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Conventional views on liberalism and Black Power challenged by VU professor

Black Power’s complex relationship with liberalism during the civil rights era and the surprising consequences of that interaction are explored in Devin Fergus’ book Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980.

“Unlike some of the previous scholarship on Black Power, my research found that the movement did not develop in isolation but as an extension and expression of civic nationalism during the 1960s,” Fergus said. He noted that civic nationalism is rooted in the belief that one belongs to a particular nation if he or she chooses to live there, regardless of one’s race or ethnicity.

“One of my goals was to reinsert and relocate Black Power into the broader narrative of American history, which has important implications for how we view the world today,” Fergus said. “And as an important instrument of nationalism, Black Power remained engaged and open to change and moderation through its interaction with liberalism.”

While groups such as the Black Panthers were considered by many to be on the radical fringe, other Black Power organizations moderated their political agendas through interaction with liberal-oriented institutions, such as the American Civic Liberties Union and the Ford Foundation. “Liberalism proved that it could engage radical civic ideologies and bring those ideologies back from the brink of political violence,” Fergus said.

One example he cites is Soul City, N.C, a new town organized by African American businesses and funded by the Nixon administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. He writes, “Republican administrations, at the federal and state levels, contended that Soul City offered the nation a new growth pole—an emerging market that would attract trade, commerce and manufacturing investment, and that would stimulate job growth.”

Fergus also writes that Presidents Nixon and Ford as well as North Carolina Gov. James Holshouser Jr. believed that job opportunities in Soul City would reduce the migration of many blacks out of eastern North Carolina. In addition, Soul City “would provide a safety valve for America’s riot-plagued, socially roiled northern cities.”

Fergus later writes how the Soul City initiative “helped fuel a backlash led by conservative insurgents, such as Sen. Jesse Helms, within the GOP.” The author speaks to contemporary issues as he points to efforts inside the Republican Party to diversify its electoral base that actually led to the purging of moderates and minorities. Fergus argues that the rise of conservative Republicans during the 1980s was as much or more a negative reaction to the liberal and moderate GOP policies of the Nixon and Ford administrations as to those of Great Society Democrats.

In addition, the book looks at President Obama’s views about black power, which sparked discussion and concerns from some voters during the campaign.

Fergus teaches and writes about modern United States history and the African American experience, with specializations in politics and society since 1945. Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980, has been published by the University of Georgia Press. For more information or to hear a podcast about the book, visit

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, 615-322-NEWS

Editor’s note: Davis-Kidd Booksellers will host a book-signing and discussion with Devin Fergus on Tuesday, May 26, at 7 p.m. The store is located at 4007 Hillsboro Road in Nashville.