Q&A with Ralph Young, author of Dissent

youngHow did you come to write an entire book on the concept of dissent? 

Ralph Young: The idea came to me while I was compiling and editing Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation. This was a massive 800-page compilation of 400 years of dissenting speeches, sermons, petitions, songs, poems, polemics, etc. I let the voices of dissenters speak in this book and then I thought I should write my own narrative history of the United States from the standpoint of dissenters and protest movements. From the standpoint of those outsiders who sought more equality, more opportunity, more empowerment.

Can you succinctly define what dissent is—or perhaps it’s easier to say what dissent is not?

There are many ways to define dissent. And I go into this at great length in the introduction to the book. On the broadest level it’s going against the grain. Dissenting against what is. Whatever that is is.

The act of dissent covers a lot of ground ranging from intellectual skepticism to radical violence. Is there ‘good’ dissent and ‘bad’ dissent?

I believe there is. Dissent is dissent, regardless of the motives behind it. But for me dissent that seeks to empower the disempowered without infringing on anyone’s natural rights, that seeks to broaden rights rather than limiting rights is “good” dissent. Dissent that seeks to disempower other individuals or groups, that seeks to maintain white supremacy, or in other ways to limit the rights of others, is “bad” dissent. But ultimately I don’t like to use the words good dissent or bad dissent, because things have a way of working out in surprisingly unexpected ways.

What separates violent dissent from terrorism?

Violence is a somewhat mindless blind reaction against what is and resorting to violence reveals the frustration of those who have been fighting for a cause without success. Terrorism is on a different level. It is more strategic and is the ultimate weapon of groups that wish to destroy a government or a ruling paradigm and set up something entirely different. Violent dissent expresses frustration and is perhaps the last gasp of a group that still wants to reform the system. Terrorism is an attempt to utterly destroy the system.

Is dissent a uniquely American construct, sort of like jazz?

No, it is not uniquely American. Dissent has existed from time eternal and throughout the world. But it is a concept that Americans valued so much that we put it in our constitution as a right and we have been dissenting and refining dissent ever since. (In fact, dissent itself was one of the forces that brought about the creation of the United States, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights itself.)

The book you’ve written is in many ways an alternate history of America. How would you compare Dissent to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States?

I admire Zinn’s People’s History, but it is clearly a one-sided point of view. And while my book admittedly has a point of view, and any reader will know where I stand about the subject under discussion, I do try to give voice to those I don’t agree with. Also Zinn’s book looks at America through the prism of class, of class consciousness, of the age-old class struggle, while Dissent: The History of an American Idea looks at the scope of American history through the lens of dissent, which is a broader perspective. True, some dissent is a manifestation of the class struggle, but it is not limited to class. There are thousands of middle-class, even upper-class, dissenters. So dissent can be a manifestation of far more divergent points of view.

What would you say are some of the biggest triumphs of dissent in America and the biggest disappointments or failures?

Certainly the abolitionist, women’s, and civil rights movements achieved a great deal of success although at the time it seemed maddeningly slow to the participants. The movements that have protested income inequality, like Coxey’s Army and the recent Occupy movement have not achieved success, although they might simply have been the early rounds in an ongoing struggle. Some movements had a great deal of success, like the labor movement in the 1930s, but much of that success has been rolled back since the 1950s.

Have the active protest aspects of dissent such as rallies and marches permanently given way to more passive activities still such as legal action and armchair clicktivism (hitting a like button to support a cause) or are we just going through a phase?

I don’t think active protests and marches will ever come to an end. In some ways the Internet and social media have diminished attendance at protest rallies and marches, but in some ways social media has also increased attendance. I would say the jury is still out on the impact of social media on protest movements. Throughout history dissenters have always employed the latest technology to get out their message: radio, television, song, poetry, mass-printed sources like posters and flyers, etc.

Some would argue that modern dissent is less about life and death struggles and more of a lament against first world problems. Would you agree or disagree and why?

Dissent has never had to be about purely life and death struggles. In some cases, like with the abolitionist movement, yes. But in other cases it has primarily been about forcing the United States to live up to its part of the bargain. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution established highly idealistic principles that have not always applied to all people. Those who have felt left out of the “American Dream” have viewed these documents as a contract that the United States government must honor.

During the roughly 400-year history you examine in the book, many of the root causes of dissent—race, gender and economic inequality, religious differences, whether or not to fight wars and even police violence—are recurring themes. Does this repetition mean that we are not learning from history and are therefore doomed to repeat past mistakes?

Do we ever learn from history? There are lessons, to be sure, that history can teach us. But these issues are central to human nature. One of my favorite protest signs I saw recently was “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit!”

Does the passage of time make it easier to judge the motivational integrity and the results of dissent? In other words, is it easier to draw conclusions about the Revolutionary War than the Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party movements?

