Recovering a Civil Rights Intellectual from Obscurity: A Vital Biography of L. D. Reddick

This absorbing portrayal of a neglected yet noteworthy African American historian-activist poignantly speaks to the past and present of the African American experience.

By Mark Christian

The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power, by David A. Varel. North Carolina, 2020. 314p bibl index, 9781469660950 $95.00, 9781469660967 $29.95, 9781469660974 $22.00

Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice is highlighting select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews is broader than those applied to our standard 190-word reviews, many of the guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. Our intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be of use to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.

The Scholar and the Struggle cover

Varel (Metropolitan State Univ. of Denver), who previously authored The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought (2018) is an accomplished biographer-historian who focuses on hidden or overlooked African American historical personalities.

In this new volume, Varel has produced an accessible and clear-minded portrayal of a neglected yet undeniably noteworthy African American historian-activist: Lawrence D. Reddick (1910–1995), who has been long overdue for this much-needed biographical profile. There is so much that can be mined from this biography that speaks to the past and present of the African American experience in many salient ways, not only in terms of activism and the struggle against an insuperable racism in society, but also in relation to understanding what a Black scholar faces in mainstream (predominantly white) academia. Reddick was a scholar deeply grounded in the African American experience of segregation and its assault on the humanity of his people. He was a man who did not back down easily and his courage impacted those students he taught and mentored during his lifetime. He was educated at the historically Black university Fisk, gaining his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history by 1933. He then studied for his doctorate in history at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1939.

Copiously referenced and researched, Varel’s biography covers Reddick’s life and times extensively, explaining his impact in promoting Black history and detailing his support of the younger generation of African American students and activists. To this point, Reddick even mentored the young Martin Luther King Jr. as he waded through the turbulent waters of the Montgomery bus boycott at the tender age of 26 during the mid-1950s in Alabama. Reddick was almost twenty years King’s senior and provided the intellectual foundation for the young pastor on his rise within the realm of civil and human rights activism. Indeed, the first book King published, Stride Toward Freedom (1958), profited significantly from Reddick’s diligent research and advice. The two men had a strong and respectful professional relationship that lasted from 1955 up to the time of King’s assassination in April 1968. Their collaboration is confirmed by the fact that Reddick wrote the first biography of King, Crusader without Violence, published in 1959. That Reddick’s biography of King is overlooked by the mainstream speaks to the institutional racism that still abounds within academia and relates fundamentally to the palpable “invisibility” of African American historians who have made great contributions to scholarship and activism.

Reddick was a colossal scholar-activist who touched base with such Pan Africanists as Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe while pushing for self-determination.

Reddick’s life has offered so much of relevance to the history of African American struggle, as Varel captures here, that it is rather overwhelming to contemplate the array of events he was involved with spanning six decades. Some of the most notable events include helping to establish Carter G. Woodson’s Black history movement in the 1930s; aiding the assault on racism during WW II while taking over for Arthur A. Schomburg (1874–1938) as the second curator for his collection of African and African American cultural artifacts from 1939 to 1948 at the Schomburg Library, which is today the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem; helping to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) while mentoring Dr. King in the 1950s; and tackling institutional racism in the 1960s with the Black student movement struggle to establish Black studies as a discipline in academia. To be sure, Reddick was a colossal scholar-activist who touched base with such Pan Africanists as Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe while pushing for self-determination. It is no wonder then that he has been largely ignored by the mainstream. The fact remains that any scholar-activist who has given his life to the struggle and uplift of African Americans in the manner that Reddick did has a propensity to be ignored and/or undermined by mainstream academia.

Varel includes many rare photographs that are worth much to the neophyte scholar in Africana studies and beyond, such as one wonderful photo of Reddick sandwiched between the renowned author Richard Wright and Martin Luther King Jr., taken in Paris, France in 1959 and showing them clad in tailored suits and clearly at ease with one another (p. 145). To be able to bear witness to three outstanding African American intellects as they enjoy one another’s company is not insignificant. There are other photos that capture the essence of Reddick’s profoundly distinguished life within African American history circles. One can only marvel at Reddick’s inner strength to live such a full life under constant vilification and undue stress.

