Steve Estes. Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 232 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-2232-3.
Reviewed by Nadine Klopfer
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (April, 2016)
S. Estes: Charleston in Black and White
Charleston, Steve Estes notes at the beginning of his book, is as much a myth as it is a city in South Carolina. Once a prosperous city that built its wealth upon slavery, it nowadays thrives on the myth of the old South that attracts tourists in droves. While by the 1970s the legal bases of racial inequality had largely been dismantled, nostalgic images of the antebellum city subtly carry the narratives of racial division into the present. At the same time, the recent massacre of African Americans by a white man in Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church as well as the ensuing debate about the Confederate battle flag on the South Carolina State House’s grounds have vividly shown that ‘race’ still tears American society apart. An analysis of Charleston’s post-civil rights history is thus a welcome and necessary addition to the growing body of scholarship on the more recent decades of American history.
In his book, Steve Estes aims at exploring the ways in which “race and power” have evolved in Charleston since the civil rights movement. How have local race relations changed in the past decades? And what does the case study of Charleston tell us about the South at large, or maybe even the history of the United States in the post-civil rights era? By digging into the histories of local politics, criminal justice, education, and labor relations, the author unfolds a fascinating panorama of Charleston’s history between the 1960s and 2000s, illuminating the ever changing, yet ever present dynamics of racial politics.
In two introductory chapters, the author very briefly sketches his approach and the history of Charleston before the civil rights movement. The seven main chapters are arranged chronologically and thematically, each of them investigating in depth a specific local event or person. Estes starts with the civil rights movement itself by looking at the 1969 hospital workers’ strike (Chapter 1), then moves into the post-civil rights era by focusing on local politics and long-time mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. who took office in 1975, building a strong and lasting biracial Democratic coalition (Chapter 2). The struggle against crime in the 1980s is explored through the lens of African-American Jewish Police Chief Reuben Greenberg who unsuccessfully fought for deracializing policing (Chapter 3). Chapter 4 and 5 explore desegregation in Charleston schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and at The Citadel, a formerly all-white all-male public college, highlighting black middle class flight from inner city schools and the intersections of racial integration with women’s and gay rights struggles. The conservative backlash is put into perspective by focusing on an unlikely local alliance of conservative white Republicans and liberal black Democrats that enabled both black electoral successes and the rise of the Republican Party (Chapter 6), while the story of the Charleston Five illuminates how interwoven questions of race, labor, and upward mobility remained in the first decade of the 21st century (Chapter 7).
Steve Estes’ approach to post-civil rights history is based on the assumption that local case studies help us redraw the larger picture we have of the era, a picture that is all-too often painted in very broad brushes. For other case studies cf. Tracy E. K’Meyer, Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945–1980, Lexington 2009; Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and Struggle for Postwar Oakland, Princeton 2005. Based on close readings of Charleston, his main argument is that “race relations took two divergent trajectories in the post-civil rights era, with growing opportunities for the black middle class and elite, accompanied by increased segregation and disempowerment of lower-income African Americans” (p. 3). His conclusion that the Jim Crow and civil rights eras “had seen race as the dominant form of oppression”, while afterwards “economic inequality grew more salient, buttressing (…) resilient institutional racism” (p. 179), however, oversimplifies the entangled and reciprocal relationship of racial discrimination and economic inequality.
The book is at its best when it complicates the story of the post-civil rights era South – without losing sight of the story itself. Estes heavily relies on oral history interviews. He manages to draw vivid pictures of local figures such as Police Chief Greenberg or Mayor Riley. This approach works when he uses the vibrancy of their stories to indeed complicate regional or national narratives. His chapter on Mayor Riley is a case in point. It revises the master narrative of a post-civil rights movement Republican revolution by focussing on the liberal biracial coalition Riley managed to forge in Charleston, a coalition that holds into the present. The book thus complements recent scholarship on the conservative backlash in post-civil rights suburbia, cf. Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, Princeton 2007, and makes an argument for a ‘long civil rights movement’, cf. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past”, in: Journal of American History 91 (2005), pp. 1233–1263.
The main strength of the book, however, is also its main weakness. In other chapters, Estes gets lost in people’s stories, unfolding a broad cast of figures and details, losing sight of the larger picture and his own argument. It is thus left to the reader to make sense of the local stories, to jump from description to analysis, such as in the chapter on Police Chief Greenberg. What does the story of the African American conservative police chief’s fight against crime tell us about the relationship between race and economic inequality? Estes only vaguely concludes that “the relationship between race and criminal justice remained complicated” (p. 81). It thus does not always become clear how the stories told relate to his main argument on race, class, and power. Keeping track of Estes’ own storyline gets even more difficult when he touches upon the local histories of historic preservation and tourism, of gentrification and urban renewal, of the Confederate flag debate, and of environmental inequity. Their in-depth analysis would wonderfully complement the stories of rights struggles, giving a deeper sense of the entanglement of race, class, gender, space, culture, and power – and ultimately of the relevance of the Southern myth with which Estes starts his book without getting back to it.
All in all, “Charleston in Black and White” makes for an entertaining read for those who are willing to plunge deeply into vivid personal stories from Charleston. Some parts of the book reward the reader with surprising twists and turns that revise conventional assumptions about the modern South. Yet, while Estes provides a wealth of thought-provoking stories throughout the book, other parts tempt the reader to ask ‘so what?’. Thus, Estes’ analysis at times falls short of his own ambition to complicate larger narratives on the post-civil rights era and to make a more differentiated argument on the complex relationship between race and class.
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Nadine Klopfer. Review of Estes, Steve, Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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