Yes. The Revolutionary War resulted in the foundation of the United States and so we can interpret and evaluate its motivational integrity far better than we can Occupy or Tea Party since these are still unfolding. The irony, though, is that interpretations of the past are fluid, they are still changing. Historians have analyzed and critiqued the motivations of the Founding Fathers ever since the creation of the United States. Were they motivated by truly democratic principles, or were they economic elites who created a Constitution that would protect the interests of economic elites? This is still a debatable interpretation.

By studying the past, might you be able to predict the future face of dissent or perhaps see the next wave of dissent in America on the horizon?

I’ve always viewed history as the study of the past, the present, and the future! History is organic. And we are part of that organism. We cannot actually predict the future, but we can see the patterns and come up with some reasonable expectations of what they might lead to.

Do you think it’s only a matter of time before some form of violent revolution revisits America or have we progressed beyond that in the 21st century?

I can’t see it happening in the near future, but I wouldn’t count out anything. It depends on how bad things get. If economic inequality continues to grow and fester, it’s like putting a cap on a volcano. Pressures will continue to build unless there is some effort at reform to act as a safety valve. Theodore Roosevelt always believed that reform is essential and that if the powers that be ignore reform they are stoking the fires of revolution.

What do you hope people will take away from reading Dissent?

That dissent is patriotic. It is one of the central attributes of being an American. And that no single individual can change the world, but if thousands, millions of individuals work together toward a goal, together they can make a difference. And making a difference in small incremental steps is the way we do change the world.

Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters.

Book giveaway: Dissent

Dissent (NYU Press, 2015)“Temple University historian Young delivers a doorstopper that few readers will ever want to misuse in such a manner; his clear and elegant style and a keen eye for good stories make it a page-turner…Young convincingly demonstrates that the history of the United States is inextricably linked to dissent and shows how ‘protest is one of the consummate expressions of Americanness.'”
STARRED Publishers Weekly

“A broad-ranging, evenhanded view of a tradition honed into an art form in America: the use of dissent as ‘a critique of governance’…Young has a knack for finding obscure but thoroughly revealing moments of history to illustrate his points; learning about Fries’ Rebellion and the Quasi-War with France is worth the price of admission alone, though his narrative offers much more besides…Refreshingly democratic—solid supplemental reading to the likes of Terkel and Alinsky, insistent on upholding the rights of political minorities even when they’re wrong.”
Kirkus Reviews

To celebrate the stellar reviews rolling in for our forthcoming book, Dissent: The History of an American Idea, we are giving away a free copy to two lucky winners!

Dissent: The History of an American Idea examines the key role dissent has played in shaping the United States. It focuses on those who, from colonial days to the present, dissented against the ruling paradigm of their time: from the Puritan Anne Hutchinson and Native American chief Powhatan in the seventeenth century, to the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the twenty-first century. The emphasis is on the way Americans, celebrated figures and anonymous ordinary citizens, responded to what they saw as the injustices that prevented them from fully experiencing their vision of America.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred e-mail address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, May 1st, 2015 at 1:00 pm EST.

Picture us free

—Jasmine Nichole Cobb

I have always been enamored by U.S. illustrations of black struggles for freedom. Typical depictions feature African descendants insisting on respect and white state officials denying privileges. Cross-generational portrayals mediate these conflicts by construing blackness as spectacularly distinct within U.S. race relations. Although the specific “rights” in question change over time, these characteristics appear in images from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. They are the stakes that underpin racist caricatures, early photography, and black screen cultures; in many ways, these themes define the pictorial history of the United States.

The year 2015 marks several watershed moments in the long arc of strivings for black freedom, including the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, as well as the 150th anniversary of the 13th amendment, ratified in 1865 to abolish the legal practice of slavery. On this continuum, 2015 will contribute its own pictures to the timeline of race in America, with illustrations of the first black president presiding over many important commemorations.

Last Saturday, March 7th, President Barack Obama gave a speech to memorialize the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. While his words were politically salient—charging congress to restore the Voting Rights Act—it is in pictures that the first black president marked an important contribution to the history of black people in the United States. Joined hand-in-hand with survivors of the civil rights struggle, the First Family stood on the frontline of a procession to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge—the site of Bloody Sunday. Captured on the verge of marching, the Obamas were camera ready, smiling, their sense of motion stilled for the photographic opportunity. Hand-in-hand with Senator John Lewis and foot soldier Amelia Boynton Robinson, the Obamas were at the forefront, with Martin Luther King III and Rev. Al Sharpton among those notable figures that receded into back rows of the image.

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Staged to reminisce on the marches to Montgomery, this illustration suggests the fulfillment of black citizenship by the existence of a black president. It honors the murder and violation of activists in 1965, but draws on the sober and respectable depictions of triumph taken from days like March 25th when Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and other activists safely arrived in the state capital. In living color, Obama implies the completion of black freedom struggles. Read against the precursor images—black-and-white photos of sixties activists marching forward, lips parted in song, tired, but convicted—the affirmation of black citizenship pictured in 2015 connects to illustrations that exclude contention.

