Reluctant Reformers




“Sharp, compelling, and powerful—a model of well-structured historical argument … For the last five years, I have been on an intellectual journey into the relationship between race and class, and I can say for certain that this book has shaped much of the path I’m on. ” —Jamelle Bouie

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About the Book

Reluctant Reformers explores the centrality of racism to American politics through the origins, internal dynamics, and leadership of the major democratic and social justice movements between the early nineteenth century and the end of World War II. It focuses in particular on the abolitionists, the Populist Party, the Progressive reformers, and the women’s suffrage, labor, and socialist and communist movements.

Despite their achievements, virtually all these predominantly white movements failed to oppose, capitulated to, or even advocated racism at critical junctures in their history, with their efforts undercut by their inability to build and sustain a mass movement of both Black and white Americans.

Reluctant Reformers examines both the structural roots of racism in US radical movements and the impact of racist ideologies on the white-dominated core of each movement, how some whites resisted these pressures, and how Black people engaged with these movements. This edition includes a postscript describing the Black freedom movement of the 1960s and the central role it has played in the development of today’s radical social justice movements.

356 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-278-8 • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-273-3


About the Authors

Robert L. Allen photo

Robert L. Allen is Professor Emeritus of Ethnic Studies and African American Studies, University of California, Berkeley, and previously taught at Mills College and San Jose State University. He is author of Black Awakening in Capitalist America, The Port Chicago Mutiny and numerous articles and books on race and ethnicity. He was editor of The Black Scholar journal and vice president of the Black World Foundation.

Chude Pamela Allen photo

Chude Pamela Allen is on the Board of Directors of the Civil Rights Movement Archive, She was editor of Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality’s newspaper, UNION WAGE, and is author of Free Space: A Perspective on the Small Group in Women’s Liberation. She was featured in the films Freedom on My Mind and She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.

Read an Excerpt

What have white reformers done to abate racism, especially before the racial militancy of the 1950’s and 1960’s made opposition to segregation and discrimination popular “causes”? As part of their battle for social justice, did early white reformers carry the message of racial equality to their more bigoted brothers and sisters? Did they oppose segregationist and exclusionist movements organized by racists? Did they open their own organizations to participation by nonwhites? In short, if white society is in need of basic changes to purge it of racism, can we say that progressive whites, enlightened social reformers, historically have been a source of such anti-racist thinking and development? This is a central question explored in the present study.

The history of the United States is marked by a series of social reform movements, each aimed at correcting some major injustice. Included among these are the militant abolitionist movement, which sought to end slavery; the Populist movement, a radical agrarian alliance of small and poor farmers who opposed exploitation of the farmer by large corporate interests; the turn-of-the-century progressive campaign of middle-class citizens who decried the dangerously growing power of economic monopolies; the woman’s rights movement, which fought for the ballot and equality for women; the labor movement, which aimed to protect and improve the lot of the ordinary workingman; and the socialist and communist movements, which professed to seek a totally new society of equality and freedom from all forms of exploitation. Each of these movements sought to transform and improve American society. Accepting their ideals at face value, one would have expected these movements to break down racism, even if only indirectly. Instead, their actual courses were marred by confusion, evasion and opportunism, stemming from varied external and internal causes.


The pervasiveness of racist ideology undoubtedly accounted for abolitionists’ reluctance to fight for full equality for blacks. Slavery apologists constantly harped on the so-called horrors of social and political equality, suggesting that this would lead to “black domination.” For the most part white abolitionists, ambivalent themselves and fearful lest they offend the sensibilities of sympathetic whites, failed to meet this argument head-on and instead capitulated to it. The American Anti-Slavery Society in its constitution proposed to elevate blacks to a level of “equality with the whites,” but it carefully restricted this statement to mean equal enjoyment of “civil and religious privileges,” not social equality. Aside from a reluctance to offend sympathetic whites, some white abolitionists were afraid—not without reason—that social intercourse with blacks might precipitate mob action, and others, such as James Birney, contended that the premature introduction of the social equality issue might defeat the struggle for civil rights.

Many white abolitionists opposed granting political rights to blacks because they were swayed by the common belief that political equality would lead inexorably to social equality. Other white activists were influenced by anthropological writings which erroneously asserted that blacks had never exhibited any capability for self-government.

Black abolitionists did not tolerate these racist attitudes on the part of their white co-workers. They charged the whites with harboring race bias and recounted many examples to support the accusation. A black newspaper editor wrote that one of the reasons some whites joined the anti-slavery movement was their belief that it stood for abstract principles to be applied to the South, without requiring them to battle prejudice at home. Another editor warned: “Until abolitionists eradicate prejudice from their own hearts, they can never receive the unwavering confidence of the people of color.”

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