Constitution Day: 5 books to read now

September 17th is Constitution Day – a federally recognized day to celebrate and teach about the United States Constitution. But what are the proper “texts” for this day of teaching?

To start, we’ve selected a short list of recent NYU Press books we think every citizen should read this year. But, there are certainly others. What’s on your list? Let us know in the comments section!

5 books for Constitution Day

Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson

Jury duty is constitutional duty—and a core responsibility of citizenship! The first book written for jurors, Why Jury Duty Matters provides readers with an understanding of the constitutional value of jury duty. (Also, be sure to read the author’s excellent piece in The Atlantic on ways to the make the Constitution relevant to our daily lives.)

 

The Embattled Constitution
Edited by Norman Dorsen, with Catharine DeJulio

The book presents a collection of the James Madison lectures delivered at the NYU School of Law. The result is a fascinating look into the minds of the judges who interpret, apply, and give meaning to our “embattled Constitution.”

 

America’s Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment by Gerard N. Magliocca

This book sheds light on John Bingham, the father of the Fourteenth Amendment, who helped put a guarantee of fundamental rights and equality to all Americans into the U.S. Constitution.

 

Government by DissentProtest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought in the Early American Republic by Robert W.T. Martin

Democracy is the rule of the people. But what exactly does it mean for a people to rule? The American political radicals of the 1790s understood, articulated, and defended the crucial necessity of dissent to democracy. This is their story.

 

Bonds of Citizenship: Law and the Labors of Emancipation by Hoang Gia Phan

In this study of literature and law from the Constitutional founding through the Civil War, Hoang Gia Phan demonstrates how citizenship and civic culture were transformed by antebellum debates over slavery, free labor, and national Union.


The secret history of gay marriage

Excerpted from As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America by Karen M. Dunak.

On October 10, 1987, nearly 7,000 people witnessed a wedding on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Men and women cheered and threw rice and confetti as family, friends, and community members took part in the largest mass wedding in American history. After the celebrants exchanged rings and were pronounced newlywed, guests released hundreds of balloons into the air. Brides and grooms, dressed in formal wedding attire, cried and embraced after an “emotional and festive” ceremony. Like so many brides and grooms, participants identified the wedding day as one of the happiest, most meaningful days of their lives.

But this was no ordinary wedding. And these were not typical brides and grooms. This wedding held special significance for its participants. Beyond the “mass” nature of the celebration, something else was unique. The newlyweds that fall Saturday paired off as brides and brides, grooms and grooms. “The Wedding,” as it came to be known, marked the symbolic beginning of nearly 2,000 same-sex marriages. Rejecting the idea that a wedding—and by implication, a marriage—should have one male and one female participant, the grooms and their grooms, the brides and their brides presented a striking picture.A wedding, a fairly conventional affair, became a site of radical protest. Layered in meaning, “The Wedding” celebrated the personal commitments of those being wed. At the same time, it was a direct political act that challenged the legal, religious, and social barriers against same-sex relationships. Like couples before them, gay men and lesbians found they could use their weddings to make a statement about the world and the place of their relationship in it.

Designed to reflect an alternative approach to love and marriage, “The Wedding,” part of the 1987 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, rejected the narrow definition of marriage that limited the relationship to members of the opposite sex. “The Wedding” likewise rejected a narrow view of the standard wedding celebration. Dina Bachelor, metaphysical minister, hypnotherapist, and “Wedding” officiant, designed a new-age style ceremony. Bachelor recognized the uniqueness of the celebration and chose her words and actions carefully. Standing under a swaying arch of silver, white, and black balloons, Bachelor omitted any mention of the customary “honor and obey, till death do us part.” Including observers in the celebration, she asked witnesses to join hands and encircle the celebrants. For participants, “The Wedding” was not about fitting into a pre-arranged style. Instead, it was about expanding the celebration to include various approaches to marriage and family. Like alternative wedding celebrants of the 1960s and 1970s, same-sex partners recognized the flexibility of the wedding and used the celebration to express their views about life and love. Bachelor likewise noted the celebration’s significance and concluded the event by stating, “It matters not who we love, only that we love.”

Gay community leaders emphasized the political component of the celebration. Drawing on the activist view that the personal was political, the public pronouncement and celebration of a long-ridiculed personal lifestyle served as the ultimate political statement.Those present rejected the shame associated with their relationships and proved that many same-sex couples shared long-term, committed relationships. Courageously displaying their individual love and their membership in a community of likeminded gay men and lesbians, “Wedding” participants did not demand a social inclusion marked by assimilation or guarded emotions. Rather, they demanded full acceptance of their lifestyle and relationship choices. Reverend Troy Perry, a minister evicted from the Pentecostal Church of God for his own homosexuality and founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, spoke to this desire for openness and acceptance as he rallied his congregants with a shout of “Out of the closets and into the chapels!”

Hosting “The Wedding” in front of the Internal Revenue Service’s building was a symbolic choice meant to protest the tax office’s refusal to accept taxes jointly filed by same-sex couples. As activist Sue Hyde recalled, couples participated in “The Wedding” “both to protest discrimination against them and to celebrate their love and commitment to each other.” Challenging conventional views of family and marriage, groom and “Wedding” organizer Carey Junkin of Los Angeles echoed “The Wedding’s” official slogan when he said, “Love makes a family, nothing else.” Adding his own sentiment, he stated, “We won’t go back.” Marriages celebrated that day held no legal standing, but that did not diminish the emotional impact of the event. The community of couples who wed accomplished their political objective by making their private relationships part of the political discourse. The very public, very political event demanded recognition of the legitimacy of the relationship between two brides or two grooms.

