Book ReviewsComptes rendus

Carol Lynn McKibben. Racial Beachhead: Diversity and Democracy in a Military Town. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. Pp. 352. Illustrations, maps, tables. ISBN: 9780804776998 (paperback)[Record]

  • Godefroy Desrosiers-Lauzon

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  • Godefroy Desrosiers-Lauzon
    Université du Québec à Montréal

Carol Lynn McKibben, a Berkeley graduate who works at Stanford, specializes in public history. In Racial Beachhead, she studied racial integration in the town of Seaside–a few miles off Monterey in northern California, nestled by beautiful Monterey Bay, as the author says. Why integration in Seaside? Because it has been, since the 1930s, sitting next door to Fort Ord, an important army base. With the policy of racial integration in the military since the 1940s, with about a third of its population being African-American since the war, and with nearly the entire black population of Monterey county within its borders, Seaside’s story should be unusual–that is: unusually useful for the study of interracial relations in the United States, and of urban California. Thus the reader, upon opening the book, expects an enlightening community study, an engaging piece of social history, “asking a big question in a small place,” drawing up an exciting narrative of integration fought over, and achieved at a faster pace and with more harmony than anywhere else in the United States. In her words, Seaside shows how “sometimes . . . those [integration] policies worked,” mostly because of the experience of integration that troopers and army officers brought to their host community, but also because integration was formal military policy since the summer of 1948. The author also positions her book amidst an emerging corpus of studies of minority-majority communities, places where so-called minorities, added together, make up the absolute majority. In Seaside if happened during the 1970s (pp. 85, 118). The book can also be counted as part of a small but much-welcome corpus of case studies of military towns: McKibben credits other case studies of Colorado Springs, Columbia and Fayetteville SC, and New London CT, as showing that integration of the military influenced interracial relations in the towns next door to bases (pp. 80–81). Still, context mattered: Southern military towns remained segregated through the 1960s (p. 114), while the experience of integration in the military increased the potential for conflict between black soldiers and local whites. Meanwhile integration at Seaside followed the pace of formal desegregation statewide: “consistent with rather than in defiance of California Law.” (pp. 3–4) What matters most to McKibben, and to readers of urban and ethnic history, is the way interracial coalition-building functioned, if only in local politics, and if only as a “necessity,” given the high proportion of minority residents. That made local politics unusual, even for California, where, in general, “entrenched white elites” had to be challenged from without (p. 51). By the 1970s, the shapes and means of multiracial harmony had become a banner of Seaside politics and identity. McKibben notes the easier school integration, the number of churches (35 in 1980), and the initiative of residents of Filipino descent in 1970, which led to International Day, a community celebration of ethnic culture. In 1976, Seasiders elected their first black mayor, army veteran Oscar Lawson, while the first black majority on the city council was elected in 1982 (p. 195–6). Near page 190 the author lists an impressive number of events showing the vitality of interracial and inter-ethnic relations: for instance, the Monterey Bay Blues Fest created in 1986, and a federal lawsuit brought by Seaside leaders against racial jerrymandering by Monterey County authorities (pp. 192, 202–3). This is where the book is at its strongest: showing the construction of interracial coalition politics to address the pressing issues of the 1960s and 1970s. The author has done a terrific work of collecting firsthand testimonies from local leaders, most of them through interviews. As as result of this method, …