Jonathan Rosenberg, How Far the Promised Land: World Affairs and the American Civil Rights Movement from the First World War to Vietnam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
In his book, How Far the Promised Land, Jonathan Rosenberg studies the incorporation of race conscious internationalism into the language of race reformers from World War I to Vietnam. Race reformers-vis-à-vis the NAACP-paralleled world events with the African American struggle for equality in the United States. Like traditional internationalists, reformers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and A. Philip Randolph believed the United States had a special mission in the world and the success of that mission would “enable humanity to construct a more cooperative global order.” They also believed in the importance of international organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations to “sustain world continuity.” Race reformers, Rosenberg argues, developed a race conscious internationalism that was unique from traditional internationalism for two reasons: first, they believed the League and U.N. had an important role domestically in that they could compel the United States to abandon its segregationist practices and comply with the charters of League and U.N; second, the success of the United States in spreading democracy was contingent on the demise of racism at home. The implementation of race conscious internationalism into the rhetoric of race reformers is central to Rosenberg’s study.
Rosenberg divides his book into three parts, with Part I focusing on World War I. When the NAACP was established in 1909, its membership (including DuBois, Mary White Ovington, and Joel Spingarn) focused on passing anti-lynching legislation and other issues of immediate importance to African Americans living during Jim Crow. When war broke out in 1914, DuBois and Spingarn changed their stance on neutrality and believed World War I could potentially alter race relations. Spingarn argued that imperialist aggression caused the war due to its “contempt for weaker people” and linked the oppression of colonies to the oppression of African Americans in the south. Spingarn encouraged blacks to enlist in the army, for it would provide them with an avenue to become leaders and challenge discriminatory policies. DuBois, editor of the NAACP’s monthly periodical The Crisis, blamed the war on the failure of European civilization and called for transnational unity among oppressed people. The call for transnational unity, according to Rosenberg, marks the beginning of race conscious internationalism. Rosenberg also argues that World War I galvanizes blacks, thus sparking the birth of the “New Negro”: an African American willing to forcefully fight and die for equality in the United States.
What began as a period of optimism for race reformers turned into an era of broken promises. Part II looks at the interwar period, where the optimism coming out of World War I diminishes with the outbreak of race riots in 1919, the failure of the League of Nations, and the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Italy. Recognizing the United States’ desire to make the world “safe for democracy everywhere,” race reformers criticized a country whose desire to spread democracy globally did not translate to a desire to spread democracy domestically. World War I did not yield the advances in civil rights they had been hoping for and the League of Nations, whom they had praised for admitting predominantly black nations, did not provide a sympathetic ear to reformers who wanted the League to intervene in domestic affairs. As early as 1924 reformers such as DuBois looked to the Soviet Union as the model of equality and praised Bolshevism for eradicating class consciousness. What Rosenberg lacks in his discussion of the Soviet Union is the reaction those reading The Crisis and The Messenger, which is problematic for a top-down study like Rosenberg’s. He is successful his discussion of DuBois’ affection for Ghandi and the “imagined community” between African Americans and Indians since it demonstrates development of race conscious internationalism into the interwar period. The 1930s, Rosenberg points out, was also a time of great turmoil for the NAACP, culminating with the resignation of DuBois in 1934.
The latter years of the 1930s saw the rise of fascism in Europe and the NAACP warned its readers that if gone unchecked, fascism could come to the United States and be far more detrimental to African Americans than Jim Crow. Part III thus examines World War II and the renewed belief that the United States as the defender of democracy. However, the success of the United States was contingent on the elimination of segregation for, to paraphrase Lincoln (a common rhetorical device for race reformers), a house divided could not stand. The end of racial persecution, therefore, became key to the country’s defense effort, a belief that continued into the Cold War. Unlike World War I, African Americans were about to reap the benefits of their commitment to civil rights and were determined to avoid a repeat of the broken promise of World War I. DuBois, who had since reconciled with the NAACP, found a sympathetic ear with the United Nations and, more importantly, with President Truman. His vows of support led to Executive Orders 9980 and 9981 and Truman would be the last president, until Lyndon Johnson, who sympathized with the NAACP. Rosenberg then shifts his attention away from the NAACP to the leaders of the modern Civil Rights Movement, namely Martin Luther King, and by doing so demonstrates the declining influence of the NAACP on the leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. He ends with the outbreak of Vietnam and the emergence of the Black Panthers and CORE, and the reluctance of the NAACP to involve itself in the peace movement fearing an anti-war stance would antagonize the Johnson administration.
As intimated earlier, Rosenberg’s study takes a top-down approach, which he readily admits to in the introduction. By doing so, he does not analyze the reaction of Crisis readers to the editorials, most especially the editorials praising the Soviet Union during the early days of the Red Scare in the United States. To better understand the significance of an intellectual movement, it is imperative that the reader understands the movements audience and, perhaps more importantly, its critics. An analysis of reader reaction lends itself to a better understanding of not only the interaction between the NAACP and the Soviet Union, but also to how and why the NAACP collapsed in the 1960s. The reader does not know how the NAACP went from its height of popularity (and membership) in World War II, to the growing popularity of CORE, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panthers in the 1960s. Rosenberg also lacks historical context and assumes the reader is familiar with the international developments. He omits the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and barely mentions the New Deal, though he would counter by saying those events were outside the scope of his study. When he does provide context it is often so far into the chapter that it disrupts the narrative and is more of a distraction than an aid, and always adds a disclaimer that the following discussion was beyond the scope of the study. Rosenberg’s tangents are much better suited as extensive footnotes rather than injected awkwardly into the narrative and given cursory treatment because it was outside his scope of study.