Finding the Gray Areas in the Politics of Race

Posted January 25, 2010 at 2:24pm

Politicians, by nature, are a stealthy bunch. Although much of their careers are spent in the limelight, it’s no secret that they also spend ample time maneuvering behind closed doors, too.

In fact, one could reasonably argue their furtive ways have contributed to Americans’ growing distrust of government over the years.

But “Stealth Reconstruction: An Untold Story of Racial Politics in Recent Southern History,— a book by former Alabama Rep. Glen Browder (D) and co-author Artemesia Stanberry, represents how some politicians accomplished more good by operating under the radar than out in the open.

The book — which represents an unorthodox blend of scholarship and personal observation — recounts how a number of progressive-minded white politicians quietly worked in concert with black leaders and activists to reform Southern politics in the aftermath of the height of the 1960s civil rights movement.

Browder and Stanberry begin at a simple, yet admittedly controversial, premise: that most people’s understanding of the civil rights era and the decades that followed is misconceived. Lost amid the heroic drama, or the “clash between righteous heroes and racial ogres,— is an important addendum to the story of racial progress and reconstruction in the South, they contend.

For example, the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day typically evokes memories of a quarter-million people assembling in front of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to hear an impassioned young preacher intonate the words: “I have a dream.—

The holiday also brings darker images to the fore, like that of then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace acting as a human blockade to prevent desegregation in public schools, or the infamous Bull Connor siccing snarling German shepherds on peaceful protestors in Birmingham, Ala.

“Stealth Reconstruction— suggests that these iconic black-and-white images belie the “stealthy— machinations of practical politicians like Browder, who details in his book how he worked both diligently and quietly to attract enough black support to win election in majority-white areas, sought to be fair, moderate and progressive in his politics, and “didn’t talk much publicly about any of this stuff.—

The trick for Browder and other stealth politicians was to address black interests without jeopardizing their standing with white majorities — not just in electoral campaigns, but in public service as well.

Some people have bristled at the idea of crediting practical, often self-interested white politicians with advancing blacks’ quest for equality.

During a roundtable discussion in one of the last chapters of the book, Carol Zippert, a prominent black community worker in Alabama, even likens the notion of blacks needing white politicians to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s controversial assertion that it ultimately took the backing of President Lyndon Johnson to create voting rights legislation.

And after a 45-minute C-SPAN interview about the book Jan. 13, Browder said he has received his fair share of angry e-mails taking issue with the book’s assertions.

But Browder and Stanberry, who both hold doctorates in political science, are careful to avoid supplanting black civil rights heroes with white counterparts.

“We could have written the zillionth book about the civil rights movement in Southern politics, but instead we wrote the first book about white and blacks quietly working together to achieve progress,— Browder said in an interview. “We’re just trying to fill in some gaps in the existing literature.—

“Stealth Reconstruction— does more than just fill in the gaps, though. The authors’ authoritative research and Browder’s first-person account of his political career, which serves as a case study, represent a noteworthy contribution to civil rights scholarship.

The story may be one that not everyone wants to hear, but it is also one that both black and white leaders during that time period confirm, according to “Stealth Reconstruction.—

Moreover, the biracial authorship of Browder (who is white) and Stanberry (who is black) can be seen as a synthesis of racially diverse perspectives that is often absent from the world of academia.

Those who choose to further explore the topic of stealth politics during reconstruction in the South would be wise to follow in their footsteps, Browder said.

Outside of a racial context, there may even be one invaluable lesson to be gleaned by the current Members of Congress: If blacks and whites were able to work together in the way they did in the decades that followed the civil rights movement, politicians today are certainly capable of compromising in order to solve the current menu of problems that America is facing.

And, Browder said, “They have to.—