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But like every attempt to picture freedom, threats against black life persist at the margins. While President Obama described the abuses of billy clubs and tear gas during the 1960s, he denied a connection to Ferguson, Missouri, where many of these tactics endure. While we were all invited to picture freedom through illustrations like Selma 2015, we were to look away from the mediation of murder, this time of Wisconsin teen, Tony Robinson.

I cannot deny the beauty of seeing a black president address civil rights activists at the site of transgression. I especially enjoy seeing the First Lady, her mother and growing daughters. But seeing the Obama family is different from viewing their existence as a representation of black freedom. National commemorations of the black freedom struggle, which ask us to hail the Commander-in-Chief as the fulfillment of our strivings, refuse the ways in which that struggle remains ever present. The tension between these motives animates every illustration of this kind.

The most popular depictions of free black people serve to bolster national narratives of U.S. race relations. In my book, Picture Freedom, I explore how people of African descent envisioned black autonomy in the context of slavery and among popular representations that were hostile to the idea of free black people. I consider complicated images that reveal the power and permanence of nineteenth century approaches to blackness. After them, I still enjoy pictures of black freedom, but now I wonder what they obscure.

Jasmine Nichole Cobb is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University and an American Fellow of the AAUW. She is the author of Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (NYU Press, 2015).

St. Patrick, St. Joseph and Irish-Italian harmony

—Paul Moses

[This post originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.]

Right after Valentine’s Day, the front window of my Brooklyn home sprouts a field of cardboard shamrocks each year. A statue of St. Patrick appears on the bookshelf and a sign is posted on the back door: “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.”

moses-comp-finalThis is the work of my Irish-American wife in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day. As the Italian-American husband, I have in past years suggested equal attention to St. Joseph, a favorite saint of Italians. Nothing doing.

The proximity of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 and the Feast of St. Joseph two days later leads to a good deal of teasing and ribbing every year between Catholics of Irish and Italian ancestry.

There is nothing extraordinary about this little bit of fun, unless one considers the bitterness that once marked relations between these two peoples. As impoverished Italians poured into New York and other major cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the already established Irish became their mentors and tormentors—more so the latter, at first.

Much of the rivalry concerned jobs: Italian laborers were willing to work for less pay and longer hours than the Irish, and sometimes they were used to break strikes. Fights were so common between crews of Irish and Italian construction workers that the Brooklyn Eagle headlined a 1894 editorial: “Can’t They Be Separated?”

This bitterness spilled over into the Catholic parishes where the two peoples mingled with their very different forms of practicing the same religion.

The Italians “are so despised for their filth and beggary that in New York the Irish granted them free use of the basement of the Church of Transfiguration, so that they could gather for their religious practices, since the Irish did not want to have them in the upstairs church,” a Vatican agency noted in an 1887 report that singled out an Irish parish on Mott Street in what is now Manhattan’s Chinatown for maltreatment of Italian immigrants.

The pastor of Transfiguration Church responded through an article his brother wrote in a Catholic journal that said the Italian immigrants didn’t know even elementary Catholic doctrines. Nor were they so concerned about having to hold services in the church basement, it added, because “the Italians as a body are not humiliated by humiliation.”

These were, in turn, fighting words for a prominent Italian priest who wrote to his bishop in Italy: “I have proofs at hand—it would make your blood boil—to see how Italian priests have been treated by American pastors.”

Such exchanges continued for decades, with Irish churchmen trying to cope with the “Italian problem” and Italians complaining angrily to their bishops and the Vatican.

The Italian brand of Catholicism—with processions and raucous street celebrations in honor of patron saints—didn’t sit well with Irish-American prelates. They knew their Protestant opponents looked down on these customs as pagan-like superstitions. Michael Corrigan, a son of Irish immigrants who served as New York’s archbishop in the late 19th century, tried to bar the processions. The Italians ignored him, and took note of the fact that the Irish celebrated their own feast on St. Patrick’s Day.

This battle within the Catholic Church was fought in many big-city parishes well into the 20th century. No Italian-American headed a diocese in New York state until 1968, when Francis J. Mugavero was appointed bishop of Brooklyn.

And yet, as a diverse group of marchers steps up Fifth Avenue led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in this year’s New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, it is worth noting that the Catholic parish played an important role in reconciling the Irish and Italians. In the years after World War II, people got to mingle and know each other in their parishes, especially in the suburbs and residential sections of the city.

Scholarly studies have shown that Italian-Americans who attended Catholic schools became more like the Irish in their practice of the Catholic faith.

As a result, as one 1960s study of New York Catholics found, Italian-Americans who went to Catholic schools and attended Mass regularly almost always wed spouses of Irish origin if they did not marry another Italian. That’s especially so for third-generation Italian-Americans, as I am on my mother’s side, a fact to which my Irish-American wife Maureen can attest.