As for “The Wedding” participants (composed of more male than female couples, suggesting an ongoing discomfort with weddings and marriage among politically active feminists), they expressed warm praise for the celebration, as well as a sense of anger that any members of the gay or lesbian community would criticize their decision to wed. Dressed in suits, tuxedos, and wedding gowns, albeit with little regard for normative notions of gender, the celebrants saw the day as an important turning point in their lives and relationships. Despite their unorthodox appearances, many participants noted that they would have been comfortable with an even more “traditional” ceremony. The only registered disappointment pertained to the desire that the ceremony might have been more explicit in regard to monogamy or couples’ exclusivity. The mass “Wedding” was not intended to replicate heterosexual marital relationships or wedding celebrations, but the importance given the celebration and the desire for expression of personal preference—be it for a more or even less traditional form than the ceremony before the IRS—hinted at possible similarities between same-sex weddings and their opposite-sex counterparts.

While “The Wedding” looked unlike the individual white weddings celebrated by heterosexual couples, the event incorporated familiar elements of the wedding ceremony. Most participants wore some sort of special dress; an authority figured presided over the celebration; and guests bore witness to the event. The relationships may have seemed atypical or strange in the eyes of the mainstream observer, but there could be no question as to what had transpired that October day. The familiarity of the wedding served as a valuable political tool even as it fulfilled the personal desires of same-sex couples who wished to share their lives together. For a population who had the option— admittedly the very unpleasant option—of invisibility, the choice to make public the intimacies of private life was a political statement in and of itself.

Same-sex weddings transcended the “difference vs. accommodation” debates often raised in subcultural groups and hotly contested within the queer community.8 In the years following the celebration of “The Wedding,” gay men and lesbians expressed a blend of intentions and motivations with their celebrations. The flexibility of the wedding, continually tested by the heterosexual marrying population in the decades since World War II, likewise served the personal as well as the political objectives of queer couples. Moving from the mass to the individual, weddings legitimated and celebrated relationships that had long been deemed wrong or strange and had thus been cloaked in secrecy. Such celebrations allowed men and women to celebrate their private lives in a public style and with the sanction of chosen and accepting family and community members. By publicly celebrating their relationships, queers challenged a political system that refused to recognize their right to wed.

Like the weddings of those before them, the white weddings hosted by same-sex couples in the 1990s and in the early years of the new century seemingly adhered to a standardized form of celebration. The similarity between opposite-sex and same-sex events, of course, was noticeable in the continued reliance on a wedding industry and adherence to wedding norms: formal dress, recitation of vows, and elaborate receptions. On the surface, this suggested a kind of queer accommodation to the standard form. Even though a gay couple might purchase a cake topper that featured two grooms, the couple still purchased a cake topper. The prerequisites of a wedding had tremendous staying power. But same-sex couples shaped their weddings in ways specific to their relationships and cultural identifications. Ceremonial alteration and amendment, whether slight or pronounced, reflected the beliefs and desires of same-sex couples.

Queer couples, like other brides and grooms, negotiated tensions created by family, cost, and the overall wedding planning procedure. Unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex brides and grooms challenged existing authority in the very act of celebrating a wedding. Couples celebrated the communities from which they came, to which they currently belonged, and those they created, if only for their weddings. They exerted individual authority over their ceremonies not only in their selection of music, dress, and wedding style, but also in their very direct rejection of a legal system that denied them access to the rights and privileges of marriage. They publicly celebrated relationships long denied public recognition. Weddings could be and could say whatever the celebrating couples wished. As various states began to recognize same-sex marriages, acceptance of same-sex unions extended even beyond the queer community. Weddings both affirmed the political victory achieved by those who had long advocated on behalf of equal rights and marked the triumph of personalization in American wedding culture.

Read the rest of this entry at Salon.com.

Voices of women in the March on Washington

—Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin

The 1963 March on Washington will go down in history as one of the greatest events in the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality in history. A riveting event, which captured the attention of the world and inspired oppressed people throughout the world, its focus was civil rights and jobs for black Americans Black women were heavily involved in the movement as participants, organizational leaders, and workers. Yet, they were excluded from the official list of speakers.

As recounted by Dorothy I. Height in Sisters in the Struggle, they asked Dr. Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph and other male leaders, whether or not there would be a woman speaker. Finally they were referred to Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the event. Height said,

I went along with Anna Arnold Hedgeman, a woman with a long history of working for freedom and equality, to meet with Bayard Rustin. We discussed the women’s participating in the March. We were amazed to hear the response, “Women are included.” Rustin asserted that, “Every group has women in it, labor, church,” and so on… There was an all-consuming focus on race. We women were expected to put all our energies into it. Clearly, there was a low tolerance level for anyone raising the questions about the women’s participation, per se.

And, so women were shunted aside. According to Height, “To address the issue the organizers gave a number of us prominent seats on the platform.” The organizers also created a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” in the program where many women such as Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker, Daisy Bates, Diane Nash, Gloria Richardson, and Myrlie Evers were listed.  During the tribute women were allowed to make comments.  But – there were no official women speakers.

On November 14, 1963, at the National Council of Negro Women’s Leadership Conference to assess the status of the movement and to chart the next steps, Pauli Murray, a noted scholar, educator, and activist captured the feeling of black women about their exclusion from direct participation in the March on Washington, as well as their treatment in the overall movement. Her speech was widely publicized in the black press and elicited a great deal of discussion. Murray traced the history of black women and their struggle for equality from slavery to freedom, noting the similarities and difference s in their status from that of white women. She noted that in their quest for equality, black women had been willing to overlook gender discrimination in order to gain racial equality.

