Why History?

The struggles, tragedies, and accomplishments of the past have always interested me.  Learning history makes us better citizens more compassion for people of other races, genders, and faiths. Understanding the motivations and pressures that different groups had to face in the past helps people move past thinking of them as just “the other.” For instance, a greater understanding of the African American community can be gained by looking at the past racist practices this community had to endure like the convict-lease system, disproportionately high imprisonment rates, and lynchings. Another example comes from one of my undergraduate classes focusing on Asian history. The professor talked to the class about the broad historical context and the very immediate reasons why the Japanese attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. This explanation did not justify or condone what the Japanese did. However, it did help characterize the Japanese as more than just the evil “other” that was inherently an enemy to the U.S. It also moves beyond the racist images, of the time, that showed Asians as ape like sub-humans. Hopefully, people can take this historical knowledge and use it to have a more just and fair outcome for the conflicts we are currently facing.

Historical thinking skills can also assist people in their everyday lives. Asking the right questions, analyzing sources, and thinking about bias does not just help when doing research for class. These skills have many advantages in real life situations like conducting research in order to pick out a school, buy a house, or vote for the most worthy politician. More broadly, history has an important role to play in giving more context to the present political debates. If historians do not share their knowledge this space will be filled by people who may have their own agenda and do not have as much training working with primary and secondary sources. History also interests me because it deals with real life in all its shades of grey. Most of the time, there are no purely right or wrong answers in history; the actions of people and the causes of events are always up for debate. This is why, as a student, I thoroughly enjoy listening to different points of view, even if I disagree, because they help me to broaden my understanding of the subject matter.

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“Southern Racial Injustice 1865-1900”

My experiment with creating history in new media

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May 13, 2013 · 12:49 pm

Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire by Robert Perkinson

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Robert Perkinson writes about the history of the Texas prison system to give tips to current reformers who want to improve the standards of the current system. The main thesis for Texas Tough is looking at the causes and consequences of the sky rocketing majority non-white prison population that started, ironically, after the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s. Perkinson also looks at numerous causes of the bad living conditions of these prisons. He points to not only social causes like racism and peonage but also ground level causes like the relationship between the guard and the prisoner.

Some parts of this book could have been improved. For instance, the reader could tell that Perkinson has a liberal bias. The author is very harsh on conservatives and tries to get the reader to sympathize with the prisoners. For example, the author makes sure to point out that the highest number of executions in Texas took place when George W. Bush was in office.  [Perkinson 37] The author has written for the liberal magazine called the Progressive. [Amazon.com author biography] He also explains that the most prevalent emotion in prison is pain that the inmates inflicted on other people but also the pain the inmate feels themselves. He then goes on to explain some of the bad childhoods that the prisoners experienced that included both physical and mental abuse. [Perkinson 23]  Other people might not have focused on the inmate’s personal history and just said they must be jailed for the crime they committed. With that being said, this is not a major flaw because Perkinson also includes a large amount of evidence, statistics, and personal interviews that back up what he is asserting.s

In contrast this book does a good job of comparing the de facto racism of the past with the de jure racism of the Texas prison system today. Perkinson shows that civil rights cases like Ruiz v. Estelle have helped get rid of the worst abuses but there is a long way to go. For instance, there are more people in prisons now than in the 1960s and the vast majority of these inmates are nonwhite. This relates to the movie about the systemic racism in the housing system. It shows in both housing and prisons that individuals could have no racist ideas but the system itself is set up to hurt African-American and Latino-Americans.

Texas Tough does a good job of focusing on the landmark civil rights case Ruiz v. Estelle. The author shows how this highlighted the differences motivations people had for prisons as confinement camps or rehabilitation centers. It also showed the ambiguity of the law. For instance, the author raised the question what is the definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” or “equal justice under the law.” [Perkinson 272]  Perkinson did a good job of comparing the historical impact of the case to the personal impact of the case on Ruiz. He showed it had far reaching impacts on improving prison conditions. However, it was not an absolute victory for Ruiz as he spent most of the rest of his life behind bars and ended up dying in prison. [Perkinson, 357-373] This is similar to The Arc of Justice where the Sweet court cas had major implications for improving civil rights. However, Sweet, himself, had a troubled life and ended up committing suicide.

Perkinson does a particularly good job in his closing chapter. He has a very detailed explanation of where the Texas prison system has been and also the present state of affairs. He makes an interesting observation that there is a cycle of reform, reaction, neglect, and reform again. Instead of focusing on the short-term personal stories he focuses on the organizational systems and structures that make up the “long duree.” [Perkinson 367] This is an interesting contrast to almost all of the historical markers that relate to race in the twentieth century that portray constant progress. Instead, Perkinson shows that in some ways the prison has gotten better and in others it has gotten worse. For instance, he states the prisons have become more impersonal because they are more bureaucratic. [Perksinson 361] This is similar to the way Oshinsky ended his book Worse than Slavery. Oshinsky said the present Parchman Farm had gotten rid of the worse racist abuses but the author quoted a long term prisoner who missed the old days because he felt that work gave his life meaning instead of just sitting in a cell all day. [David Oshinksy, Worse Than Slavery Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York: Free Press, 1996), 248]

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A Gendered Reinterpretation of the Civil Rights Movement

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Danielle L McGuire, At the dark end of the street : black women, rape, and resistance- a new history of the civil rights movement from Rosa Parks to the rise of black power (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

At the Dark End of the Street reinterprets the civil rights movement by focusing on the sexual exploitation of women and showing that it has much earlier roots than the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.  McGuire shows that black women definitely had a prominent role in the Civil Rights movement but does not prove that sexual abuse of black women was the main cause of Jim Crow Segregation or the civil rights movement

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A staged picture of Rosa Parks played into the myth that she was a little old lady that refused to give up her seat. It leaves out all of her valuable Civil Rights work before or after this one event.