In the early years of the 20th century, those who predicted large-scale Irish-Italian friendship and intermarriage were dismissed as impossibly optimistic. But the story of the Irish and Italians in America demonstrates that it is possible over time for serious divisions to be transformed into a matter of gentle teasing and ribbing between friends—if not husbands and wives.

Paul Moses teaches journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY. His book An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians will be published by NYU Press in July.

Book giveaway: Plucked

“Most of Earth’s mammals possess luxuriant fur. Only one seeks to remove it. Rebecca Herzig’s delightful history of hair removal in America helps explain why: smooth skin is a cultural imperative.”
The Economist

Plucked is an important work, not least because it is so very readable. What’s more, Herzig is angry, and anger is the first step towards social change. ‘Plucked,’ she writes, ‘is, first and foremost, a call to remember those excluded others: the staggering volumes of sweat and blood and imagination and fear expended to produce a single hairless chin.'”
Times Higher Education 

To celebrate the stellar reviews rolling in for our forthcoming book, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, we are giving away a free copy to two lucky winners!

In Plucked, historian Rebecca Herzig explores the long history of hair removal around the world, examining how Americans came to perceive body hair as a sign of political extremism, sexual deviance, or mental illness. Moving beyond the experiences of particular patients or clients, Herzig describes the surprising histories of race, science, industry, and medicine behind today’s hair-removing tools.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred e-mail address. We will randomly select our winners on Monday, March 2nd, 2015 at 1:00 pm EST.

Selma, on the long continuum of the freedom struggle

—Hasan Kwame Jeffries

[Note: This piece was inspired by the author’s remarks at a recent event honoring Dr. King’s birthday, hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.]

There is no right more fundamental in a democracy than the right to vote. But fifty years ago, in 1965, African Americans throughout the South were denied this most basic right.

In some places, like Selma, Alabama, a handful of African Americans could vote. But in many places, especially in rural areas, the exclusion of African Americans from the ballot box was absolute. In Lowndes County, Alabama, the county neighboring Selma, there were 5,122 African Americans of voting age in 1965, but not a single one was registered. And this kind of absolute exclusion was common throughout the Black Belt, those counties whose populations were overwhelmingly African American.

Dr. Martin Luther King understood how vitally important the ballot was.

Participants in the Selma to Montgomery March make their way in the rain along U.S. Route 80 in Lowndes County on March 23, 1965.
Photo: Associated Press.

That’s why, in 1965, he directed his energies, and the resources of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), toward drawing the nation’s attention to black disenfranchisement by dramatizing the exclusion of black people from the ballot box in Selma.

Speaking at the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, Dr. King said: “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength.”

The importance of the ballot was no new revelation to black people in 1965. One hundred years earlier, when the shackles of slavery were finally shattered, Frederick Douglass, the outspoken abolitionist, said:  “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” And for the next century, African Americans fought vigorously for the ballot, often losing their lives in the process.

So it is critically important to locate Selma on the long continuum of the African American struggle for freedom—which included, of course, not only fighting for the ballot, but also fighting for quality education, land ownership, fair wages, decent housing, and personal safety.

And, just as the continuum of the African American freedom struggle stretches backward in time, so, too, it stretches forward.

Today, fifty years after Selma, we find the voting rights of African Americans still under threat. Not the voting rights of all African Americans, as once was the case, but of just enough to make a difference in local, state, and federal elections. And not just in the South, but far beyond Dixieland. That’s what the wave of voter ID laws sweeping across the country is all about—restricting the franchise, rather than maintaining its integrity. And the US Supreme Court, of course, has cleared a path for these laws, especially in the worst offending states, by eliminating the requirement to submit proposed voting-law changes to the Justice Department for preclearance.

And the broader freedom struggle continues as well, including the struggle for personal safety. In Selma, Alabama, Governor George Wallace’s state troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse enforced state-sponsored racial terrorism. And today, in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Cleveland, Ohio, young people are fighting the legacy of police enforced state-sponsored racial terrorism.

And so, fifty years after Selma, the struggle for basic civil and human rights continues, because the denial of these basic rights continues. But there is some good news. Despite setbacks in the African American freedom struggle, this movement will never be defeated because truth, justice, and righteousness have always been and will continue to be on the side of the People. As Dr. King said at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.”

Hasan Kwame Jeffries is Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University, where he holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (NYU Press, 2010).

No scrubbing away America’s racist past

—Carl A. Zimring

Last week, @deray tweeted an image of a century old soap advertisement showing a young white boy using soap to wash the pigment off of a young African-American boy’s body. He captioned it “Ads. Bleaching. History. America.”