This is a history that should be read by all Americans.  As we celebrate this 50th anniversary, we must never forget the central role women played in the battle for racial equality.

Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin are editors of Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement (NYU Press, 2001). Bettye Collier-Thomas is a Professor of History at Temple University. V. P. Franklin is Distinguished Professor of History and Education at the University of California, Riverside, and editor of the Journal of African American History.

“What We Demand:” March on Washington, 50 years later

—Hasan Kwame Jeffries

The March on Washington had a very specific purpose – to present President Kennedy and Congress with a list of demands designed to secure basic civil and human rights for African Americans. The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, therefore, should not only be a time for sharing snippets of Dr. King’s most famous speech, but also an occasion to look back at the marchers’ demands. Assessing which demands have been met and which have yet to be met will provide a much more accurate picture of how far the nation has come in terms of providing equal opportunity for African Americans than all of the well–meaning recollections and recitations of “I Have A Dream” put together.

Leading the marchers’ list of demands was a call for meaningful civil rights laws. At the time, federal civil rights measures lacked teeth. Prosecutorial power was limited and punishments for racial discrimination were light, if they existed at all. In 1964, major civil rights legislation was passed in the form of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But many complained that it too lacked teeth, and were especially bothered by the absence of provisions to prosecute those who attacked civil rights workers. Today, it remains extremely difficult to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes where racial bias and discrimination were clearly at play. The failure to convict the murderer of young Trayvon Martin underscores the point.

The marchers’ demanded a massive federal work program. The economy was sputtering and hit African Americans especially hard. It was hoped that a New Deal-like jobs program would see the nation—and African Americans—through the downturn. But the federal government never invested in another work program. In fact, during subsequent economic downturns, including the Great Recession of recent years, it established a pattern of propping up large corporations and firing and laying off government employees, rather than expanding employment opportunities to the unemployed and underemployed.

Along with the demand for a massive federal work program, the marchers called for full and fair employment. African Americans were always the last hired and first fired. The only way to break this cycle was to insist on full employment for everyone. Fifty years after the march, America hasn’t come close to full or fair employment. Worse, a large percentage of the nation’s workforce, and disproportionately high numbers of black workers, don’t even earn a livable wage. Meanwhile, debate rages in Congress about nickel and dime increases to the minimum wage.

A major issue for the marchers was decent housing. African Americans across the country were routinely discriminated against when it came to housing, forcing many to live in overpriced, overcrowded dwellings in segregated neighborhoods. Little has changed over the years. In fact, patterns of residential segregation have increased as suburbs have spread and gentrification has reclaimed select urban spaces as exclusive white spaces. And the recent collapse of the housing market has exposed the ongoing vulnerability of black middle class homeowners to discriminatory lending practices.

The right to vote was also a central concern for the marchers. No constitutional right is more fundamental than the vote, yet black southerners continued to be excluded from the ballot box. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, providing new protections for black voters. But in the new millennium, a wave of state voter ID laws, combined with the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of a key element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, have put the vote of tens of thousands of African Americans at severe risk.

The marchers’ final demand was adequate integrated education. Nearly a decade after Brown, segregated schools remained the norm in the South and white southerners remained as determined as ever to keep it that way. And half a century later, a race-based dual education system persists. In much of the South, black children attend public schools and white children attend private white Christian academies. In most metropolitan areas with large black populations, the divide is between urban and suburban school districts.

A lot has changed since the March on Washington, and it is wonderful that so many people are taking the time to recognize this historic event. But the sobering reality is that half a century after the march, the marchers’ demands remain largely unmet.

Fifty years from now, at the centennial of the march, I hope these demands will have been fulfilled. But given the slow pace of progress, and the determination of reactionaries to roll back the clock, I’m much less hopeful than I was just a few years ago.

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).

The men behind the March: Randolph and Rustin together again

Bayard Rustin (right) with A. Phillip Randolph on the cover of Life magazine, September 6, 1963—Cynthia Taylor

With the 50th anniversary of the1963 March on Washington demonstration in the media’s spotlight, and especially of its heavy emphasis on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, this light has also shined on the real strategic planners and originators of the actual 1963 March: A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Together, Randolph and Rustin made an indefatigable team of seasoned civil rights activists that enabled Dr. King’s now famous speech to be remembered so vividly fifty years later.

Through the media attention on this anniversary, it has been gratifying to once again see the cover of Life magazine (September 6, 1963) with Randolph and Rustin standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. At the time of the March, most Americans had viewed these two men as the real stars of the occasion. The 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom was actually the realization of their long-time “dream” to have a dramatic and peaceful demonstration that emphasized the need of all black Americans for economic opportunities and jobs, as well as the more elusive ideal of freedom.

At the time of Randolph’s death in 1979, Rustin described his relationship with Randolph in a variety of ways: father, uncle, adviser, and defender. Yet, Randolph’s and Rustin’s civil rights collaboration got off to a shaky start. As a leader in the youth division of the original March on Washington Movement, Rustin publicly criticized Randolph for calling off the first march scheduled for July 1, 1941. After the war, in 1948, Randolph and Rustin worked together again on a civil disobedience league called the “Committee to End ‘Jim Crow” in the Armed Services.”