McGuire does a great job of re-contextualizing the civil rights movement.  She shows that the Montgomery bus boycott was not the start of the civil rights movement it came at the end of a long struggle of black women standing up for themselves against abuses on buses.  The author does a good job to show that raping black women had roots going back as far as the slave trade and sprang up whenever blacks were gaining more rights like in Brown vs. Board of Education or trying to vote. It was also enlightening to put Rosa Parks into context that she had a grandfather who was a son of a slave and a white man and that she had been a long time anti rape advocate for a long time before she refused to give up her seat on the bus.  This book also shows there were other women who refused to give up their seat like Colvin before Rosa Parks. This shows it was not the actual event itself but the publicity the Rosa Parks event gained that had a tremendous influence later on.  This also raises an interesting point about teaching.  I was never taught how much groups like the NAACP and other similar groups were involved in this event even though this fundamentally shapes how I interpret it.  Can we do a better job at teaching these things in elementary school social studies or is that unrealistic because it is hard enough for students just to learn the basics? McGuire also shows how black networks were formed around protest of previous cases like Mary Pigford and Recy Taylor.  So even though they were unsuccessful in these instances these networks helped blacks gain influence later on.  Does a good job of showing how Rosa Parks was a very strong civil rights advocate but since she did not get to talk at the rally for the bus boycott that this transformed her image into a quiet unassuming woman. This raises the question of historical memory. Why did this interpretation of these events, one that understated the influence of women, become so popular when women were, in fact, vital to the movement?

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Recy Taylor was gang raped by a group of white men, one of whom admitted to the crime. Even though all of the white men in her case were not charged the outcry in the black community helped create the organizational groups needed for future civil rights victories.

McGuire makes a convincing case that black women were involved in the Civil Rights Movement but does not prove that sexual abuse of woman was the only cause.  She constantly shows how women were involved in the Civil Rights movement.  For example, she showed how they were vital to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  She goes too far to quote Gunnard Myrdel stating, “Sex is the principle around which the whole structure of segregation…is organized.” Again she goes too fair when she states

The national campaign to defend Recy Taylor highlighted the power of sexual stories to mobilize communities and build coalitions. … This cut to the heart of people’s lives. It was deeper than voting rights, deeper than the poisons of stigma and exploitation, though those cruelties were also fundamental to the racial caste system…Taylor’s [a rape victim] refusal to remain silent helped expose a ritual of rape in existence since slavery, inspired a nationwide campaign to defend black womanhood, and gave hope to thousands suffering through similar abuses…sexual violence and interracial rape became the battleground upon which African Americans sought to destroy white supremacy and gain personal and political autonomy. That battleground is where the modern civil rights movement began, though its roots were as deep as the Atlantic slave trade.” (McGuire 47)

She does not take into consideration the book Worse Than Slavery that talked about how white people had an economic incentive to imprison black men to make them work for basically no pay.  In some cases black women bus passengers were sexually abused but other times they were not.  In addition, the black community chose to have a boycott of buses in response to Parks being arrested.  This shows that there were economic factors involved and they were not just trying to protect black womanhood.

McGuire’s writing style is very engaging but at times lacks detail. She does a good job of talking about a lot of cases where black women were abused but also focusing in detail about a few important cases like Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks.  This leads to a very dramatic book. For instance the opening pages about Taylor’s rape were intriguing.  However, other times she just spends about two or three paragraphs on some of these racist incidents.  There have been whole books written about some of these incidents like the Moore’s Ford Lynching and there is still mysterious to be solved.  So it seems like McGuire might be missing some of the details in her brief summaries of these events.  This affects her interpretation as well. For instance, she emphasizes George Dorsey defending Dorothy’s supposed sexual relations with a white man.  However, Wexler emphasizes Roger Malcolm’s role and Dorsey’s sexual relations with two white women.  This fits in with McGuire theme but these details are not mentioned, which makes one wonder what details or controversies she is leaving out of other events.

The best part of At the Dark End of the Street is that is shows that black people, especially black women,  had agency in their struggle for equality against white Racism.  This is something that missing in many other books about this time period.   McGuire showed that blacks try to protect black womanhood just like whites tried to protect white womanhood.  Neither black nor white felt that they could depend on government for protection under the law.  Black women could not be protected by police or the courts when they were abused on buses so they formed their own boycott.  Whites felt they needed to lynch black rapist because the government punishment was not

J. Philip Randlph was the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He was instrumental in the civil rights movement including convincing FDR to enact one of the first executive orders to protect the civil rights of African Americans.

J. Philip Randlph was the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He was instrumental in the civil rights movement including convincing FDR to enact one of the first executive orders to protect the civil rights of African Americans.

enough.  This book shows that J. Phillip Randolph, a black labor union leader, was influential in FDR passing his civil rights executive orders.  Whereas, Wexler talked about the same thing but did not mention that black people had a direct impact on this legislation. She also does an excellent job of showing black agency through blacks working through fraternities/sororities, black churches, and civil rights groups like the NAACP to respond to white racism.

