Crystal R. Sanders: The 1966 Preschool March on Washington

Fifty years ago today, 48 preschoolers from Mississippi and their chaperones took over the ornate United States House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee hearing room in Washington, D.C. The youngsters came to Capitol Hill seeking refunding of the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) Head Start program. Head Start began in 1965 as a War on Poverty initiative that provided low-income children and their families with early childhood education, nutritious meals, healthcare, and social services. CDGM stood out because it was one of the largest inaugural Head Start programs nationwide and because it was so closely aligned with Mississippi’s civil rights movement. Many of the Magnolia State’s black citizens who had lost their jobs because of their proximity to the movement, including Pap Hamer (husband of Fannie Lou Hamer) and Roxie Meredith (mother of James Meredith), secured CDGM employment. These well-paying jobs outside of the local white power structure disrupted the state’s racial and political status quo and provoked the ire of segregationists including United States Senator John C. Stennis (D-MS).

Excerpt: The Wilmington Ten, by Kenneth Robert Janken

The case of the Wilmington Ten emerged out of the events of February 1971. In an effort to lay blame for the violence and remove the effective and popular organizer Benjamin Chavis, the Wilmington police and state prosecutor—assisted by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF)—concocted a case against Chavis, eight other black men (five of them high school students), and one white woman. Arrested more than a year after the disturbances, they were charged with conspiracy, burning Mike’s Grocery, and shooting at the firefighters and police who responded to the fire. (Ann Shepard was charged only with conspiracy.) The prosecutor, with the assent of the presiding judge, illegally excluded blacks from the jury. He solicited perjured testimony from his main witnesses to convict the Ten, who were sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison. Their convictions sparked a campaign across North Carolina, the nation, and the world to free them.

Excerpt: The Trials of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder, and Insanity in the Victorian West, by Carole Haber

In arguing that the jury had to find Laura “not guilty by reason of insanity,” Quint and Cook hoped to focus their attention around four central issues. At the heart of their case, they argued, was the notion that Laura was unconscious and irrational at the time of the murder. In contrast to the prosecution, which had relied on gossip and rumor to condemn Laura’s character, they would base their case on the latest scientific findings and medical expertise. By calling to the stand doctors with advanced knowledge and training, they would prove that Laura—much like Mary Harris before her—was a victim herself, captive to the effects of severe organic disease. Especially when her menstrual cycle approached, she experienced recurring bouts of hysterical mania that left her without control of her actions or awareness of events. Thus, no matter how heinous the act appeared, she was not responsible for its commission.

Margaret Bendroth: Disorganized Religion

Protestant aversion to organized religion is everywhere, even on the sign on the front lawns of churches. Smart congregations are dropping the Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian label and replacing it with soft generic names like Willow Grove or Saddleback. They are becoming nonspecific “communities” and “fellowships” associating themselves with some broad spiritual aspiration, like “resurrection” or “hope” or “reconciliation.”

Steven E. Nash: Riot, Reconstruction, and Racial Politics in Asheville

Through centuries of slavery followed by Jim Crow segregation, white Americans have claimed public spaces—like Pack Square—through naming or regulated access. But those claims were never complete or total. Perhaps that is one reason why the commemorations and memories—such as those surrounding Vance—neglect the region’s complicated Reconstruction history. After all, the war may have ended slavery, but the real struggle over the meaning of freedom began when the soldiers stacked arms in 1865.

The Free State of Jones movie trailer is here!

The previews for The Free State of Jones are screening in theaters now, and the movie will be released in May. So there’s plenty of time between now and then to read the full history in Victoria E. Bynum’s book The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War. (And now you can picture Matthew McConaughey in the role of Newt Knight and Gugu MBatha-Raw as Rachel Knight as you read. . . . )

Interview: Kenneth Robert Janken on The Wilmington Ten

Hannah Lohr-Pearson: Who are the Wilmington Ten and why are they important?

Kenneth Robert Janken: The Wilmington Ten were Ben Chavis, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall, Willie Earl Vereen, and Joe Wright. They were nine black men in their teens and early twenties, many of them still in high school, and a white woman in her thirties, who participated in conflict and protests over the desegregation of the public schools in Wilmington, North Carolina, and were punished with the full force of the law for standing against discrimination. The case of the Wilmington Ten amounts to one of the most egregious instances of injustice and political repression from the post-World War II black freedom struggle. It took legions of people working over the course of the 1970s to right the wrong. Like the political killings of George Jackson and Fred Hampton, the legal frame-up of Angela Davis, and the suppression of the Attica Prison rebellion, the Wilmington Ten was a high-profile attempt by federal and North Carolina authorities to stanch the increasingly radical African American freedom movement. The facts of the callous, corrupt, and abusive prosecution of the Wilmington Ten have lost none of their power to shock more than forty years after the fact, even given today’s epidemic of prosecutorial misconduct. Less understood, but just as important, the efforts to free the Wilmington Ten helped define an important moment in African American politics, in which an increasingly variegated movement coordinated its efforts under the leadership of a vital radical Left.

