Ferreting out history's "truths" often requires looking beyond standard, accepted narratives and focusing instead on telling details that more fully represent the whole. Such is the case with Todd E. Robinson's A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Robinson, an associate professor of history at UNLV, says he learned early on that few scholars were interested in how the civil-rights struggle played out in "second-tier" cities like Grand Rapids. "I observed that most of the narratives of the black freedom struggle focused on the experiences of blacks living in primary cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles," he says. Robinson worked to change that while a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, where his dissertation work eventually led to A City Within a City.
He says he decided on Grand Rapids for a couple reasons. First, there was the aforementioned dearth of information on midsized cities. Second, he says, the size and scope of Grand Rapids was similar to his hometown of Springfield, Mass. "I felt strongly that there was a rich narrative worthy of national attention which could add to the larger understanding," he says.
City Within a City begins by describing the influx of African-American migrant workers to Grand Rapids in the early 1900s up until World War II, a fascinating story of pride and perseverance among women and men determined to claim their share of the American dream. It then transitions into the main thrust of Robinson's work: How, after the war, black citizens' increasing demands for equality ran headlong into a white establishment determined to maintain a discriminatory status quo.
He identifies "managerial racism," as a key component in impeding racial progress, a means by which Grand Rapids' white city fathers, chiefly through business associations, succeeded in starving predominantly black neighborhoods of crucial economic development opportunities.
Robinson next describes how the black community organized to overcome this and other barriers. He details the formation of organizations such as the Grand Rapids National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Grand Rapids Urban League; the struggle for employment and housing; and the hardships faced by black students. He enlivens these stories with first-person reporting and secondary sources which, when taken together, provide a picture of the black freedom struggle more nuanced -- and complicated -- than the popular narrative suggests.
"The traditional view of the civil rights movement that circulates through American memory is hotly contested in academia," Robinson says. "What most might consider the traditional civil rights movement -- framed in the South between the years of 1954 to 1968, and presented from an organizational approach centered on the actions of men to win political rights -- offers only a parochial understanding of the civil rights movement."
While the familiar story of Martin Luther King Jr. may be readily accessible, he adds, "It conceals as much as it reveals," he says. "Analyzing the past of secondary cities will provide invaluable lessons for understanding the tragedy and triumphs of the black experience during that time period and even today."
Robinson adds that he would like to see his study blossom into research on other, similar cities that would "provide comparative insights, examine the place of managerial racism in other communities, and analyze the complex intersection between schooling, housing, jobs, and race in these smaller locales," he says.
This interest led him, in part, to Las Vegas. Part of our city's attraction to him, Robinson says, is a scholarly interest in its African American community.
"The Las Vegas African American community remains virtually hidden in scholarly literature and certainly so within a comparative light," he adds. "We do not know if the struggle for equality in Las Vegas resembles that of Los Angeles, Grand Rapids, or if it presents an entirely new set of issues."
To that end, he's working on several new works, including contributions to the Nuclear Test Site Oral History Project and Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas Project, the final manuscript of which will "use the narratives of black test-site workers to examine the intersection of the Cold War and civil rights history in Las Vegas." He was also recently named director of the African-American Studies Program at UNLV.
He hopes readers come away from reading A City Within a City with the understanding that the fight for civil rights and black equality did not take place within a vacuum, nor is it anywhere close to finished.
"Somewhere along the way it seems the history of racism was distilled from American memory," Robinson says. "In fact, I woke up one morning and found out that apparently America was past racism -- America had entered its post-racial era."
But for anyone willing to examine and admit our history in late 2014, nothing could be further from the truth.
"The incidents in Benton Harbor, Mich., Sanford, Fla., Staten Island, N.Y., and Ferguson, Mo., not only provide us with individual examples of why race matters, but [show us] a system and a philosophy that continues to cause these situations to arise," Robinson says. "To ignore the fact that racism is deeply engrained in the fabric and infrastructure of American society is dangerous, and it ensures that racial inequality will persist to divide America."