This book also has many similarities to other books.  The dark end of the street refers to the location of where most of these rapes took place but it also is a metaphor for white people wanting to keep these things in the shadows and not discuss them whereas black people wanted to publicize these abuses.  This relates to many books such as the Fire in a Canebrake and the Stories of Scottsboro where whites in both cases just want to forget these abuses ever happened.

There are also fascinating connections between Parks and the trial of Scottsboro.  Parks and her husband got involved in a movement to help free the black boys convicted in this trial.  This helped get Parks more involved in the larger movement.  McGuire also shows how the white people in the Recy Taylor rape case wanted to keep it low profile and not involve outsiders because they feared this trial would turn into the media circus that the Scottsboro case did.

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The Lynching of Emmett Till : A Documentary Narrative by Christopher Metress

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The Lynching of Emmett Till brings together primary and secondary sources regarding the discovery of evidence, the trail, the immediate post trial reactions, and also the memoirs and literature written about the torture and killing of a fourteen year old boy named Emmett Till in 1955. The book also raises important questions for historians regarding the use of sources and historical interpretation.

Metress makes an interesting point at the start of the book that affects the way the reader reads the rest of the book. He tells the story about how he read an account that Till was not shot and did not believe it because there was no corroborating evidence. However, then later on he heard somebody else say the same thing. He uses this to say that we cannot disconnect memory from history. He uses this to show that historical interpretation is inherently flawed because both the sources and the historians are flawed based on their imperfect memory and agenda.

I agree that life is very complicated, people have their own agenda, memory is flawed, and it is good to include more people to do history not just professionals. However, Metress goes too far by implying that there should be no history interpretations just primary sources. Historians should feel safe to make value judgments to the best of their ability knowing that it will never be 100% accurate and the interpretation can change. However, they should not just give up and just use primary sources because then other people are just going to be doing the interpreting not the historians or there will not be any interpretation at all. Historians can offer valuable insights into the historical context of individual events. I thought the American Experience documentary on Till did a very good job of this by showing that the Governor of Mississippi named Eastland was arguing against desegregating schools at this time. He said if blacks can be in schools they will eventually take over the Southern way of life. This gives some reasoning behind the extreme overreaction of Milam and Bryant in their punishment of Till for wolf whistling at Bryant’s wife, which is not seen in the mainly newspaper accounts included in Metress’s book.

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Emmett Till shown wearing hat and tie unlike the majority of the African American sharecroppers working in the south at the at time.

Beauchamp’s The Untold Story of Emmett Till was about the same events and included most of the same people but told in a different manner. It was much longer and, as the title suggests, it had more of an agenda to uncover this and other civil rights cold cases. This is seen by the ending seen showing politicians in New York applauding the family of Till and saying more should be done to bring these guilty people in the past to justice. It was also interesting that the American Experience was shorter to accommodate a regular hour long TV slot. It seemed like more of a summary of the events.

Metress’s exploration of the newspaper accounts is striking because after a while the accounts become so predictable. It’s like the reader knows the interpretation of the Southern Whites is going to be racist like the account of a southern news reporter who said the trial was using Congo tribal tactics.[Metress 41] This should make historians reflect on their own biases and try to avoid them. It also shows that historians should try to come up with new interpretations of the past so they are not just falling into the old traditional formulas that maybe totally wrong.

It is also surprising how contradictory newspaper accounts can be like one account had Moses Wright saying that he could only see a bald head when the white men took Till. However, another account said he recognized Milam by his bald head. This shows that historians need to inspect sources carefully before relying on them to base their interpretations on. [Metress 70-74]
Metress makes a better point in his concluding chapter by showing how these newspaper and literature accounts of the Till murder were affected by the racial attitudes of the time but they also shape our current racial attitudes in the present. This was almost the exact same point Wexler made in her book, Fire in A Canebrake. The author makes a good point by saying a hanging in 2000 reminded Jesse Jackson of the Till case. A Northern journalist in Cleveland also made a similar point to Wexler that racism in the south was a blind spot that inhibited white southerners from facing the truth.[Metress 112]

The Lynching of Emmett Till also has some interesting connections with James Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro, a book about the trial nine African-American boys accused of raping a white girl on a train. Both books exemplify how the south idealized women and their racial attitudes made them think that black men were constantly trying to have sex with white women. The book shows how the defense attorney tried to get the jurors on his side by having Mrs. Bryant testify to the sexual advances that Till made towards her in her convenience store. The judge realized he was just trying to incite the juror’s racial passions so dismissed the jury for this part of the testimony. The fact that the jurors did not convict Milam and Bryant when there was pretty clear evidence against them shows how Southerners felt like they needed to protect their woman against blacks. This is just like the white people’s believing Victoria Price’s story even though it was full of holes in the Scottsboro case against nineblack boys.

A stark difference between these two books was the attitudes towards communism before and after World War II. In the Scottsboro case the Communist party helped defend the black boys and was a major influence in making this case so popular. Many people joined them to defend the boys even if they did not believe in the Communist ideology. However in the Till case there are many accounts of Southern reporters of accusing local blacks and the NAACP of planting a body in the Tallahatchie river with Tills ring on it to advance their aims at dividing the North and South. The news reports said that this was advancing the Communist propaganda against the USA. Unlike before, there were few positive news accounts in the North about Communism except from the Communist newspapers themselves.

