Friday, November 22, 2013

Susan D. Carle's "Defining the Struggle"

Susan Carle teaches legal ethics, anti-discrimination law, labor and employment law, and torts at American University Washington College of Law. She writes primarily about the history of social change lawyering, anti-discrimination law, and topics at the intersections between civil rights, employment, and labor law. In the past she has been a community organizer, civil rights lawyer, and union-side labor lawyer.

Carle applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880-1915, and reported the following:
It takes courage to apply the page 99 test to one’s own work with honesty, though honesty may be the most important virtue of a writer. So I will try: Defining the Struggle tells the story of the civil rights leaders of the late nineteenth and earliest years of the twentieth century who started to develop the ideas that would lead to the rich and multifaceted campaign for racial justice in the United States, which eventually grew into the later twentieth century civil rights movement. As a legal historian, I wanted to convince other legal historians of the importance of this largely overlooked “prehistory” of legal civil rights organizing, but I also desperately wanted to write a book that would be accessible and interesting to a more general readership. Did I accomplish this? I believe the page 99 test shows I did, in part. That page begins a discussion of the founding of the longest-lasting national civil rights organization of the turn of the century period: The National Afro American Council, which lasted for a decade before essentially merging with other efforts to become the NAACP. It describes the Afro American Council’s founding in the midst of a celebration of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. Dignitaries in attendance included famous suffragette and good friend of Douglass Susan B. Anthony, thus reflecting the connection some of the more visionary leaders of this period (though not all) saw between the campaigns for racial equality and for women’s rights. Also active in the proceedings was the now-famous anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. Wells was known for her blunt speaking style, and she shared her ideas about who would be best to lead this new organization; her thoughts were heeded in the appointment of the savvy organization-builder Alexander Walters, the youngest-ever bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, to head this new organizing effort. The “standard story” holds that the African American civil rights leaders of this period were almost all descendants of a free black elite, but this hardly describes the backgrounds of either Wells or Walters, who were both born enslaved and moved into national leadership roles despite very modest economic and educational backgrounds.

Does this snippet whet one’s appetite for more? The answer to that question probably depends on one’s personal taste for historical accounts that seek to revise standard stories and settled judgments of who counts as historical figures of enduring importance. Thus page 99 is a terrific litmus test: This book will appeal if one is interested in the kind of story it tells, but the writer’s talents are such that it might not convert a reader’s interest absent an underlying enthusiasm for stories about history’s forgotten heroes.
Learn more about Defining the Struggle at the Oxford University Press website.

My Book, The Movie: Defining the Struggle.

--Marshal Zeringue