When Randolph disbanded the league after President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which eventually led to the desegregation of the services, Rustin recalled how “a number of ‘Young Turks’ and I decided to outflank Mr. Randolph,” denouncing him in the black press as “an Uncle Tom, a sellout, a reactionary, and an old fogey out of touch with the times.” Afraid that Randolph would not forgive his “treachery,” Rustin avoided Randolph for two years. When Rustin finally mustered the courage to visit Randolph in his New York office, he described the renewal of their friendship in this way:

As I was ushered in, there he was, distinguished and dapper as ever, with arms outstretched, waiting to greet me, the way he had done a decade ago.  Motioning me to sit down with that same sweep of his arm, he looked at me, and in a calm, even voice, said: ‘Bayard, where have you been? You know that I have needed you.’

From then on, Randolph and Rustin worked together as the key architects of the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1953, after an incident in Pasadena California when Rustin, an openly gay man, was busted on a morals charge of sexual misconduct, Randolph stood by him and without his friendship, support and considerable influence, Rustin might have been completely ostracized from the civil rights community. Randolph declared “if the fact is, he is homosexual, maybe we need more of them; he’s so talented.”

In 1956, Randolph and Rustin, along with Ella Baker and Stanley Levison, formed an organization called “In Friendship,” a fundraising group committed to providing “economic aid to victims of race terror in the South,” especially for supporters of the Montgomery bus boycott.  The group agreed that Rustin, with his extensive experience in nonviolent techniques, could best evaluate the situation in the early days of the boycott. In his brief time there, Rustin worked effectively with the young and inexperienced boycott leader, Martin Luther King. Behind the scenes, Rustin advised Dr. King with his speeches and sat in on many of the boycott’s strategy meetings. Both Randolph and Rustin threw their considerable influence behind King’s emergent leadership of the newest phase of civil rights activity, as Rustin believed “from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, for the next two years following to May 1957, [the three year anniversary of the Brown decision] the center of gravity and the center of activity for the whole civil rights movement was the church people and ministers of the south.”

Between 1957 and 1963, this newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), joined forces with the NAACP, and various labor and working-class groups linked to A. Philip Randolph and other labor leaders to make civil rights history, culminating in the spectacular success of the peaceful August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

By 1963, A. Philip Randolph was nearing the end of his long years of labor and civil rights activism. In his final tribute to Randolph, Rustin remembered their historic collaboration of that day in the following way:

As the assembly slowly dispersed from the Lincoln Memorial, Rustin saw the tired ‘old gentleman’ standing alone on the podium, looking out on the departing crowds.  As Rustin walked up to Randolph, he was surprised to find ‘tears streaming down his cheeks’ the first time he had even seen Randolph show his emotions.  Indeed, Randolph was so overcome with the power of that one-day event, in which the black community and the white liberal community came together in their demand for equal treatment under the law, that he ‘could not hold back his feelings.’

How great that the 50th anniversary of the March has brought two forgotten heroes behind the movement, back into public memory.

Cynthia Taylor teaches American history and religion in the school of Art, Humanities and Social Sciences at Dominican University of California. She is the author of A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader (NYU Press, 2005).

March on Washington at 50 years: The struggle continues

—Akinyele Omowale Umoja

Fifty years ago, the United States was at a crossroads. The daughters and sons of enslaved Africans found themselves as “second-class citizens” in the land of their birth. African descendants were denied the right to vote and access to public institutions in many states, particularly in the South, where over half of the Black population was located. The ideology of white supremacy was institutionalized, as an apartheid order reinforced by racial violence and terror existed in most of the South. It was common for Black women to be raped and sexually harassed by white men with no hope of justice within the criminal justice system. Federal, state, or local officials did not significantly investigate or prosecute the assassinations of key opponents of racial injustice, such as Medgar Evers and George Lee in Mississippi.

In response to the U.S. apartheid system and white supremacist violence, tens of thousands of African descendants and their allies mobilized to challenge the system of oppression. A mighty insurgent movement emerged against segregation and for civil and human rights in local communities throughout the South. Friends and allies worked in solidarity with this movement inside the U.S. and internationally. This was the context of the 1963 March on Washington.

It must be noted that the Kennedy Administration and elements of the liberal coalition (trade union aristocracy, Protestant and Catholic hierarchies, and foundations linked to the Democratic Party) co-opted the March and subverted grassroots, radical, and insurgent voices of the Black Freedom Movement. The speech of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its chairman John Lewis (now Congressman from Georgia) was censored and changed by March organizers to suppress SNCC’s critique of the federal government’s lack of protection and intervention on behalf of voting rights workers in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Conservative and moderate Black leadership cooperated with this silencing of grassroots Black voices. The suppression of grassroots voices at the March is why Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X labeled the 1963 event, “The Farce on Washington.”

Today, fifty years after the 1963 March, the struggle for democracy and human rights for African descendants born in the U.S. is not complete. While tremendous sacrifices have been made and reforms secured, Black life in the U.S. is still challenged and not valued in the society. The killing of Trayvon Martin and the recent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, is only the tip of the iceberg. A study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement released this year documents 313 Blacks were killed by police or security guards in the U.S. in 2012. 313 killings? That’s one every 28 hours!

Black oppression can also be demonstrated in the educational achievement gap and in the disproportionate rate of housing foreclosures in working class and privileged African-American neighborhoods. The recent U.S. Supreme Court compromising of the Voting Rights Act and subsequent initiatives to neutralize Black and Latino voting potential also exemplify continued efforts by elites and the beneficiaries of the U.S. origins as a white settler colony based on racial slavery to stop empowerment and self-determination of communities of color.