The media coverage off the Till case was also a stark contrast to the Moore’s Ford Lynching. It showed the value of Tills mother in letting her son’s corpse be shown to the world because that garnered a lot of attention. However, people had different reactions to this attention. Northern newspapers tended to focus on the racism in the south while southern newspapers tended to see northerners as outsiders and hypocrites that were not paying attention to the troubles in their own northern cities.

Warning: Graphic Photograph below

 

 

 

Emmit_Till_body

Emmit Tills had an open casket funeral that enabled people across the country and around the world the brutality of racism of the 1950’s.

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Fire in A Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America by Laura Wexler

canebrake

Fire in A Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America[1] by Laura Wexler described the July 25, 1946 lynching of four African Americans near Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County, Georgia. This book also talked about the political and racial climate of time, the FBI investigation, FDR’s early attempts at giving the federal government more authority in civil rights cases, and Truman’s attempt at strengthening civil rights legislation and desegregating the army in response to these killings.  Finally, Wexler showed how these events are “interpreted, believed, told, and remembered.”[2]

Wexler does an excellent job at proving her thesis that racism obscures the truth, which, in turn, makes justice and healing impossible.  She said blacks and whites had disagreements regarding the Moore’s Ford Lynching just like they do not agree about the truth in more current cases like the O.J. Simpson or Rodney King trials.  For instance, there are differing accounts as to what Roger Malcom said after he stabbed Barnette Hester.  Barnette’s family said Roger said “Call me Mr. Malcolm from now own” but Roger Malcom’s mother claimed Roger said something about Barnette Hester having sex with his wife, Dorothy Dorsey[3] Wexler said that racial issues like this can best be viewed as a void where the truth should be.[4]  Wexler disagreed with some white Georgians who said it is best not to bring this lynching up because it will just lead to more racial divisions.  In contrast the author states,

The only way for blacks and whites to live together peacefully in America in the twenty-first century is if we begin struggling to understand and acknowledge the extent to which racism has destroyed-and continues to destroy-our ability to tell a common truth.”[5]

This is a complex and subtle thesis that touches on both the themes of memory and justice.  Wexler displays that what people remember and the significance they place on that memory is very different between blacks and whites.  After the lynching whites did not want to bring it up again because they were afraid of being seen as a racist, they did not want to stir things up, or they just want to forget about it because they have other more pressing concerns.  For instance, a Monroe insurance salesman said most people could “careless” about this incident and he had “other issues that I’m trying to work on…to try to help Monroe and Walton County be a better place to live.”[6] Other whites were affected by their personal relationship to the case. For instance, Loy Harrison’s grandson said Loy did not commit any crime and added Loy was his “hero.”[7]

Loy Harrison [right] with FBI agent

Loy Harrison [right] with FBI agent

Blacks and some whites, on the other hand, needed to bring this up to look for justice and healing.  For instance, Bozie Daniels said if a person cannot tell truth then you are a slave in your own country.[8] Another example was the Moore’s Ford Foundation (MFF), established in 1991, which put on reenactments of the lynching and erected an historic plaque to keep memory of this tragedy alive. They thought this would lead to healing in the community.  They expressed this motivation by placing the following quote on George and Dorothy Dorsey’s gravestone, “May your’ suffering be redeemed by brotherly love”[9]

Wexler shows that people’s motives can sometimes cause them to remember things inaccurately.  For instance, the MFF had a public ceremony to honor the victims of this lynching in the 1990’s.  Moena Williams, the mother of 2 of the victims, never went to their original funeral so the MFF brought her to this public ceremony to try to bring some closure to the community.  However, they made a mistake because Moena Williams had actually died several years before.[10]  In addition, many white people mistakenly remembered that Barnette Hester was killed by Roger Malcom when he was not because that fit with their racist attitudes.[11]

Fire in A Canebrake also showed how the differing interpretations of the same events by whites and blacks led to injustices.  Wexler talked about the Primus King Case and the Smith vs. Allwright court cases.  These cases both ruled that blacks could vote in primaries even though the Georgia Democratic Primary had been white only since the end of Reconstruction.[12]   Whites liked Eugene Talmadge called this a second Reconstruction and blacks called this a second emancipation.  This showed that whites thought of this law as the Federal Government impeding in local politics to allow incompetent blacks to vote, just like Reconstruction.  This gave them the motivation to commit many injustices against blacks such as having voter intimidation, questioning valid black voter registration, using the County Unit System that went against the popular vote and favored the rural White Farmers.[13]

The different attitudes of whites and blacks toward the Moore’s Ford Lynching also led to injustices against African Americans.  Blacks and the national news called this lynching a symbol of hypocrisy between the promise of American democracy and real lives of black people in the South. For example, the NBC nightly radio broadcast said this lynching was a disgrace to the USA.[14]  However, local whites thought of this an entertainment and not that serious.  For instance, whites went to the scene of the crime to collect lynching souvenirs in order to make good luck charms.[15]  This cavalier attitude led whites to commit injustices towards the black victims by tampering with evidence because they did not even think the suspects would ever go to trial.   When the FBI did conduct an investigation, the whites put up a wall of silence because they saw the FBI agents as outsiders from the North even though most were from Southern states. [16] Wexler ends the book with some by talking about a person named Linda Lemons, who was old enough to remember the lynchings.  She said that the people who did this did not know what they were doing was wrong, but now she does know it was wrong.[17]

