cover image Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866–1896

Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866–1896

Charles Postel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-8090-7963-6

In an acute analysis, historian Postel (The Populist Vision) persuasively argues that three advocacy organizations which worked to achieve a more level socioeconomic level playing field in the decades following the Civil War advanced their causes at the expense of racial equality. Postel looks at the Grange (focused on the needs of farmers), the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU, focused on women), and the Knights of Labor (KOL, advocated for industrial workers) and notes that, for example, even though African-Americans comprised a majority of members in the KOL, Thomas Powderly, its longtime leader, declared in 1886 that, while black and white workers deserved “an equal share of protection,” his organization had “no wish to interfere with the social relations which exist between the races of the South.” His successor, James Sovereign, favored the deportation of African-Americans to Liberia or the Congo. The two other organizations took many progressive stances, with the Grange fighting railroad monopolies and the WCTU advocating for women’s suffrage and the eight-hour workday. But they, too, were willing to acquiesce to Jim Crow laws and customs. (The WCTU’s leader, Frances Willard, even defended lynch mobs as taking, in Postel’s words, “defensive actions against black sexual predators.”) With deep research and clear prose, Postel ably demonstrates that African-Americans were consistently excluded from these reformers’ visions of a more equal America. Postel’s broad and valuable study ably illuminates the era. [em](Aug.) [/em]