John Dittmer is professor emeritus of history at DePauw University and author of “Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi,” which won the Bancroft Prize in American history.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump liked to point out that under the Obama administration, black Americans had to contend with bad schools and high rates of crime and unemployment. In soliciting their votes, he asked, “What the hell do you have to lose?” In his new book, journalist Juan Williams discusses the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the gains made by African Americans, but his major focus is on black achievement in employment, education, housing, public accommodations and voting rights over the past half-century. Each chapter features a biographical essay about a prominent male activist, a questionable choice given the centrality of women to the black freedom struggle.
In his introduction, Williams cites examples of Trump’s racial attacks on President Barack Obama, including the charge that Obama was not born in the United States and was thus ineligible for the White House, a fanciful story that few pundits took seriously early in Trump’s 2016 campaign. Williams also calls attention to Trump’s refusal to condemn the perpetrators of violent demonstrations in Charlottesville in 2017, particularly the Ku Klux Klan and members of the alt-right faction.
Trump’s racist behavior is not of recent vintage, and grew over many decades. Williams’s most effective chapter, “Housing,” examines the Trump family’s long history of denying blacks access to their apartment buildings and houses, beginning with Fred Trump’s construction projects in Brooklyn and Queens after World War II. Young Donald continued his father’s discriminatory policies when he took over the operation in his late 20s, and a later court ruling banned the Trumps from discriminating against people of color in their business. As president, Trump has opposed aid for low-income housing, recommended huge cuts in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and wants to eliminate Choice Neighborhoods, an Obama program that revitalizes poor neighborhoods.
The last half of this chapter analyzes the federal government’s housing programs, beginning with New Deal public housing projects that segregated blacks and whites. There follows a long autobiographical essay about Robert Weaver, an African American leader who played a major role in the government’s elimination of discriminatory programs in housing and championed positive programs, including the Fair Housing Act of 1968. In a public career that spanned nearly four decades, Weaver became the first secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1966. Unlike most of the other men profiled in this book, Weaver remains relatively unknown, and Williams has done us a service by calling our attention to his many achievements.
The rest of the book follows the same format, with less than satisfactory results. The first chapter, “Voting Rights,” briefly summarizes efforts by the Trump administration to suppress the black vote. Williams devotes the next 35 pages to the voting rights campaign in Mississippi in the early 1960s, relying on secondary accounts and a couple of biographies of activist Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose life is profiled. There is not much new here, even for the nonspecialist. Williams ignores earlier struggles across the South to gain the vote, and has nothing to say about the battles in Congress over passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The section “Education” again zeroes in on Mississippi. After discussing Trump’s unwillingness to promote educational opportunities for blacks, exemplified by his choice of Betsy DeVos for education secretary, Williams spends nearly half the chapter rehearsing James Meredith’s successful attempt to desegregate the University of Mississippi in 1962 (an event he covered in detail in his earlier book, “Eyes on the Prize”). In focusing on institutions of higher learning, he omits coverage of the courageous attempts of black parents and their children to integrate previously all-white elementary schools in the immediate aftermath of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and the often violent responses of Southern whites to this invasion of one of their most cherished institutions.
In the chapter titled “Black Voices,” Williams contrasts Trump’s black supporters, such as the Rev. Darrell Scott and rapper Kanye West, who were “neither experienced at Washington politics nor wise about policies dealing with black Americans,” with African Americans such as Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who served in the administration of George W. Bush. Much of the chapter replays the contentious meeting in May 1963 between Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and a group of black activists brought together by James Baldwin, who forms the biographical subject of this section. Totally unprepared for the acrimonious debate that ensued, Kennedy never resolved his differences with Baldwin. However, Williams gives the attorney general credit because, unlike Trump, he at least listened to his black critics.
The chapter “Employment” contains useful information about the economic gains blacks have made, and concludes with a long biographical profile of black labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the subject of the “Public Accommodations” chapter. Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois is profiled here, a curious choice. Dirksen was able to deliver the Republican votes in the Senate necessary to break the Southern filibuster, but he was hardly a civil rights activist, and the person most responsible for moving the bill through Congress, Lyndon B. Johnson, gets short shrift. The president’s dedicated efforts on behalf of the bill receive little attention, and the only significant mention of LBJ occurs earlier, when Williams criticizes him for his civil rights stance when he was Senate majority leader in the 1950s.
“What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?” is directed toward the general reader. Although parts of the book are of interest, Williams covers familiar territory, and several of the long biographical sections come across as, well, padding. Those who wish to learn more about the struggles and achievements of African Americans over the past half-century will be disappointed, and any concerned citizen who reads a newspaper or watches cable (other than Fox News Channel) is well aware of Trump’s almost daily outbursts concerning racial matters. Williams’s topic is certainly timely, but the book promises more than it delivers.
By Juan Williams
PublicAffairs. 310 pp. $27