Had he wished to, @deray could have sent out dozens of such tweets, each with a different image. The tweeted image was but one of dozens printed between 1880 and 1915 displaying claims soaps could literally washed dark pigment off of skin. My forthcoming book, Clean and White, reproduces similar examples from Lautz Brothers, Kirkman and Sons, and Pearline. The latter featured an illustration of an African-American woman scrubbing a young child and exclaiming “Golly! I B’leve PEARLINE Make Dat Chile White.”

These racist caricatures focused primarily but not exclusively on African-Americans. Kirkman and Sons released an advertisement sometime after 1906 that referenced the year’s Pure Food and Drug Act. The ad showed three white women washing three wealthy Turkish men’s skin from brown to white. The accompanying poem tells the story of how the women were the Turkish men’s maids. They convinced the men to let them wash them with the soap, transforming their features to milky white. The story ended happily, with the now-white men marrying each of the maids. Cross-racial and cross-class lines were transcended, all through the miracle of a pure, cleansing soap.

Such a message was consistent with the trope that skin darker than white was somehow impure and dirty. Products boasting of absolute purity claimed to be so powerful that they could literally wash away the stain of race.

Why do these images matter as anything beyond century-old relics of America’s racist past? These images proliferated at a time when the rhetoric and imagery of hygiene became conflated with a racial order that made white people pure, and anyone who was not considered white was somehow dirty. The order extended from caricatures to labor markets. Analysis of census data indicates the work of handling waste (be it garbage, scrap metal, laundry, or domestic cleaning) was disproportionately done by people who were not native-born white Americans.

Through World War II, this involved work by African Americans and first- and second-generation immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Southern and Eastern Europe. In the second half of the twentieth century, the burdens of this dirty and dangerous work fell heavier on Hispanic and African-American workers, creating environmental inequalities that endure to this day. They are evident in the conditions that led to the Memphis’s sanitation workers strike in 1968, as well as the residents of Warren County, North Carolina laying down in the street to block bulldozers from developing a hazardous waste landfill in 1982. Environmental inequalities are evident still in environmental justice movements active across the United States in 2015.

Since the end of the Civil War, American sanitation systems, zoning boards, real estate practices, federal, state, and municipal governments, and makers and marketers of cleaning products have all worked with an understanding of hygiene that assumes “white people” are clean, and “nonwhite people” are less than clean. This assumption is fundamental to racist claims of white supremacy, a rhetoric that involves “race pollution,” white purity, and the dangers of nonwhite sexuality as miscegenation. It is also fundamental to broad social and environmental inequalities that emerged after the Civil War and that remain in place in the early twenty-first century. Learning the history of racist attitudes towards hygiene allows us to better understand the roots of present-day inequalities, for the attitudes that shaped those racist soap advertisements remain embedded in our culture.

Carl A. Zimring is Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies at Pratt Institute. He is the author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States from Monticello to Memphis (forthcoming from NYU Press).

Martin Luther King’s legacy: Recognition of past realities

—Arthur I. Cyr

[Note: This piece was originally published on the Deseret News.]

January 19, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, provides occasion for reflection as well as recognition. We honor his personal courage as well as political impact as catalyst for the civil rights revolution.

Initially, he was reluctant to lead beyond his local community, concerned as well as insightful in seeing the crusade might ultimately cost his life. Nonetheless, he took on the national effort, and persevered continuously until his assassination in the spring of 1968.

King’s leadership qualities were recognized while he was still young. Striking rhetorical skill was one key ingredient, cast in charismatic delivery. He was also often, though not always, a shrewd strategist.

To reflect usefully on King’s legacy, accurate understanding of his life is essential. Especially in the case of a murdered martyr, there is a natural tendency to idealize and therefore distort history. That is unfortunate for two reasons. First, oversimplifying complexity of human existence can easily diminish the person described. The leader seems less consequential as the internal personal as well as external battles that define courage are erased.

Second, oversimplifying past times limits our contemporary capacity to draw the most accurate and therefore best lessons for the future. Martin Luther King was not a saint; he was a great leader.

As political passions and social turmoil intensified during the 1960s, a once broadly unified civil rights effort became fractured. King preached unity, but confronted almost constant divisiveness. His Southern Christian Leadership Conference preached racial integration and nonviolence, but was increasingly overshadowed by various other organizations. The Congress of Racial Equality staked out much more militant ground. The separatist Black Panther Party, always a very small fringe group, nonetheless garnered enormous media attention through alarming rhetoric and occasional violence.

The fact that King endures from that era so sharply defined testifies to the value of both his message and his efforts. The ecumenical March on Washington in 1963 continues to be remembered because of the enormous scale of the pilgrimage, and also the timing. Immediately thereafter, President John F. Kennedy moved from caution to active support of major civil rights legislation.

As this implies, King’s efforts were part of a broad current of great change in American race relations. In 1955, Rosa Parks helped spark the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She and others built the foundation for King’s later efforts.

Fully making this point requires discussing noteworthy elected government leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, with vital help from Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen. Equally important today is President Harry S. Truman’s historic decision in 1948 to desegregate the armed forces.

