Peace and Freedom. The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s

Hall, Simon
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Rezensiert für den Arbeitskreis Historische Friedens- und Konfliktforschung bei H-Soz-Kult von:
Robbie Lieberman Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois

‘Peace and Freedom’ makes a significant contribution to the literature on social movements of the 1960s, and it may be read with interest by scholars and activists alike. Because it addresses such a wide range of issues and organizations (and lacks a list of abbreviations), it might prove difficult for those with little background on the sixties, but it is a must-read for scholars of both the civil rights and antiwar movements. Simon Hall argues that there were two primary obstacles preventing these movements from building a meaningful coalition, 1) the antiwar movement’s reluctance to engage issues of race and poverty, and, 2) the rise of Black Power. Along the way, the author also weighs in on several issues that are currently the subject of intense scholarly debate, including the impact of the Cold War on civil rights and the reasons for the emergence of the New Right. He offers important insights into the ways in which the experience of organizing shaped the views of black activists, both moderates and radicals, while implicitly setting forth a research agenda for future historians.

Hall addresses two basic questions in order to determine why the antiwar movement and the black freedom movement were unable to find a strong basis for cooperation. He discusses the response of various civil rights groups to the war, and then the relationship between antiwar civil rights organizations and the mainstream peace movement. The first question is addressed relatively thoroughly, while the second is more problematic. Hall makes clear why civil rights organizations were reluctant to join the peace movement, but there is no parallel, sustained inquiry into the response of antiwar forces to movements for racial equality, a somewhat ironic gap given the author’s conclusions. Indeed, he suggests that when Black Power advocates told white people to go organize their own communities, white activists turned with gusto to antiwar organizing; thus Black Power, in the author’s view, became a double edged sword that both strengthened and weakened the peace movement.

There are several summary statements in the book explaining the obstacles to cooperation between the peace and freedom movements. Hall tells us that black activists were put off by the counterculture, which had an increasingly visible presence in the antiwar movement as the decade wore on. African Americans were also among those who were disgusted by the factionalism that plagued the peace movement, the internecine battles of left-wing groups to control its direction, tactics, and focus. While these were important problems, Hall consistently returns to two main points. One is that black nationalism, separatism, and the demands of African American activists made cooperation difficult. The author provides several concrete examples to support his claim that “Black Power’s increasing popularity, and the hostile attitudes toward white America that often accompanied it, sharpened African American criticisms of the white-dominated peace movement and made progressive interracial coalitions more difficult to construct.” ( p. 111) For instance, it was too late when, in 1967, the Mobe (which grew out of the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam), tried to become more responsive to concerns about racism and poverty. For the most part, as the author explains, black people chose to create their own organizations.

The other side of the problem, and no less significant, was the peace movement’s general unwillingness to provide more than rhetorical support to the black freedom movement. In 1967, for instance, the Black Student Caucus at a Student Mobilization Committee conference suggested the problem in forming a coalition was that the peace movement failed to see the two forces as “equally important facets of revolutionary activity.” (p. 110) Echoing a sentiment expressed by several African American activists, a Guardian editorial in 1970 explained, “Unity is a two-way street. If the antiwar movement is to receive support and leadership from millions of blacks who oppose the war, then the millions of whites who identify with the antiwar movement are going to have to give organized support to blacks in their war against oppression here at home.” (p. 168) Here the evidence is merely suggestive, and one wishes the author had documented more thoroughly not only criticisms of the antiwar movement for its inattentiveness to racial issues but internal discussions of the movement’s priorities and actions. In any case, Hall concludes that while African Americans had many reasons to oppose the war, there were few compelling reasons to become subsumed into the white dominated peace movement.

The author pays much attention to debates within the antiwar movement over “multiissuism.” On one level, this was the locus of some of the worst factionalism, which turned off many activists, not only African Americans. On a deeper level, according to Hall’s argument, such debates were a central issue around which the involvement of black radicals in the antiwar movement was contested. He writes, “When peace groups sought to focus solely on the war in an attempt to nurture broad support amongst white America, rather than build a coalition that also incorporated domestic concerns, it offended black radicals who accused the movement not simply of ignoring the relationship between war and racism, but of being racist itself.” (p. 191) Some peace groups did adopt a multiissue perspective, but this often meant simply making rhetorical rather than actual links between struggles. Here the author perhaps understates the impact of McCarthyism (his discussion of anticommunism focuses only on the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, NAACP) in destroying what arguably was a multiissue, interracial movement of the left, one that in an earlier period linked peace issues with the struggle for black rights at home. Highlighting the point about antiwar coalitions being long on rhetoric and short on action when it came to black issues, Hall singles out the work of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, particularly their Cairo (Illinois) project, as the exception to the rule.

There are some contradictions in ‘Peace and Freedom’ that could use further explanation. For example, the author writes forcefully and persuasively about why black moderates were so willing to downplay the war, even when they were personally opposed to it. Their experience led them to a faith in American society and the Democratic party that radicals did not share. Several moderate leaders, such as Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, had very close ties to Lyndon B. Johnson; the NAACP, in particular, was divided on the question of the Vietnam War. Yet it is not convincing that moderates avoided coming out against the war for fear of alienating black people when, as the author tells us more than once, African Americans were more dovish than any other group in the population.

Moments of possibility for creating a genuine coalition did exist, and Hall discusses some of these, even suggesting at one point that such instances add up to a surprising amount of cooperation. This raises the question of how historians define the success and failure of social movements, a thread that runs through the history of American radicalism, which perhaps the author might have addressed in more depth. Was the level of cooperation impressive under the circumstances, and were lessons learned that may have aided succeeding movements?

The issues raised in this book merit further attention. In focusing primarily on the national level, on large organizations, and on leaders, Hall, whether purposely or not, sets the agenda for further research. Though he does tell a few local level stories, one is left wondering what is going on at the grassroots. Was there more cooperation at the local level? One would suspect so, but only further research will tell.

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