A new movement is emerging to oppose contemporary challenges to human rights, Black empowerment, and disrespect of Black life. The outrage from Black communities nationally in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict demonstrates potential resistance to the disregard for Black humanity. Nationally, grassroots activists have opposed foreclosures against banks that engaged in unethical policies to profit off the misery of working people, and particularly Black folks in the U.S. The recent court decision declaring New York’s “Stop and Frisk” policy unconstitutional comes in response to the grassroots campaigns to challenge it.

One important recent victory is the 2013 election of human rights attorney and activist Chokwe Lumumba to Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, the state’s largest city and capital. Jackson’s 80% Black population is the second highest percentage in the U.S. In the city’s runoff, Lumumba defeated an opponent who with conservative white and corporate support out-financed him three to one. As a candidate for City Council in 2009, a People’s Assembly in his ward created Lumumba’s campaign platform. The People’s Assembly was composed of citizens from his ward with no restrictions. The People’s Assembly continued to operate after Lumumba’s election to City Council advising him on policy and initiating efforts on economic development, education, and community safety in their district. Lumumba promises the expansion of the People’s Assembly concept citywide with his election to Mayor. The People’s Assembly offers a new model of progressive and Black politics and a vehicle to include grassroots participation.

To complete the effort for human rights, democracy, and Black self-determination, the abovementioned effort must be built on. We must recognize these and other grassroots efforts in our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. History will judge our inclusion or ignoring of grassroots voices for social justice.

Akinyele Omowale Umoja is an educator and scholar-activist. He is an associate professor and chair of the department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, and author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).

Congress must act to protect our most basic right

—F. Michael Higginbotham

The recent Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, invalidating the “pre-clearance” formula of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), requiring states with a history of race discrimination in voting to secure federal approval prior to changing election practices, provides an opportunity for Congress to strengthen protection of minority voting rights. While discriminatory methods today are far from the lynch mobs and grandfather clauses that stopped blacks from voting during Jim Crow, the end result of voter suppression and dilution remains largely the same. Congress should act quickly and decisively on this core American principle in order to ensure minority participation in the democratic process.

Ernest Montgomery knows all too well the value of federal supervision in protecting minority voting rights. Prior to elections in 2008, the City of Calera, in Shelby County, Alabama, redrew jurisdictional boundaries. This process eliminated the City Council’s only majority-black district by adding several white subdivisions adjacent to Calera while refusing to incorporate a black area located nearby. The lone majority-black district was reduced from 70 to 30 percent black, resulting in the election loss of Montgomery, the only black city councilperson. The Justice Department would not approve the redistricting plan and, after extensive negotiations, Calera adopted a more inclusive at-large election system, one that prevented whites from controlling 100 percent of the six positions on the city council and that resulted in Montgomery receiving the most votes of all council candidates.

The Section 4 “pre-clearance” formula invalidated in the recent Shelby County decision is the same provision relied upon by the Justice Department to protect Councilman Montgomery from discriminatory treatment. Section 4 mandates that 15 states, including Alabama, or portions thereof, with a history of discriminatory voting laws get prior approval by the Department of Justice or a federal court for any changes to their election practices. In striking down Section 4, which had been overwhelmingly reauthorized by Congress for another 25 years in 2006, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, indicated that the formula must be “justified by current needs”.

Certainly much progress has been made since 1965 when the VRA was passed. Thousands of discriminatory proposed voting changes have been prevented since the law’s inception. Black registration rates equal that of whites in some states. Yet today, racially-polarized voting patterns, the practice of reducing minority participation for partisan advantage in many parts of the nation, with blatant racism in others, suggest a continued need for an updated pre-clearance formula.

In 2001, the white mayor and all white city council in Kilmichael, Mississippi cancelled elections shortly after blacks became a majority of registered voters. In 2011, the Justice Department stopped a Texas redistricting proposal determined by a federal court to purposefully discriminate against Latino voters. Last year, the Justice Department prevented a photo identification law in Texas from going into effect. At the time, some 600,000 Texans who had voted in previous elections, many of whom were black and Latino, would have become ineligible to vote without additional identification. In each instance, Section 4 was used to prohibit discrimination. Immediately after the Supreme Court invalidated the”pre-clearance” provision this summer, Texas, and several other states, reinstated the voter identification laws previously prevented under Section 4, and other local jurisdictions promised to revisit prior invalidated practices. Earlier this week, North Carolina restricted its early voting procedure utilized by 70% of blacks who voted in the state in 2012.

While the Shelby decision is problematic in that it weakens protection for minority voter participation, such inadequacy need not be permanent. The Supreme Court left open the possibility that Congress could fix the formula. Congress should update it expeditiously. In so doing, legislators must understand that racism did not end in 1965 and is not limited to the 15 states named in Section 4. Coverage based solely on geography would be outdated, as discriminatory acts occur throughout the country. Covered states should include those previously supervised, like Texas, where gerrymandered districts or choices by local officials to annex surrounding communities or implement at-large elections frequently reduce minority representation, but other states also need to be added. Those not previously supervised, like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where voter identification laws and limitations on early voting are the new poll taxes and literacy tests that frequently have a negative impact on minority participation, as they did during Jim Crow, need to be covered as well.

With evidence of such serious and widespread suppression and dilution, an expanded and refocused formula is clearly “justified by current needs”. Circumstances may have changed, but voter suppression, based on race, remains. Recent instances of discrimination, including faulty election machines, purges in voter rolls, and elimination of same-day registration prove that this “Ghost of Jim Crow” remains. Accordingly, coverage based on serious and widespread intentional racial discrimination, where ever it might occur, is sorely needed, still.