Also in 1948, at the Democratic national convention, young Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey pressed to include civil rights in the party platform. Many advised Humphrey against this; he persevered successfully.

In the resulting maelstrom, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Southern delegates bolted the convention. They established the breakaway Dixiecrat Party, with Thurmond the presidential nominee, and won Deep South states in the fall election. Despite this, President Truman was re-elected.

This set the stage for King’s pivotal role. Without him our nation might have pursued a far worse course. His message is important to recall in evaluating current events and leaders, both elected and self-appointed.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of After the Cold War: American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (NYU Press, 2000).

Q&A with Andrew M. Schocket, author of Fighting over the Founders

In the interview below, author and historian Andrew M. Schocket discusses his longstanding love of history, the inspiration behind his new book, and his thoughts on the shifting legacy of the American Revolution.

We would also like to extend our thanks to the interviewer, graduate student Adam Crockett, for generously allowing us to publish the piece here.

Q: When did you become interested in history, and was it always American history?

Andrew M. Schocket: Even as an adolescent, I was interested in history. I was lucky to have wonderful American history teachers and a teacher of European history who was Russian. Russian history is the history of suffering and perseverance, the steppes and the winter, forbearance and, of course, the state and Mother Russia. By contrast, American history is the history of promises kept and broken, of liberty and power, of many groups figuring out where they fit in the grander dreams they have for themselves and the nation.

Is your particular area of expertise the era of the American Revolution?

It is, and I’m finally getting back to the American Revolution in my writing. It was what I went to graduate school to learn and write about, and still my greatest passion in history. My first book, on the origins of corporate power in the United States, was an exploration of how Americans in Philadelphia reorganized their polity and economy in the aftermath of the Revolution. I’m now working on several projects. Chief among them is a book about the scale of violence during the American Revolution, and how it was mostly resolved by the end of the eighteenth century. The violence and dislocation of the Revolution has been greatly downplayed. Admitting that, what I’m asking is, given that a majority of Americans were either neutral (“disaffected,” they called it) or loyalist, what led people to begin to recognize their new governments—local, state, and national—as legitimate?  Why did they start obeying the laws, serving on juries, paying their taxes? As with so many questions about the past, it’s also partly inspired by the present, as we look around the world and wonder how to restore some sense of order to the many countries suffering chaos. That said, it’s a question I’ve been thinking about on and off for close to twenty years.

Was the spark for this really a political flyer? How long have you been writing this book for?

Invoking a political flyer served was a good hook to my chapter about politics in Fighting over the Founders, because it’s something that so many of us has encountered.  But the book came out of some work I was doing around 2008, as I was writing a more theoretical piece on future directions of the scholarship on the American Revolution. Most historians in America are very unreflexive, that is, don’t think much about our own position in our scholarship, as we are taught to be, and especially most historians of the American Revolution. How could we, and the general public, understand the American Revolution without considering the lenses through which we view it?  So I began to look around at political culture and popular culture to see how we encounter the American Revolution, and the book grew from there.

Do you feel that American history is unique in that regard? Is America a land of “promises kept and broken”?

It is, perhaps to a greater extent than most countries, because American nationalism may have a stronger dose of idealism to it than most. Nationalism for most countries is bound up more centrally with ethnicity. To be sure, historically and even in the present day, many Americans have imbued American nationalism with ethnocentrism. Nonetheless, a nation that claims to be a “citie on a hill,” dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” whose sovereignty is vested in “we the people,” and that has a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is one that has many promises woven into its fabric.

Do you feel you’ll ever have an answer to that question, of what inspired
the “disaffected” to recognize the new government?

Maybe. Stay tuned. But even if I have an answer, as with the work of any historian, it won’t be the last word.

When did you settle on the terms “organicist” and “essentialist” for the
different political parties? Specifically, at what point did you recognize
the patterns in their respective discourses?

It was clear that there was a stark difference in the kinds of language that Republicans used versus what Democrats used.  It surprised me a little, in that I had expected that they would be pretty similar. The use of “essentialism” was pretty easy, as it’s a term already out there describing a similar mindset in other contexts.  “Organicism” was harder, and it’s not as perfect a fit, which is why I devoted some space to defining both of them and the history of the concepts.

It’s not exactly a historian’s job to predict the future, but then where’s
the fun without it? Given how you’ve said most of the landscape was
dominated by essentialists up until the 1970s, do you see organicism
eventually becoming the dominate view? If not, what do you see happening
farther down the road with regards to how the public sees the Revolution
the farther away from it we get?

As best I can tell, essentialism and organicism are both becoming entrenched, just in different ways than before. Popular and political culture are too vast for large elements of the national self-image to disappear; plus, in some ways these two threads represent deep fissures in American culture that show no signs of going away. We’ve been debating the American Revolution for over two hundred years. It will be fascinating to see how the debates will go concerning the next big milestone, the nation’s sestercentennial, or whatever we decide to call the nation’s 250th anniversary.