The author also shows how all of these injustices were enabled by the lack of a reliable, equitable, effective, powerful government to enforce civil rights laws.  Some progress was being made in the area of civil rights.  For example, FDR created the Civil Rights Section of Justice Department and issued directives to convict people on civil rights abuses.[18]  However, civil rights abuses in the case of lynchings were hard to prove because murder was a state not federal crime.  So defense attorneys, as in the Screws Case, only had to argue that the white person killed the black person out of a personal vengeance and not to violate his Civil Rights to avoid federal involvement.[19]  This was important because it affected how the FBI investigated the Moore’s Ford Case.  The agents tried to tie the police officers to the conspiracy instead of just trying to investigate who lynched these four individuals.  The lack of government effectiveness can also be seen in the lack of protection for blacks when they were voting in the Democratic Primary for the first time since Reconstruction.  Bozie Daniels said black people had not motivation to vote because landlords had the power not politicians.[20]  It is also interesting that Dorothy Dorsey went to Loy Harrison and not the Sherriff to help protect Roger Malcom from mob violence.[21]  This, again, proved the landlords had more power to protect blacks than government officials.

Fire in A Canebrake had many strong points and some weaknesses.  The most compelling aspect of the book was Wexler’s portrayal of the lynching itself.  The book read almost as a fiction novel instead of a history book.  It had vivid detail and drama that is not normally seen in academic history books.  Wexler did a good job of explaining the events as a journalist would do but she also explained the racial context as an historian would do.  For instance, Wexler explained that Loy Harrison bailed George Dorsey out of prison.  However, she goes beyond that to say that Loy Harrison was forced to take blacks out of prison because many blacks were moving North after World War II, which caused a labor shortage and increased labor costs.[22]

Wexler also makes excellent use of the available sources and does not make up scenes without having the proper documentation.  This is impressive considering how other authors like James Goodman, tend to go beyond their sources when writing narrative history.  Wexler used FBI reports, newspaper accounts, and the papers of Harry Truman and the NAACP, as well as oral history interviews she conducted herself.  Wexler is careful to always attribute her source when talking about the events of the lynching.  She never writes as an all knowing narrator but, instead, shows that this information is obtained from somebody with their own perspectives and bias.   Her excellent use of sources also prevents her from the pitfalls of presentism that she could have fallen into since she talked about current cases like the OJ Simpson trial. This could have damaged her interpretation by imposing the present context on the past.  However, she avoids this by sticking to the sources.  She also justifies some presentism by saying that the Moore’s Ford Lynching is still relevant since it has not been solved and people still remember it in vastly different ways.

The book had some logistical weak points.  For instance, there was no index, footnote markers, or table of contents.  This showed this book was for a more general not purely academic audience.  This makes the book more popular but was frustrating when trying to analyze this book for its historical merit.  The thesis was also buried in the author’s note at the end of the book.  The authors note would have been better suited to be the first chapter to tell the reader the general themes that are contained in the book.  The book also tried to do too much in relatively short amount of space.  The best example of this is the overwhelming number of people mentioned in the book.  Wexler did a good job of explaining the background to some people but after a while the amount of people became confusing. Even so, this shows that real life is complicated and it involves many people.  This is a good warning to other history books that try to make broad thesis statements that cover a wide historical period because Wexler’s book shows that real life is rarely as simple as a general thesis statement.

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R0ger Malcom

The book made great use of one map, one picture, and one poster at the beginning of the book stating that there was a reward for the capture of the lynchers.  However, much more could have been done.  Including pictures of more people would have helped the reader keep track of everybody.  Wexler also talks about individual streets of Monroe, GA so a more detailed map of this city would have also been helpful.

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Historic Marker placed near site of the lynching by the Moore’s Ford Foundation in 1999

Notes


[1] Laura Wexler, Fire in A Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America (New York: Scribner, 2004).

[2] Wexler, 265-267.

[3] Wexler 1-7.

[4] Wexler, 1-7.

[5] Wexler, 267.

[6] Wexler, 222.

[7] Wexler, 221

[8] Wexler, 184.

[9] Wexler, 231.

[10] Wexler, 225-230.

[11]  Wexler, 243.

[12] Wexler, 26-27.

[13] Wexler, 26-27.

[14]  Wexler, 81.

[15] Wexler, 73-75.

[16] Wexler, 115-133.

[17] Wexler, 244.

[18] Wexler, 153.

[19] Wexler, 109.

[20]  Wexler, 33-44.

[21]  Wexler, 17-18.

[22] Wexler, 18-28.

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The Stories of Scottsboro: Race, Justice and the Differing Interpretations of History

The Stories of Scottsboro by James Goodman

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The Accusers: Ruby Bates and Victoria Price

The Stories of Scottsboro by James Goodman is a narrative history of nine African-American boys who were put on trial for raping two white girls, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, on a train traveling through Alabama in 1931.  This case gained national attention because it showed the racism in the Southern criminal justice system.  These boys were tried and convicted of rape in four separate trials when the evidence overwhelmingly was in their favor. This led many people to believe that the boys were falsely convicted of rape just because they were black.  The case also gained notoriety because the Communist Party helped defend the Scottsboro Boys, which showed the impact of the Great Depression during this time.  The book also talked about how each person’s different interpretation of history effected their view of the trial and how each person has their own perspectives regarding the events of the trial.