F. Michael Higginbotham is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and the author of Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013).

[This article originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.]

Pinning dreams, perpetuating stereotypes

—Karen M. Dunak

[This piece originally appeared on the author's blog here.]

I recently read an article about the seemingly widespread practice of creating wedding-related Pinterest boards before a wedding is planned, an engagement proposed, or a partner even identified. I’ve seen some of this impulse toward “When I…” boards on the social media site. Sometimes the speculation is “When I have a baby,” or “When I buy a home,” and so naturally “When I get married” fits as the kind of category for which one might plan. But for some reason, the wedding seems a more problematic hypothetical, and I do think the process for planning without any sort of end date in mind (or end mate, for that matter) contributes to that. When people critique American wedding culture, this is what they’re looking at. Too many women – and the suggestion is that this is primarily a female phenomenon – focus more on what they want their wedding to look like than on what they want their partner or their marriage to be like. What’s more, they don’t care what that partner might desire for his/her wedding day. The bride’s day will be the bride’s day.

As a whole, these “When I…” boards give me pause, but I worried that I might be too knee-jerk in my critique. Trying to think about the process of “pinning” a dream wedding in a historical context, I wondered if this is in some way the 21st century equivalent of the hope chest. During the 19th century and well through post-World War II period, many young women collected goods for marriage in such chests. From girlhood, a woman stockpiled linens, towels, flatware, and various other domestic goods for her future home. Year-by-year, she added things to her collection. The expectation was that she would one day marry and thus would need to be prepared. For most women, that expectation was right on. Unless well-educated or raised in material privilege, the best means of support for a woman was to be found through a union with a man. And of course, social and cultural expectations pointed directly to marriage, home, and family life as the culmination of success for American women.

1947 Hope Chest Advertisement

Ultimately, though, I have to conclude that preparing for a home – and particularly in the historical context – was a different thing than preparing for a wedding. The circumstances under which young women filled their hope chests veered far more toward the practical than the aesthetic (and, in fact, the emerging domestic aesthetic that tended toward the trendy or the store-bought – a particularly popular look in the newly developing postwar suburbs – helped make the keeping of a hope chest an increasingly outdated process from the 1950s on). In a time when brides and grooms couldn’t depend on a string of showers or the presentation of elaborate wedding gifts – or cash, as many prefer now – to mark the start of their union, they had to take responsibility for material and financial support during the early years of marriage before they entered into that relationship. For men, that often meant securing steady employment and the start of a nest egg. For women, that meant preparation of the necessities required of a home (and often steady employment and nest egg contribution until at least the birth of the first child, if not beyond).

In my research, I’ve read about many women who dreamed about their weddings since childhood. And clearly this is a popular trope in contemporary wedding culture. In one personal essay I read, a woman admitted to keeping a wedding binder during her 1980s girlhood, in which she included advertisements and articles from bridal magazines, all in anticipation of the wedding she would one day celebrate. So the practices found on Pinterest aren’t brand new. They’re just more public. I suppose so it goes in this increasingly public age – but this, I think, is where my discomfort lies. One woman’s willingness to make public her private wedding dreams allows too easily for the perpetuation of the stereotype that this is what all women are doing (or want to be doing).

Aside from the tried and true critiques we might make about overeager wedding pinners (they validate the power of what many critics call the “wedding-industrial complex”; they reveal the material undercurrent that marks so many elements of American life and culture; they contribute to the normalization and acceptance of narcissism; etc.), my biggest problem with the pinning going on here is how it further standardizes and entrenches the gendered division of unpaid labor in American life and romantic relationships for all women – even those without the time or inclination to imagine a fictive celebration.

Planning a wedding (a real wedding, not a Pinterest dream wedding) takes time – which can manifest as time away from work, family, friends, fitness, hobbies, you name it. And it is work. It falls into that category of unpaid labor that is often celebrated for continuing rituals, maintaining tradition, fostering family ties, and by which women are often judged, but is work that is virtually never rewarded or respected in the way any kind of paid labor very clearly is (see “paid” descriptor). What’s more, when it’s a labor assumed to be universally enjoyed by women, women can find themselves alone in completing it or condemned for not being enthralled with it. If Pinners are willing to see their visions through and take on labor of this kind (and, I suppose, are “lucky” enough to find partners who stay out of their way), that’s fine. But the possibility that all women might be expected to do the same – and might be viewed as a single monolithic bloc – is more troubling.

Karen M. Dunak is Assistant Professor of History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She is the author of As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America (NYU Press, 2013).

George Zimmerman, Not Guilty: Blood on the leaves

—Jelani Cobb

[This article originally appeared in The New Yorker.]

The not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial came down moments after I left a screening of “Fruitvale Station,” a film about the police-shooting death of Oscar Grant four years ago in Oakland. Much of the audience sat quietly sobbing as the closing credits rolled, moved by the narrative of a young black man, unarmed and senselessly gone. Words were not needed to express a common understanding: to Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old he shot, fit the description; for black America, the circumstances of his death did.

The familiarity dulled the sharp edges of the tragedy. The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling.

The most damning element here is not that George Zimmerman was found not guilty: it’s the bitter knowledge that Trayvon Martin was found guilty. During his cross examination of Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, the defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked if she was avoiding the idea that her son had done something to cause his own death. During closing arguments, the defense informed the jury that Martin was armed because he weaponized a sidewalk and used it to bludgeon Zimmerman. During his post-verdict press conference, O’Mara said that, were his client black, he would never have been charged. At the defense’s table, and in the precincts far beyond it where donors have stepped forward to contribute funds to underwrite their efforts, there is a sense that Zimmerman was the victim.