Excerpt: Jack London, by Cecelia Tichi

The audience eagerly anticipated a larger-than-life figure, a novelist, journalist, sailor, war correspondent, exponent of modern marriage, sportswriter, and, most recently, a gentleman farmer-rancher. His audience reached from the workers with “hard hands and strong arms” to the affluent bourgeoisie of “placid . . . sedentary existence.” Awaiting his appearance in the hall, many in the audience opened purses or dug into trouser pockets to snap up the ten-cent “‘genuine’ blood red flags, the ‘Jack London souvenirs of a great and momentous occasion.’” The fiery female union organizer from the coalfields, Mother Jones, was in the hall, and her shout-out later in the evening was to be memorable for its typical “crisp” and “clipped speech.” The atmosphere was amiable, though the speaker was overdue because his train was late. When London finally took the stage at 9:15 P.M., no one in the audience (not even the New York Times reporter) guessed that the celebrated Jack London was half-sick from lingering effects of the flulike grippe. This was America’s epicenter of capitalism, and Gotham could flatten a man who didn’t show himself fit in body and mind. Such a man wouldn’t last one round.

Holly M. Karibo: Cutting the Cancer of Drug Use Out of the Nation? Reflections on the History of Mandatory Minimum Sentences in the United States

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the passage of the Narcotic Control Act of 1956, a law that dramatically reshaped American drug policies. While the precedent for mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses had been established four years earlier, the Narcotic Control Act greatly expanded the scope of these sentences. Among its many clauses, the act raised the minimum sentence on some drug offenses to five years and allowed the imposition of the death penalty on anyone over the age of eighteen convicted of trafficking heroin to minors. This made the Narcotics Control Act the strictest drug law in the nation’s history—one that treated addiction as a plague that needed to be addressed through punitive measures.

John Ryan Fischer: Indian Cowboys in California

The stories of Indian laborers often feel secondary to the spaces and stories of the Franciscan fathers, despite the fact that the missions were primarily centers of Indian work. The fathers hoped that productivity would lead to a surer conversion while they also made a profit, especially from the products of cattle in the form of hides and tallow that they sold to British and American ships along the Pacific coast. There are certainly signs of this work throughout the missions—from tallow vats to tanneries—and La Purisma stands out to me as a site that focuses on the type of work that its mostly Chumash inhabitants did on a daily basis. Beyond the missions, Indians as workers are even less visible in public presentations of California’s historical memory. Vaquero parades, rodeos, and festivals are rare, and the role of Indians in those festivals is small to nonexistent.

There are a few likely reasons for this omission.

Video: Julie Weise on the History of Mexicans in the U.S. South

When Latino migration to the U.S. South became increasingly visible in the 1990s, observers and advocates grasped for ways to analyze “new” racial dramas in the absence of historical reference points. However, as this book is the first to comprehensively document, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have a long history of migration to the U.S. South. …

Continue reading ‘Video: Julie Weise on the History of Mexicans in the U.S. South’ »

John Ryan Fischer: Land on Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea

Since October of last year, dozens of protestors have been arrested near the peak of Mauna Kea, the large mountain formed by volcanic activity on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. The peak is one of the most sacred sites to traditional native Hawaiian beliefs, and the protestors have demonstrated against the construction of a large astronomical observatory there.

Kim Tolley: (Nearly) Equal Pay for Women in the Antebellum South

Modern commentators often assume that earnings inequality has persisted throughout history and improved only recently, but this isn’t the case.

Holly M. Karibo: Race and Violence on the Northern Borderline: The Case of the Windsor “Jazz Riot”

If the Windsor Jazz Riot has long been lost from our collective historical memory, it provides an important moment to think about current national debates over riots, race relations, and national boundaries. Borders—be they national, geographical, social, or cultural—provide us the opportunity to blame outsiders for social ills, and for expressing collective fears. We tend to associate this most often with the U.S.–Mexico border, where inflammatory language about anchor babies, Mexican rapists, and drug smugglers dominates public debates. But there is a deep history of racial division along the U.S.–Canada divide, one that needs to be acknowledged as we debate the “American” race problem in the twenty-first century.