What sets this book apart was that it did not tell a singular narrative of the events.  Instead, Goodman portrays these events from many different perspectives such as the African-American boys, the prosecutors, the defense attorney Samuel Leibovitz, representatives of the Communists Party who helped defend the boys, news reporters, and different groups within the Northern and Southern population.  This book did an excellent job of showing how these different perspectives affected their view of the trial.  One example of this is when a person in charge of the jury rolls took the stand and was questioned by Leibovitz.  Leibovitz, a Northerner, thought that Alabama courts systematically and consciously excluded African-Americans from the jury rolls.  The court representative agreed that there were few, if any, black jurors but he had a totally different explanation.  He said there were no black people who were competent to be jurors.  To him the absence of black jurors was such a given that it seemed to be almost invisible.  Another example of this is when Leibovitz was fighting with an old Southern judge named Callahan.  The judge was blocking almost all of the defense’s motions and Leibovitz was getting extremely frustrated.  He thought this old Southern judge was just being racist by trying to disrupt his case.  However, the judge thought he was trying to just stick with the events of the case and exclude everything else.  He wanted to stick with the events on the train and uphold the dignity of Southern womanhood by not letting Leibovitz attack Victoria Price for being a hobo and a tramp.  Callahan also wanted to exclude the influence of the Northerners and Communists as much as possible.

This raises deep postmodern concerns about the justice system and the practice of history.  Can there be justice if everybody has their own interpretation of the truth?  Can we have objective history if different groups have vastly different understandings of the events and their impact?  This seems very pessimistic but Joyce Appleby gives us some hope in her book, Telling the Truth About History (New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994).  In this book she agrees that absolute truth is unknowable but she says all is not lost.  There are still historical records and artifacts that can be a check on the interpretations of historians.  While being sensitive of differing perspectives she asserts that if a historical interpretation does not fit with the artifact it should not be believed.

Stories of Scottsboro also showed the impact that history had on the lives of these individuals and the effect that these people had on future events.  For instance, Goodman did a character study of each person involved in the case and showed how their past experienced influenced their thinking during the trial.    He showed how movies like, Birth of a Nation, made Southerners think Reconstruction was characterized by incompetent African-Americans taking political control thanks to the influence of corrupt Northern carpetbaggers.  This influenced their thinking of the trial because they thought the impact of the Northerners and Communists where enacting the same scenario in the Scottsboro Case by letting black rapists go free.

The show American Experience devoted one of their shows to the case entitled, “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy.”  This film on the same subject also showed a hint of the current racial dynamic in Alabama by interviewing 2 white men who were alive during the trial.  They were hesitant to talk about the trial and wished that the train had stopped and the African-American boys had gotten off at a different location than Scottsboro.  This shows that these men probably would admit that there was some racism in the past but they just wanted to ignore itEven though this book and the PBS film dealt with the same content they each had their unique strengths and weaknesses.  The book did a much better job talking about larger themes such as the effect of Communism and the Great Depression on these events.  This almost 400 page book had the space to go into detail the broader context of the trial.  The movie touched on these things but did not delve into these bigger themes as much as Goodman’s book.

This book also did a better job of communicating bigger themes than other

arcnarrative history books such as The Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle, which told a Another unique historical theme Goodman’s book brought up is the importance of clothing.  This was not the most important theme but it was very interesting and showed up in, surprisingly, a lot of places. For example, one witness was shown to be lying when he assumed the two girls were wearing dresses when they were really wearing overalls.  These overalls, in turn, were used to show that Price and 

Bates were not typical Southern pristine women.  They were dirty, poor, hobo woman but they still had more power than the African-American boys. Clothing also came into play when Ruby Bates had a new set of clothing and the defense claimed that she sold out to the Communist to flip her testimony to say she never was raped.  These examples show how clothing, as well as gender and race shape the way people thought about these people no matter whether it was justified or not.fascinating story but did not do as good of a job of placing this story in a broadercontext.  On the other hand, the medium of the PBS film did a much better job of showing the emotion and turmoil that these boys had gone through during and after the trail.  The PBS show displayed this emotion by showing many pictures of the trial, having an authoritative narrator, using an effective soundtrack, and showing interviews with some of the actual participants of the trial themselves.

Ruby Bates recantation of her rape accusations and her new clothes seen here made the Southern prosecution

Ruby Bates recantation of her rape accusations and her new clothes seen here made the Southern prosecution think that she sold out the Communist Party who supported the Scottsboro Boys. 

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The State of the Union or A Political Wish List?

ImageSome of my earliest memories as a child were sitting in front of the TV watching Bill Clinton giving his State of the Union message. It was one of the events that sparked my interest in politics. It seemed like such a spectacle. The whole federal government was all in the house chamber, it was on all the major televisions stations (much to my sister’s chagrin), Clinton would pound the podium with his thumb through his fist as he gave every one of his goals for the future or defenses of his past actions, in reaction there would be a standing ovation from half the chamber and aloof stares or even boos from the other half. It just seemed important, but is it?

