The Quest for the Dream
by John P. Roche
Macmillan, 308 pp., $5.95
In the unspoken dialogue that constantly goes on between the present and the past, the modern mind paradoxically puts itself on the side of the past, and the more thoroughly modern it is in thought and sensibility the more committed it is likely to be. This partisanship does not usually rest upon a full-bodied knowledge of the past—quite the contrary—but upon a strong revulsion from the conditions of our own time. The emergence and persistence of totalitarianism, the spectacle of Auschwitz and Belsen, the threat of the bomb, the small daily horrors of mass society have all combined to convince us that we are the stepchildren of history. The old belief in progress has been not simply abandoned but reversed. It is a poor intellectual nowadays who cannot show you in almost unbearable detail how much worse things are today, spiritually, culturally, and politically, than in some series of vaguely delineated but always superior yesterdays.
In this book Professor Roche has not ventured to contest the contemporary state of mind on every front, but he has thrown himself into the breach at a point where two vital and related subjects meet—the state of civil rights and civil liberties in the United States. The Quest for the Dream (what an unfortunate title!) is an informal and somewhat discursive history of human relations in twentieth-century America. Its central argument is that “by all the standards of historical evidence civil liberty has a meaning in contemporary American life which never existed in the past. Never since the foundation of the Republic has there been such a concern for the basic principles of decency and civility in intergroup relations as we know today.” To argue this case against the dominant intellectual apocalypticism of the age, in the wake of the McCarthy era, and in the face of the slow gains and heavy costs of the movement for Negro rights, may seem foolhardy, but let us consider Roche’s evidence and see how he fares.
Roche’s strategy is to force us to take a close, hard look at our earlier failures and to estimate the conditions of our own time against a full and candid recall of the iniquities of the past. He reminds us, for example, that in the first year of the twentieth century one hundred Negroes were lynched, that by the outbreak of the first World War the number had risen to 1,000 for the century, that the first two decades of the century saw many savage race riots both in Northern and Southern cities, that the terrible thirteen-day Chicago race riot in the summer of 1919 resulted in the deaths of thirty-eight persons and injuries to over 500, that a lynching of the most incredible brutality was possible in a Northern city like Omaha, culminating in the display of the corpse at a downtown intersection. We have had, of course, our lamentable casualties in the current movement of Negro protest, but the situation contrasts with that …