O’Mara’s statement echoed a criticism that began circulating long before Martin and Zimmerman encountered each other. Thousands of black boys die at the hands of other African Americans each year, but the black community, it holds, is concerned only when those deaths are caused by whites. It’s an appealing argument, and widespread, but it’s simplistic and obtuse. It’s a belief most easily held when you’ve not witnessed peace rallies and makeshift memorials, when you’ve turned a blind eye to grassroots organizations like the Interrupters in Chicago, who are working valiantly to stem the tide of violence in that city. It is the thinking of people who’ve never wondered why African Americans disproportionately support strict gun-control legislation. The added quotient of outrage in cases like this one stems not from the belief that a white murderer is somehow worse than a black one but from the knowledge that race determines whether fear, history, and public sentiment offer that killer a usable alibi.

The thousands who gathered last spring in New York, in St. Louis, in Philadelphia, in Miami, and in Washington, D.C., to demand Zimmerman’s arrest shared a narrative and an understanding of the past’s grip on the present. Long before the horrifying images of Martin lying prone and lifeless in the grass ever made their way to Gawker, he’d already begun inspiring references to the line about “blood on the leaves” from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Those crowds were the response of people who understand that history is interred in the shallowest of graves.

Yet the problem is not that this case marks a low point in this country’s racial history—it’s that, after two centuries of common history, we’re still obligated to chart high points and low ones. To be black at times like this is to see current events on a real-time ticker, a Dow Jones average measuring the quality of one’s citizenship. Trayvon Martin’s death is an American tragedy, but it will mainly be understood as an African-American one. That it occurred in a country that elected and reëlected a black President doesn’t diminish the despair this verdict inspires, it intensifies it. The fact that such a thing can happen at a moment of unparalleled political empowerment tells us that events like these are a hard, unchanging element of our landscape.

We can understand the verdict to mean validation for the idea that the actions Zimmerman took that night were those of a reasonable man, that the conclusions he drew were sound, and that a black teen-ager can be considered armed any time he is walking down a paved street. We can take from this trial the knowledge that a grieving family was capable of displaying inestimable reserves of grace. Following the verdict, Sybrina Fulton posted a benediction to Twitter: “Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control.” The Twitter account of Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, features an image of him holding Trayvon as a toddler, a birthday hat perched on the boy’s head. At the trial, they sat through a grim procession of autopsy photos and audio of the gunshot that ended their son’s life. No matter the verdict, their simple pursuit of justice meant amplifying the trauma of their loss by some unknowable exponent.

There’s fear that the verdict will embolden vigilantes, but that need not be the concern: history has already done that. You don’t have to recall specifics of everything that has transpired in Florida over the past two hundred years to recognize this. The details of Rosewood, the black town terrorized and burned to the ground in 1923, and of Groveland and the black men falsely accused of rape and murdered there in 1949, can remain obscure and retain sway over our present concerns. Names—like Claude Neal, lynched in 1934, and Harry and Harriette Moore, N.A.A.C.P. organizers in Mims County, killed by a firebomb in 1951—can be overlooked. What cannot be forgotten, however, is that there were no consequences for those actions.

Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but it is certainly prone to extended paraphrases. Long before the jury announced its decision, many people had seen what the outcome would be, had known that it would be a strange echo of the words Zimmerman uttered that rainy night in central Florida: they always get away.

Jelani Cobb is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, and the author of To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic (NYU Press, 2007). Read more of Cobb’s coverage of the Zimmerman trial via The New Yorker here.

The meaning of July 4th

In celebration of the July Fourth holiday, we asked a few of our authors to discuss what Independence Day means to them (a la Beacon Broadside’s awesome blog post for the holiday last year). Three of our authors responded with mixed emotions, musings of its unsung heroes, and stories of forgotten holidays. Read their pieces below.

Beverly C. Tomek is author of Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011).

July 4th brings mixed feelings for those of us who focus on issues of social justice in our scholarship and activism. On the one hand, it is a day of celebration, but on the other, it is a stark reminder of the contrast between the ideal and the real. Given the amount of time I spend reading and writing about antislavery, any mention of Independence Day takes me back to the antebellum years – to a time when a small group of dedicated reformers pushed this nation to broaden the scope of liberty.

July 4th was an important and highly contested date for the antislavery movement. It began when the American Colonization Society (ACS) tried to claim the patriotic holiday. Starting in the 1820s, the ACS encouraged ministers of various denominations across the young nation to take up special Independence Day collections to be used to send blacks to Liberia, where they were to help spread Christianity and American liberty to the “Dark Continent.” Most African Americans argued that the ACS’s scheme stood for anything but liberty, but most whites who opposed slavery in the 1820s and beyond believed in the Society’s mission.

On July 4, 1829, however, a white abolitionist named William Lloyd Garrison sparked an antislavery revolution as he reclaimed the holiday for advocates of freedom. By that point,  July 4th colonization collections had become widespread, and Garrison had been asked to deliver a speech in support of the movement. When he rose to speak, to the shock of his listeners, instead of celebrating American freedom and independence and supporting colonization, he chastised a nation that kept human beings in bondage. Slavery made a mockery of American ideals, and he set out to show his listeners that human bondage must end and it must not depend upon colonization.