Article 2 Section 3 of the constitution states “He [the president] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” As the Senate Historian, Donald Ritchie, states, in a great video I have linked to the bottom of the page, George Washington gave the first message to congress and there were congressional subcommittees created based on each one of his paragraphs. I bet President Obama wished congress now would be so compliant. The State of the Union is still supposed to guide the congressional agenda but it does not have to. Congress could take some parts of it or ignore the president’s suggestions entirely. For example, here is a list of objectives President Obama gave in his last State of the Union Message:

Economy
–Most important job is to make the economy better
–Bring more jobs back to America (Tax cuts to manufacturing)
–Increase oversight of trade so less piracy and stealing us ideas
–Train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job
–Streamline employment system so people can get jobs easier

Teachers Matter!
–Give teachers flexibility so they are not teaching towards test, reward good teachers fire bad teachers
–States require all students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18
–Stop doubling of student loan interest rates
–Extend tuition tax credit
–Government funding will decrease if colleges keep charging higher and higher rates

Misc.
–Work on comprehensive immigration reform, stop expelling responsibly illegal immigrants
–Women earn equal pay for equal work
–Tear down regulations that gather money to start businesses
–Keep funding for research and development

Energy
–Open 75% of potential offshore resources of oil and natural gas, require companies to disclose what chemicals they are using to drill, mine for oil or natural gas
–Invest in clean energy, to create new jobs, clean energy tax breaks
–End oil and gas tax subsidies
–Set clean energy standard that creates market for innovation
–Use public lands to power 3 million homes on clean energy
–Incentives for companies to waste less energy

Infrastructure
–Incomplete highs speed broadband network (he wanted to do this last year)
–Use half the money saved from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to pay down the debt and use the other half to fund infrastructure improvement in USA

Homeownership
–Have banks let people refinance at historically low rates to repay bailout to American people
–Smart housing mortgage regulations, financial fraud, oil spill, mercury, healthcare corruption, Wall Street, financial, increase penalties for repeat offenders
–More investigation for mortgage fraud
–Eliminate outdated costly reforms

Taxes
–Pass payroll tax cut, so taxes don’t go up on working Americans
–Reign in Medicare cots
–Have rich pay more taxes if make more than $1 million then should pay at least 30%
–If make less than $250,000 your taxes should not go up

Productivity of Federal Government
–Ban insider trading by members of congress, ban congress from own stock in industries they impact
–All judicial nominations receive up or down vote within 90 days with 50% majority
–Consolidate executive branch bureaucracy
–Politics should be about consensus not being in perpetual party battle
–Government should do what people can’t do themselves and nothing more

–Partnership with Afghanistan
–Stand against terrorism and tyranny, stand for democracy capitalism
–Prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but wants to have peaceful solution
–Save money on military but keep military powerful
–Increase cyber security
–Veterans jobs corp. to help veterans get jobs
–Just like military USA should forget about politics, work as a team, trust each other, have a common resolve.

As I read through this myself I was struck by the similarity between the items mentioned last year and the ones mentioned last night. Why is this? Is it because the president’s major goals cannot be achieved in one year? Is it because Congress refuses to act on Obama’s suggestions? Or could it be because Obama is not effective in implementing all of his policies?
Besides the obligatory “The State of Our Union is Strong” proclamation these also seem like more forward looking statements rather than a comprehensive evaluation of where the country is at that time. More like a wish list than a State of the Union

If the president knows most, if not all, of their policy objectives will not be implemented and the constitution does not mandate a yearly message (just from time to time) then why continue to give a State of the Union every year? As Donald Ritchie says the drama of the SOTU is too good of an opportunity to miss. As the tweets and facebook messages I see today my childhood self is not the only person who watches the SOTU and thinks it is a big deal. Past presidents have also used the media to assist in this process. For example, LBJ pushed back the start time so more people could see it, and now the White House and congress can live tweet as the speech is given. Given all this, I realized the SOTU is less important in showing where the country is at that time or setting the political agenda for the year but it is still important as one of the few times that has enough political drama where the president can reiterate their message directly to the American people.

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The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad

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Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, shows how American sociologists in the late 19th and early 20th century were both affected by and an influence on the racists attitudes of the time. As seen in Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice by David Oshinsky, blacks were imprisoned at far higher rates than whites after the civil war to enforce racial hierarchies and also for the economic benefit of whites. In the Progressive Era there was a call for reform to make their statements more objective by using more data. The sociologist doing this research found blacks were much more likely to be diseased, to die at an early age, and much more likely to go to jail. Muhammad shows that even if these numbers were totally accurate the sociologist’s interpretations of them were flawed. They only distinguished blacks from whites; they did not differentiate between any other immigrant groups. They also did not look at any other social or environmental causes for the increased imprisonment. These researchers assumed this was due to the fact that blacks were inherently inferior so it was useless to help them. This in turn led to less allocation of fund for black neighborhoods, which led to more imprisonment, and the cycle started all over.
The Condemnation of Blackness had many strong points. Muhammad approaches his subject matter from a very unique perspective looking at racist’s attitudes in the fields of sociology and in the North. This shows how pervasive racism was at the time and it is an encouragement for other historians to look beyond just the South when dealing with racism. A good example of this is when Muhammad said Northern whites thought of blacks as distant Southerners so they were uncomfortable with blacks living next door. He also mentioned how sociologists tried to use statistics to bridge the gap between North and South after the civil war even though the interpretation of these numbers was still racist. Another strong point is Muhammad’s discussion of the major theme of Justice. He shows that the justice system is not perfect but socially constructed even if people are using data their interpretations can still be influenced by their attitudes towards race. This should make the reader question the fairness of the justice system in the past as well as in the present. Another interesting point Muhammad brings up is how attitudes change. He does a good job of showing how people, including some African Americans of the time, used social Darwinism to justify their racist attitudes. Muhammad goes on to show how sociologists broadened their explanation for black criminality as more African-American sociologists were being taken seriously in this field.
There were also several weak points to The Condemnation of Blackness. Although Muhammad’s argument is sound his writing style is not as clear as Oshinsky. He, at times, skips around on the topics he is covering and has generalities without giving specific evidence to support his claim. He also focuses on Philadelphia in several of his chapters. His argument is convincing but he does not explain enough how Philadelphia is an accurate representation of all of the North.
Muhammad’s use of sources is impressive but may not be applicable to the attitudes of the broader public. Muhammad used a variety of sociologist’s books such as, W.E.B. Dubois, to a black author with racist’s views, to northern liberals, and southern writers. He does a good job of showing the impact that these works had to the thinking of the time period. However, one hesitation at using these sources is one could as how much do academic writings really affect the general populace? He should have been more clear as to who these writers influenced but he does a good job of explaining their impact on the people who did read these books.

