Thirty years after the greatest legislative triumphs of the civil rights movement, overcoming racism remains what Martin Luther King, Jr., once called America’s unfinished “work of democracy.” Why this remains true is the subject of Ben Keppel’s The Work of Democracy. By carefully tracing the public lives of Ralph Bunche, Kenneth B. Clark, and Lorraine Hansberry, Keppel illuminates how the mainstream media selectively appropriated the most challenging themes, ideas, and goals of the struggle for racial equality so that difficult questions about the relationship between racism and American democracy could be softened, if not entirely evaded.
Keppel traces the circumstances and cultural politics that transformed each individual into a participant-symbol of the postwar struggle for equality. Here we see how United Nations ambassador Ralph Bunche, the first African American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, came to symbolize the American Dream while Bunche’s opposition to McCarthyism was ignored. The emergence of psychologist and educator Kenneth B. Clark marked the ascendancy of the child and the public school as the leading symbols of the civil rights movement. Yet Keppel details how Clark’s blueprint for “community action” was thwarted by machine politics. Finally, the author chronicles the process by which the “American Negro” became an “African American” by considering the career of playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Keppel reveals how both the journalistic and the academic establishment rewrote the theme of her prizewinning play A Raisin in the Sun to conform to certain well-worn cultural conventions and the steps Hansberry took to reclaim the message of her classic.
The Work of Democracy uses biography in innovative ways to reflect on how certain underlying cultural assumptions and values of American culture simultaneously advanced and undermined the postwar struggle for racial equality.
Keppel rehabilitates Bunche, Clark, and Hansberry from their devaluation by civil rights activists since the late 1960s as alleged representatives of failed solutions. The three successfully stimulated a national dialogue on race and worked to embed the idea of racial equality in America’s value system. Despite that, the dominant cultural politics filtered out subversive parts of their messages while simultaneously rendering them icons. This, as the author emphasizes throughout this imaginative work, testifies not so much to their failings as to the strength of the ‘cultural forces arrayed around them’ and the unfinished work of democracy.
The issues Keppel raises are important for historical and contemporary reasons. That Ralph Bunche, Kenneth Clark, and Lorraine Hansberry had such different experiences and yet still shared so much demands that The Work of Democracy be read as a cautionary tale—an extended warning we should all heed in our age of antiintellectualism, spin-doctors, and the continuing development of politics based on difference and a quixotic search for a mythical, symbolic American past.
A new and refreshing way of looking at the struggle for racial equality in the United States. Use of the concept ‘political culture’ helps us to understand the popular manipulation of images and their relationship to discussions of the race problem. The lives and products of Bunche, Clark, and Hansberry work well in supporting Keppel’s hypothesis about the transformation of the symbolic place of African Americans after World War II… The Work of Democracy is an important and welcome departure from traditional studies of the civil rights era that employ the rhetoric of military campaigns. Keppel has joined the issue of civil rights in an unprecedented manner to the reality of American political culture.
- 320 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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