A prominent theme throughout this biography is the relevance of a man not being respected for his worth, talent, and offerings to academia during the segregation era and beyond. The idea of academic freedom is rather absent in Reddick’s experiences at a number of the higher education institutions where he was employed. In 1960, for instance, Alabama State College (now University) fired him for his activism with student sit-ins at the request of the racist Governor John Patterson, who avidly opposed anyone who protested for civil and human rights. Clearly, this was a political attack on Reddick for his participation in the movement to desegregate public amenities in Montgomery, Alabama and throughout the Deep South. What is evident today in retrospect is the disgraceful manner in which the FBI, with the aid of Patterson, endeavored to discredit Reddick’s character as a way to neutralize his impact as a civil rights activist. As Reddick himself noted, “‘The real reason Governor Patterson fired me was because of the biography I wrote of Martin Luther King and because of the sit-ins that have taken place in Montgomery’” (p. 151).

Associating himself with the struggle for the rights of African Americans thus threatened his livelihood as viciously racist politicians sought to “starve” those who would defy the essence of racist institutions. However, men of such strong conviction as Reddick and King did not have any choice but to fight on, their commitment to end the long night of the misery of segregation and psychological humiliation ran that deep. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Reddick was an extremely brave soul; for his stance against racialized discrimination he lost many jobs during his lifetime. Unlike King, whose job as a pastor secured his salary, Reddick relied on the education system to provide for his family, and without employment it could be a precarious existence for any scholar-activist.

Racial battle fatigue is something that has trailed Reddick’s generation of Black scholars right up to the present. It is well documented that faculty of color continue to be denied “full citizenship” within predominantly white universities across the US.

During his later life in the 1970s, Reddick encountered unfair workplace treatment while teaching at Temple University, even though the university faculty he encountered had initially welcomed him. As an example, his endeavor to develop a Black studies resource within the library was met with insidious administrative resistance. Reddick was one of only a handful of African American scholars who had to both support Black student protest and develop a decent working environment for himself. Varel puts it this way: “Pugnacious as Reddick was in speaking out against institutional racism, he also felt the weight of expectations placed on him as one of the lone [B]lack faculty members and worked to match the students’ tenacity” (p. 194). Racial battle fatigue is something that has trailed Reddick’s generation of Black scholars right up to the present. It is well documented that faculty of color continue to be denied “full citizenship” within predominantly white universities across the US. Considering that Reddick was a top-class historian who even enjoyed a year at Harvard University (1977–78) as a visiting professor, it is rather shameful that he was not treated with the proper professional respect he deserved while at Temple. The price of freedom from racialized discrimination is costly and it is of no surprise that after all his woes in predominantly white universities, Reddick returned to a historically Black institution in the late 1970s: Dillard University in New Orleans. He remained at Dillard as distinguished professor until his retirement in 1987.

This biography of Lawrence Dunbar Reddick should be regarded as a foundational pathway to learn about African American history and culture from the 1930s to the 1980s. Reddick was a brilliant scholar-activist, and it is with due respect that Varel should receive plaudits for encapsulating his life in such a highly readable biography. So much of Reddick’s life resonates with what US society is facing in the 2020s. With students protesting varied forms of injustice (racialized discrimination, police brutality, environmental catastrophe) there is certainly a tangible link between what Reddick experienced and what humanity must continue to struggle for in order to alleviate the tremendous levels of social inequality evident throughout the world. Reddick was a visionary, and Varel captures this succinctly and efficaciously. Crucially, this biography will provide contemporary graduate and undergraduate students with an insight into an important scholar-activist who resonates with the struggles of their lifetime—a social reality that is both sobering and illuminating.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America

Mark Christian, Ph.D., is a professor in the City University of New York. He is a prolific writer in the fields of Africana studies and Sociology.