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Race, Justice, and Memory in the Criminal Justice System of the American South

I am taking a class entitled Race, Class, and Justice in the American South.  I am required to write a response paper each week, here is my first one:

Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice by David Oshinsky, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William Stuntz, and the PBS film entitled Slavery By Another Name dealt with the criminal justice system and race relations in America from Reconstruction until the present through their discussions of the black codes, sharecropping, peonage, the convict lease system, lynching, chain gangs, and attempts to reform the system.

bookcoverOshinsky gave an excellent general account of the day-to-day struggles African-Americans prisoners had to endure in the South. By focusing on the infamous Mississippi prison called Parchman Farm, Oshinsky showed that the white leaders of Parchman were motivated by profits and enforcing their superiority over blacks rather than rehabilitating the criminals. The major strength of this book was that it showed the brutality that whites inflicted on the black prisoners. For instance, a white mob put dirt in the mouth of Charley Shepard, a black man, before they lit him on fire so he would burn alive and not die instantly from the fumes. Oshinsky explained that some whites treated blacks worse during the convict lease system compared to slavery because blacks were valuable commodities as slaves but they were expendable during the convict lease period since there was such a huge supply of convict laborers. Another strength of this book was to show the importance of labor history. Worse Than Slavery showed how the lives of black people were ruined when they got convicted on trumped up charges just so whites could force these prisoners to work for no pay on Parchman Farm for the enrichment of the whites. Oshinsky said white southerners were now using the criminal justice system to exert the same control over blacks as they had done previously during slavery. Another strength of this book was to highlight how people’s racial attitudes affected their thinking. For example, white prostitutes were pitied for being in an unfortunate circumstance but black prostitutes were more likely imprisoned.

The major weakness of the book was that it emphasized breadth over depth. Oshinsky talked about many influential incidents, like the Emmitt Till case, over a long time span in only about 250 pages. It was worthwhile to receive a general overview but this book would have benefited from going more in depth on the specifics of these incidents. This would allow for multiple perspectives like an international perspective or from the point of view of the black family who was missing their husband/father. This book also suffered by not emphasizing national politics. In contrast, the Slavery by Another Name film mentioned Theodore Roosevelt’s influence on starting peonage trials in the South even though they were not completely successful. Oshinsky talked about how early 20th century historians said blacks regressed after they were freed but this book would have benefited from including more historiography. This would help the author explain what unique contribution he has made with this book.

sban

The PBS film talked about many of the same issues as Worse Than Slavery and it had many of the same strengths and weaknesses. However, the movie had a unique strength of showing how collective racial memory can overtake the historical accuracy of past events. For example, an ancestor of a prominent white farm owner was interviewed for the film. She explained how the family lore about her ancestor was that he was a good man. However, this woman learned, later on, that her ancestor brutalized and killed a black person working on his farm. This showed the power of collective memory when a person’s recollection of her ancestor was so totally inaccurate in relation to the real man.

stuntz

Stuntz’s wrote that the criminal justice system is broke because the rule of law has collapsed, discrimination against black people has risen, and the justice system has become harsher since the 1960’s and 1970’s. In addition, Stuntz said America does not have equal protection under the law because police do not enforce the law equally. Thus, the discretion and prejudices of law enforcement officials come into play when deciding to arrest or not arrest a suspect. It is interesting to note that Stuntz said the centralization of the criminal justice system is a problem whereas Oshinsky said almost all of the reforms in Mississippi came from the federal government. The Collapse of American Criminal Justice takes an interesting approach by looking at history to explain the problems of the present criminal justice system. Stuntz admits there is a possibility that he is being presentist but he still takes this approach. As I have only read the first 40 pages it will be interesting to note how successful Stuntz is in using history to help him find solutions for the present issues of the criminal justice system.

Discussion Questions
The Oshinsky book and the PBS film dealt a lot with the brutality that whites inflicted on blacks. What is the best way historians should deal with these issues? Is it harder to stay objective when dealing with such emotional issues?

How much can we use history to help explain and solve current issues? Would it be fair to take lessons from the convict-lease system and apply them to the illegal immigration issue that is currently being debated in congress?

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