And finally, the most important question, what do you like to drink when
you’re writing?

Water neat, sometimes with a water chaser. Although apparently best practice suggests alcohol for creativity, and caffeine for productivity.

Andrew M. Schocket is Director of American Culture Studies and Associate Professor of History and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University (OH). He is the author of Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2015).

Book giveaway: Fighting over the Founders

To celebrate the stellar Publishers Weekly review that just came in for our forthcoming book, Fighting over the Founders, we are giving away a free copy to two lucky winners!

In Fighting over the Founders, Andrew M. Schocket explores how politicians, screenwriters, activists, biographers, jurists, museum professionals, and reenactors portray the American Revolution. Identifying competing “essentialist” and “organicist” interpretations of the American Revolution, Schocket shows how today’s memories of the American Revolution reveal Americans’ conflicted ideas about class, about race, and about gender—as well as the nature of history itself.

From Publishers Weekly:
“Schocket is an opinionated and sometimes cynical writer who makes his argument—which is that institutions and politicians use the founding fathers for commercial and political purposes—with direct and provocative examples. For example, he reveals his deep concern over American difficulties with race through a critique of the way in which politicians, biographers, and others ignore the founding fathers’ views on slavery (he considers these views the ‘greatest collective failure’ of the founding fathers’ generation). An entertaining feature of Schocket’s writing is the gusto with which he takes on those he feels have misconstrued American history for political gain or profit, all of whom he happily skewers. Schocket covers a lot of ground in an accessible and entertaining style, with many provocative opinions to engage readers.”

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred e-mail address. We will randomly select our winners on Monday, January 5th, 2015 at 1:00 pm EST.

Buzzed on research

—Andrew M. Schocket

Research can be boring, draining, sometimes physically or emotionally exhausting. For previous projects, I’ve logged weeks worth of time doing data entry, and have had students who have dealt with such topics as rape and infanticide, and the appearance of cannibalism (soon to be published with NYU Press!). Every once in a while, though, research can become a delightful adventure in ways one would not expect no more so than on a steamy afternoon in Philadelphia in 2011, much like the ones during the summer of ’76.

Americans want not only to see the founders’ houses and know what made them tick, but also to drink their beer. The desire for authenticity and appreciation for a connection with the past goes far beyond reenactors, public history professionals, historians, and movie makers, to walks of life one might not expect: since 2001, a Philadelphia microbrewery has been brewing beers based upon 18-century recipes. I was in Philly on a research trip anyway, and figured I should investigate. I visited Yards Brewing Company on a brutally hot afternoon, after walking all afternoon, and having had little to eat or drink since that morning. I was only too happy to sample Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale, General Washington’s Tavern Porter, and Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce in my research.

Yards Brewery has been trying to reproduce as best they can the taste of several Revolutionary-era brews. It began when Walter Staib, the chef and owner of Philadelphia’s City Tavern, asked Yards for an authentic eighteenth-century ale for his restaurant. These beers became an artisanal labor of love, as one brewer there, Franklin Winslow, told me. Reproducing 18th-century tastes with contemporary equipment further raises the degree of difficulty. He and others have researched the original recipes, but even the most detailed of them are vague, and of course Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson experimented by varying the proportion of ingredients and the brewing process. Some ingredients available to eighteenth-century American brewers aren’t easily obtainable today, and those that can be gotten are often different varieties, grown under different conditions. Yards produces greater quantities than did Franklin or Jefferson and bottle or keg it in modern fashion, under modern safety regulations. But Winslow gets a thrill from bringing beers back to life drunk by regular folk and the famous founders. Through his work, he also makes a connection with Franklin or Jefferson as people, as craftsmen, as brewers, as beer-drinkers, as humans. And he finds that human connection inspiring: he was tickled to have sent a letter to his parents about his work, post-marked from the Benjamin Franklin post office in Philadelphia, and how he had later talked to them on the phone about it. This is a deeply emotional connection that transcends the political cant that often surrounds invocations of the American Revolution.

Winslow was happy to talk, and I was happy to listen. Every few minutes, it seemed, he’d say, “Here’s something to try!,” or, “Have a sip of this brew we’ve just made,” reach around the bar, and pour a few ounces of a different variety in my glass. After a while, as I paid attention to him as best I could, it suddenly hit me, a research revelation: I was definitely a little buzzed. Now this was the way to do research!

As I wrote my book, my account of my happy afternoon at Yards Brewery first appeared in the chapter on public history, then got moved in with the reenactors, and finally—just like my paragraphs on City Tavern and on Staib’s cooking show—just didn’t fit in the flow of either, so it got cut. Still, it might have been the best hour of research I ever spent.

Andrew M. Schocket is Director of American Culture Studies and Associate Professor of History and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University (OH). He is the author of Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2015). 