Though Garrison’s speech sparked what would become known as the “immediate abolition” movement, the most famous July 4 speech of all came from black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. An escaped slave who had gained international celebrity status, Douglass was asked to speak at an Independence Day commemoration in Rochester, New York, in 1852. He electrified the audience when he asked “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” The answer was no:

“I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. . . . I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!”

Frederick Douglass’s address, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” (5 July 1852), is one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history.  It highlighted the disparity between the white Americans who celebrated “freedom” and “independence” on that date and the black Americans who lived their lives in chains, forced to work for the benefit of others.

Throughout much of the early nineteenth century, African Americans chose to celebrate West Indies Emancipation Day on August 1 instead of Independence Day on July 4th. That began to change when the Civil War became a war for freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation. Even so, especially after the regression that accompanied the end of Reconstruction, July 4th maintained some its tarnish for many disenfranchised Americans.

With recent Supreme Court rulings, this year the 4th of July will seem a little more legitimate to some who continue to labor for social justice, though true liberty remains elusive for far too many in the U.S. even today.  Perhaps someday all Americans will be able to share equally in the festivities and enjoy the day without reservation, but the fight is far from over.

Donna T. Haverty-Stacke is author of America’s Forgotten Holiday: May Day and Nationalism, 1867-1960 ​(NYU Press, 2008).

Every July 4th, Americans celebrate the moment in 1776 when the colonists declared their independence from Britain. Throughout America’s history different individuals and groups, including abolitionists, women’s rights activists, and civil rights crusaders, have claimed the promise of that founding moment voiced so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence: the promise of equality and freedom.

The same was true for American workers and political radicals. For several decades beginning in 1886, they made their demand for freedom not just on July 4th, but also on May 1st. From the beginning this new May Day holiday included many concerns, ranging from shorter work hours to basic union recognition to the broader goals of its socialist adherents for the overthrow of the capitalist order of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This annual event was thus complex, multifaceted and controversial.

Anarchists and many socialists refused to embrace nationalist references in their May 1st celebrations, pointedly referring to May Day as International Labor Day instead. But many other workers, and socialists, continued to claim the day’s American roots. They proudly marched in parades carrying both the red flag and the Stars and Stripes and demanded that the democratic promises of 1776 be extended into industry. Such expressions of a hybrid radical-American identity were not well received. Bans on the use of red flags complicated the actions of May Day’s supporters for decades. And then there were the various attempts to replace May Day demonstrations altogether with events like National Child Health Day during the 1920s and Loyalty Day during the 1950s.

May Day never became a national holiday. It is now virtually unknown in the land of its birth in large part because of the Cold War. America’s Forgotten Holiday tells the story of this celebration of dissent and the process of popular amnesia through which it has been displaced from the American calendar. It reminds us how many Americans at the turn of the twentieth century and beyond believed that the promise of 1776 was yet to be realized for the hundreds of thousands of industrial workers who remained fettered by the invisible chains of capitalism. This book recovers their struggle to effect that liberation through the politics of protest and popular celebration.

Gerard N. Magliocca is author of American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment (forthcoming from NYU Press, 2013).

This week when we celebrate the Fourth of July, we celebrate Jefferson’s statement that “all men are created equal.” But the Constitution did not include that ideal until John Bingham penned the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Congressman Bingham was, like Abraham Lincoln, inspired by what he called “our sublime Declaration of Independence” and frequently invoked that sacred text during the struggle against slavery. In 1859, he told the House of Representatives that the United States was not founded to further oppression, and that:

“It was not to this end that the fathers of the Republic put forth their great Declaration, and in defense of it walked through the fire and storm and darkness of a seven years’ war…It was not to this end that, after the victory was thus achieved, those brave old men, with the dust of Yorktown yet fresh upon their brows, and the blood of Yorktown yet fresh upon their garments, proclaimed to the world, and asked it to be held in everlasting remembrance that the rights for which America had contended were the rights of human nature.”

Seven years later, Bingham took the lead in revising the Constitution after the devastation of the Civil War, and in that process he wrote into our law the guarantee that no state shall “deny to any person the equal protection of the laws.”  The struggle to make equality a reality goes on, of course, but John Bingham is one of the unheralded heroes of that story.

Marjorie Heins wins 2013 Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award!

NYU Press is proud to announce that Marjorie Heins has been chosen to receive the 2013 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in book publishing. She is being honored for her book, Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge, a chronicle of the history, law and personal stories behind the struggle to recognize academic freedom as “a special concern of the First Amendment.”

Christie Hefner established the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards in 1979 “to honor individuals who have made significant contributions in the vital effort to protect and enhance First Amendment rights for Americans,” in the fields of journalism, government, book publishing and education. Find the full list of this year’s winners here.

A press reception with the winners, judges and special presenters will be held on May 22, 2013 at the Playboy Mansion where winners will receive a cash award of $5,000 and a commemorative plaque. (Awesome—way to go, Marjorie!)

A Death at Crooked Creek: Free chapter and giveaway

Attention, lovers of mystery, history, and true crime dramas! 

There’s still time to enter our Goodreads book giveaway for A Death at Crooked Creek: The Case of the Cowboy, the Cigarmaker, and the Love Letterand we’re giving away 3 *free* copies!  Enter now for a chance to win; the giveaway ends on May 29, 2013.

Today, we have an excerpt from the first chapter of A Death at Crooked Creek: “A Winter Journey Leads to an Inquest: 1879.” 

 

Chapter 1: A Winter Journey Leads to an Inquest: 1879 by NYU Press