Interview: Sherie M. Randolph on Black Feminist Radical Florynce “Flo” Kennedy

Taylor Humin: This is the first full-length work written about Flo Kennedy; meanwhile, Gloria Steinem, her contemporary and fellow activist, is a household name. Why isn’t Kennedy better known?

Sherie M. Randolph: Despite Kennedy’s willingness to seek the media’s spotlight, the media often ignored her leadership in the women’s movement. She was black and middle-aged, and her image did not fit neatly with the media’s fascination with the “young,” “hip” new women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The media had a bias toward stereotypically attractive women (read white and young) and often preferred to center or elevate in the press those women who fit this category (Gloria Steinem and Ti-Grace Atkinson, for example).

Often the media coverage of Kennedy’s actions did not mention that she was even a member (or an early or founding member) of organizations such as NOW or that she was a feminist. Instead, Kennedy was often portrayed as an organizer who was working alongside NOW or other feminist groups, but not as a leader of these organizations and actions. Some scholars have repeated this bias by ignoring or under-analyzing black feminism and Flo Kennedy.

Kennedy was well known to most radical activists during the 1960s and 1970s because she was a lawyer, fundraiser, and very skilled at drawing media attention to her causes. As a media-savvy activist, she was skillful in gaining the media’s attention for her actions; which ranged from pee-ins to protest Harvard Law School’s lack of bathroom facilities for women to marches down Fifth Avenue to protest the assassination of Martin Luther King. She relied on street theater to draw the notice of the media (and therefore advertisers, etc.) and potential organizers. Yet, until my book, history has forgotten her.

John Weber: Immigration Reform, Guest Workers, and Poorly Understood History

This enthusiasm for guest workers—temporary laborers stripped of the right to choose employers, bargain for higher wages, or remain within the United States past the expiration date of their labor contract—ignores a few basic problems. McGurn’s oversimplified history of the Bracero Program bears no resemblance to the growing scholarship on the binational contract labor scheme and its many problems.

Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez: Catholics and Protestants in Philadelphia: From Conflict to Collaboration

As I walk around Philadelphia this week, I marvel at the signs, merchandise, and promotions welcoming Pope Francis. It’s hard to believe that just over a century and a half ago, Catholics were the target of violence in this city.

April Merleaux: The Subtlety of the Sugar Babies

Last summer, to celebrate finishing the manuscript of my book, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness, I went to New York to see artist Kara Walker’s installation A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby in an old Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn. Walker is known for making bold art that calls on viewers to consider histories of racial violence in the United States, and A Subtlety did just that. Sugar, Walker points out, is historically tied to race in many and multiple ways.

Excerpt: Modern Food, Moral Food, by Helen Zoe Veit

A variety of factors contributed to the explosion of weight loss culture during and after the Great War, and one especially potent factor was the creep of metrics into daily life. The application of calories to food in the late nineteenth century and the emerging discipline of statistics resulted in well-publicized comparisons of food consumption and body weights between individuals and across populations. At the same time, life insurance statistics were revealing new correlations between excess weight and chronic disease. More and more Americans, meanwhile, were purchasing newly affordable home scales and buying their clothing ready-made, and thus increasingly thinking of their bodies in terms of numbers and sizes instead of, say, just making clothes to fit their individual bodies. Moreover, metrics grew more prevalent in daily life just as the motion picture industry was taking off and as a visually oriented print media continued to expand. Handed the tools to make physical comparisons, Americans eagerly made them. The growing ease of numerical and visual comparisons contributed directly to the valorization of thinness. But what accounts for the moral stigma that leeched onto the idea of being overweight? The answer lies at the heart of the Progressive ideology of self-control, a value that transcended the Progressive Era itself, both supporting and thriving within the enduring associations between thinness, willpower, and beauty.

Bob H. Reinhardt: Having the Vaccination Conversation

Parents sometimes hear about “routine childhood vaccinations,” but the current discussion about vaccines is anything but routine. In addition to pediatrician offices, the vaccination conversation is happening in unexpected places: the legislative halls of Oregon, California, and other states trying to stiffen childhood vaccination requirements; Twitter, where author Sherman Alexie invoked Native Americans’ historic experiences with deadly contagious diseases and railed against “superstitious, selfish anti-vaccination ***holes”; and late-night TV, where Jimmy Kimmel joked that parents in Los Angeles are “more scared of gluten than they are of smallpox.” Alexie’s vitriol and Kimmel’s barb invoke the history of smallpox and its eradication, a remarkable story that holds unexpected insights for today.