[Note: This post originally appeared on the author’s website.]

Nation of newcomers

—Peter G. Vellon

A recent letter to the editor published in the New York Daily News expressed its disappointment that television commenters covering the Columbus Day Parade used the words “illegal” and “legal” to differentiate contemporary immigrants from earlier, Italian, arrivals. Why do so many Americans feel compelled to make such a distinction, especially since the term “illegal” is so problematic and inaccurate? Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in political manipulation meant to encourage an association between immigrants and criminality. However, the desire to differentiate “legal” from “illegal” may be deeply rooted within the history of immigration and race in the United States.

Here’s what we know. The majority of immigrants in the United States have permission to be here. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Rights Center, undocumented immigrants comprise a small proportion of contemporary immigration. Of those who are here without documents, a large portion roughly 45% entered country legally, only to have their visas expire.

We also know that many of the same critiques hurled at today’s immigrants, especially those described as “illegal,” are almost identical to those faced by southern Italians 100 years ago. Prone to criminality? Check. Lack of desire in becoming American citizens? Check. Siphoning tax dollars and jobs away from Americans? Check. Sending their earnings money back to their country of origin? Check. Given this historical context, it is ironic that many Americans today think of the Ellis Island era with nostalgia and perceive it as quintessentially American.

Other charges questioning immigrant’s willingness to assimilate are similarly off base. In fact, the insatiable demand for English language classes throughout the country contradict allegations of immigrant nonchalance in learning English. More familiar charges portraying a country overrun by undocumented immigrants, or that undocumented immigrants increase crime, similarly fall flat against closer analysis. Once again, the only accurate aspect of the charges is how strikingly similar they are to ones leveled against Italians in the early 20th century.

During this period, anti-immigration crusaders primarily targeted Italian and Jewish newcomers. Defined as a different, and inferior, race to northern and western European stocks (“old” immigrants), southern Italians and eastern European Jewish immigrants (“new” immigrants) remained consistently dogged by assumptions about their inherent “un-Americanness.” Assisted by a relatively open immigration policy in place since 1792, Italians could enter the country relatively unrestricted, and therefore avoided some of the barriers that immigrants confront today. However, this did not stop some immigrants from forging documents such as health certificates, or stowing away on steamships.

Today long waitlists for visas often create an almost impossible situation for family members and children who seek to reunite with those living in the United States. Who is to say how prospective immigrants a century ago would have responded if these laws had been in place from 1880 through 1920? Would folks have patiently accepted wait times of up to 20 years for “legal” entry?

Much of the need to distinguish between “legal” and “illegal” immigration lies in how people assign meaning to those terms. According to Department of Homeland Security statistics, undocumented Mexican immigrants in 2011 numbered approximately 6.8 million, and comprised 59% of the undocumented population in total.  To many people in the United States, the term “illegal immigrant” has become reflexively interchangeable with “Mexican,” or any immigrant from Latin or Central America. No doubt, the fact that Mexico is the leading source of “unauthorized” immigration, rather than, say, Ireland, has much to do with the tenor of the immigration debate. Indeed, as Matthew Jacobson pointed out in his book, Roots Too, illegality never became a major issue when in the 1980s and 1990s an influx of Irish immigrants, many of whom overstayed their visas, hence becoming “illegal,” entered the country. In fact, quite the opposite occurred, and Irish “illegal” aliens never became a source of nationwide concern. Categories of race and whiteness proved fundamental in constructing the difference between “old” and “new” immigrants 100 years ago, and remain a primary element in the debate over legal versus illegal today.

Given that we are a nation of immigrants and celebrated as such, why is there not more understanding for many of today’s immigrants seeking similar paths as those who came before them? It’s possible that for the descendants of those questionable European immigrants who came through Ellis Island, their own family’s problematic status may be an uncomfortable reminder of a more contentious, less linear path toward assimilation. Now, fully socialized within the American racial system, it is easier to construct an “illegal other” rather than face the uncomfortable questions about how our society constructs Americanness, race, and whiteness. The assignation of criminal status to today’s new immigrants serves as a perfect balm. Unwilling to acknowledge the obvious commonalities between immigrants today and those from 100 years ago, “legal” versus “illegal” becomes a useful, and in the minds of many, justifiable delineation that their forebears did it the right way.

Similar to the debate over “old” and “new” immigrants a century ago, is it possible that much of the “illegal” immigration debate revolves around racially informed perceptions of what America should look like? However, whether fleeing economic, political, or social despair, just as those who came before them, the overwhelming majority of immigrants arriving today want a better life for themselves and their children. When viewed through that lens, what could be more American?

Peter G. Vellon is Associate Professor of History at Queens College, and the author of A Great Conspiracy against Our Race: Italian Immigrant Newspapers and the Construction of Whiteness in the Early 20th Century (NYU Press, 2014).