To Renew American Democracy, Look to Black Freedom Fighters like Lawrence Reddick

Guest post by David A. Varel, author of The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power

The Trump era has made painfully clear how much the United States needs to revitalize its democracy. There is no better guide to doing so than African Americans, who have labored ceaselessly to make American founding ideals of freedom, justice, and equality real in practice.

As I show in my new biography of Lawrence Reddick (1910-1995), a close understanding of one little-known but consequential Black scholar-activist—placed against the evolving backdrop of the modern civil rights movement—goes a long way toward clarifying the radically democratic nature of the Black freedom struggle. We need the wisdom and inspiration from this struggle now more than ever.

Why This History Matters

Most Americans don’t know much about their nation’s history, much less the experience of marginalized groups within it. As a result, journalists, politicians, and media pundits play an outsized role in framing how they understand race in America.

This is a problem, because even the best journalism is no replacement for broad-based historical understanding. Last year’s protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd are a case in point. They speak both to the accomplishments of history education so far and to its still untapped potential.

Specifically, the protests for Black lives have been larger and more multicultural than ever, underlining how historical knowledge about marginalized groups has helped young Americans see all that remains to be done to create a just society.

Yet the dramatic protests that unfolded across the nation and the world also scared many other Americans, especially when Republicans predictably exploited the relatively rare instances of looting and violence (often among outside groups) to frame the whole movement as hateful and dangerous. Public support for Black Lives Matter ebbed after reaching unprecedentedly high levels earlier last summer, and preliminary survey results from the election suggest that the protests influenced the decision of many conservatives to vote for Trump.

As President Biden works to build a coalition to confront racial injustice, a longer and deeper view of the Black freedom struggle is needed. This is where history must step in.

Lawrence Reddick, Pioneering Black Scholar and Activist

Reddick was an activist who both participated in and helped organize some of the most dramatic protests of the civil rights era, including the 1963 March on Washington. As one of the founders and longtime board members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Reddick mentored Martin Luther King Jr. throughout his entire public life, helped craft his speeches, wrote the first biography of King (Crusader without Violence, 1958), travelled with him to India, Oslo, and Africa, and helped spearhead the mass protests that made SCLC famous. He was never far from the most memorable figures and events that Americans continue to associate most with the civil rights movement.

Yet by foregrounding Reddick and his generally behind-the-scenes intellectual work over decades rather than only the most dramatic protests and speeches of the 1950s and 1960s, we gain a better sense of what the freedom struggle was and is really about.

For one thing, Reddick illustrates the righteous but also tedious and painstaking work that underpins Black activism. The arguing over strategy, the crafting of language for speeches and press releases, the documenting and archiving of protest activities, the fundraising, and the quiet building of relationships with ordinary people on the ground are the lifeblood of any movement. The dramatic moments and violent clashes with segregationists (like today’s clashes with police and white supremacists), may be useful in awakening some white Americans to the oppression experienced by African Americans, but they are in many ways an afterthought to the real work of building a more democratic society from the ground up and pushing the country to live up to its founding principles.

Similarly, Reddick’s long career helps us see how the emphasis on charismatic leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. leads to a truncated view of the struggle. Black activists at the time and since have understood this. That’s why Ella Baker left SCLC early on and helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which adopted a group-centered style of leadership meant to empower each individual to act. This is the same style as today’s Movement for Black Lives, which is why the movement is so diffuse, diverse, and vibrant.

The Long Black Freedom Struggle

Although Reddick very much committed to the King-centered style of charismatic leadership in the Sixties (seeing in him a rare opportunity to cast the always controversial movement in an utterly respectable light), a focus on Reddick himself rather than King is instructive. For instance, Reddick was part of an older generation of activists who proved invaluable to King’s generation. We still tend to view King as this exceptional figure whose moral principles transcended time and place, but it is more productive to see him as a person whose ideas and methods were historically specific and molded by his elders.

Reddick was one of those elders. As a historian by training, he offered King a longer view of the Black freedom struggle. And as part of the Double Victory campaign against fascism at home and abroad during World War II, the Pan-African and decolonization movements during the Cold War, and as a friend and Phi Beta Sigma fraternity brother of Kwame Nkrumah (the first president of Ghana) and Nnamdi Azikiwe (the first president of Nigeria), Reddick helped King and the other young ministers of SCLC understand their movement as only one part of a global struggle for human rights and self-determination. Today’s activists have not forgotten this.

Reddick himself came to his broader view by becoming an integral part of the Depression-era Black history movement led by Carter G. Woodson, who institutionalized the study of African-descended peoples through his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Journal of Negro History, and Negro History Week (later Month). Here Reddick did such thankless work as microfilming Black historical newspapers and collecting the testimony of former slaves and Black servicemen. These quiet efforts were in fact essential components of the civil rights struggle. They recovered Black perspectives throughout history and allowed African Americans to better understand who they were, what obstacles lay in front of them, and how they could push closer to that ever-elusive goal of true equality.

In pursuit of that same goal, today’s Black Lives Matter activists are embodying the spirit that moved Reddick to act so productively throughout his indelibly twentieth-century life. Like his, their work is best understood as a radical investment in a better future—for all of us.

Once we step away from the headlines and open up our history books, we can’t miss that.

David A. Varel is a historian and author of two books: The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); and The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).