We Ain't What We Ought to Be

Stephen Tuck. We Ain’t What We Ought to Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. 




         In We Ain’t What We Ought to Be, Tuck argues that “there was no such thing as a single black protest agenda,” “no single black experience,” nor was there “a single black culture” (3). Instead the fight for civil rights was fought by diverse participants who utilized diverse tactics and strategies to achieve their goals on local and national levels. Tuck demonstrates how activists were diverse in their goals. For example, the rivalry between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois demonstrated how some activists believed that racial uplift could be achieved through accommodation while others believed that political and social power was the best approach. Many activists were separatists while others were integrationists and there were those who supported the back to Africa movement while others believed in the American dream.
We Ain’t What We Ought to Be is a chronological narrative history of the black freedom struggle for full and equal rights. Tucks describes this book as “an introduction for the general reader as well as an interpretation for the specialist” (2). Tuck dismisses the notion that the 1960s marked the pinnacle of the “protest generation.” He traces the black freedom struggle from Emancipation in 1961 into the 21st century with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. Tuck refers to these two events as the “pain and promise” of the black freedom struggle. This pain and promise is further demonstrated in the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Fisk Jubilee Singers fight against prejudice in America while finding success in Europe, the race riots following Jack Johnson’s “fight of the century,” the social and intellectual upheaval of the Harlem Renaissance, the activism of students and women in the Civil Rights Movement, the radicalism of the Black Power Movement, and the popularity and controversy of Hip Hop culture.
Recent scholarship has suggested that the civil rights movement did not begin in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education decision or in 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycott. For historian Adam Fairclough, the movement took shape in the 1890s with Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign. Glenda Gilmore situates the origins of the civil rights movement in the 1920s with the racial violence towards African Americans following World War I. Patricia Sullivan traces the movement to the 1920s with the activists and organizations that emerged prior to and after the New Deal. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, argues that the long civil rights movement formed in the liberal and radical environment of the 1930s. Nelson Lichtenstein, Robert Korstad, and Harvard Sitkoff locate the movement’s roots in the depression and in the 1940s placing emphasis on the emerging black urban working class. Historians have adopted the notion of a long civil rights movement to encompass the roots of the movement as well as the ongoing struggles of African Americans to the present day. Tuck dismisses the notion of a long civil rights movement and instead argues that the black freedom struggle began in 1861 with African Americans fighting for freedom during Emancipation.



[1] Historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall coined the phrase “the long civil rights movement.” See her essay “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past, “The Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (2005): 1233-1263.   

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