a rationale for imperialism the United States has not been “exceptional.” Other capitalist nations did the same thing.
In the Academy
Finally, Herb edited a volume entitled African American History and Radical Historiography: Essays in Honor of Herbert Aptheker, to which he contributed a concluding essay entitled “‘Political Correctness’ and the U.S. Historical Profession.”
The basic thesis of Herb Shapiro’s essay in this volume is that it is not left-wing academics, but ideologues of the radical right, who are pursuing “political correctness” in American universities. It is the right, not the left, that has purged faculties by selecting for hiring, retention and promotion those teachers whose outlook on the world is friendly to the unrestricted pursuit of profit.
Herb begins his argument in the 1890s, citing a regent of the University of Wisconsin who charged that economist Richard Ely was writing “utopian, impractical and pernicious books,” consorting with union organizers, and supporting strikes. The University of Chicago dismissed Edward Bemis for advocating public ownership of railroads and utilities. During World War I and its aftermath, repression intensified. The University of Pennsylvania fired Scott Nearing for supporting public agitation against child labor. Herb commented that “political correctness” as it actually existed in the U.S. past “was not merely a matter of intellectual argument but destroyed careers.”
During and after World War II, it was the same. In the state of New York the Rapp-Coudert Committee of the state legislature forced the dismissal of more than forty college faculty, including Philip Foner, and City College instructor Morris Schappes was sent to prison for supposedly testifying untruthfully to the Committee as to the number of his colleagues whom he knew to be communists. Three professors at the University of Washington were dismissed in 1949 on the ground that Communist Party members were, by definition, unqualified to teach.
What we now confront, wrote Shapiro, is the contention “that the radicals, the contemporary advocates of feminism, multiculturalism, Marxism, and antiracism” are the new champions of political correctness. He critiqued, in turn, Illiberal Education by Dinesh D’Souza, Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, C. Vann Woodward at the end of his career, Eugene Genovese, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Ronald Radosh. He cites the work of Gilbert Allardyce as showing that courses on Western civilization championed by opponents of PC had their origin in the course on war aims developed at Columbia University during World War I. He praisesOn Active Service in Peace and War by Jesse Lemisch.
Thus conservatism rather than radicalism threatens the free exchange of ideas, intellectual tolerance, and the life of the mind in academia. Concluding, Herb Shapiro observes that those who have campaigned against Political Correctness have rarely “attacked the varied contributions of the new social history.” Their outlook expresses fear of diversity. It “has its roots in opposition to the re-creation of the academy as a place where women and minorities will be able to obtain effective participation in every phase of university life.”
Well done, brother Herb.
Staughton Lynd taught American history at Spelman College and Yale University before being blacklisted for his opposition to the Vietnam War. His latest book is "Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change."