Pilgrims: New World Settlers & the Call of Home by Susan Hardman Moore (Review/Summary)



Pilgrims proved its main argument well but included overly detailed personal stories, some redundancy, and was not a very entertaining read.

Moore did a good job of proving her thesis that while religion was the biggest motivation why Pilgrims left England starting in the early 1600’s and then returned between 1630-60, people’s lives were more complex. There were also economic, political, and personal reasons for their decisions. These secondary motivations determined who stayed and who actually left. For instance, many Protestants opposed Bishop Laud’s move towards Christianity but not all Protestants left. Susanna Bell did travel to New England because her child died and her relative had gone to New England the year before.[1] The author made a convincing case that the number of Pilgrims who returned to England were substantial and their reasoning was important to understand even though this has usually been written out of history books. The book showed that the Pilgrims that went to New England were not as radical as they are sometimes portrayed. Most wanted to purify not separate from the Church of England. For instance, John Winthrop’s famous “City on A Hill” speech said the Massachusetts Bay Colony had to be an example of religious purity because they are being judged by not only God but also England.[2] Moore stated that the communication technology of the times (pamphlets going across the Atlantic Ocean on boats) made the Pilgrims seem more radical than they actually were.[3] Once they were back in England these Pilgrims only tried to institute gradual reforms and not try to separate from the Church of England.[4] Moore used many primary sources from both England and New England to write this detailed accounting of individual people’s lives.  As a native of Massachusetts, I also appreciated the little nuggets of MA history. For instance, Moore talked about how Cambridge, MA was named after Cambridge University since many of the founders of the town went to school there.[5]

             Even though Moore proved her main thesis the way she got there was a struggle.  The book had some very detailed vignettes of individual Pilgrim’s lives which led to their decision to migrate. However, sometimes it was hard to follow the main points that the author was trying to make since she went into so much detail about the people’s lives. There were nine chapters but the themes in these chapters sometimes overlapped and the book only had four main themes: why people went from England to New England, the theology of these people, why some people returned, and what life was like for them when they returned. The author could have done a better job of making her arguments clearer and consolidating some of the chapters to avoid some repetition. At times, the author added details that were not relevant to the main idea of the chapter. For example, in Chapter 2 she described how harsh the New England winters were. This is interesting but she does not make the connection between this and the main point of the chapter, which was about the New England Pilgrim’s theology called the “New England Way.”[6] The books also included pictures but they were all located in the middle of the book so you could not see them while you were reading about the picture’s content. Even with these areas for improvement, this book is still worth a read by advanced students of early American colonial, 17th century British, immigration, or Massachusetts history.


Pilgrims explained the motivations of the many people who had emigrated to New England by the 1630’s but eventually moved back to England. The major impetus for traveling to New England was the Protestant Reformation that started in 1560 that was against Popery, making the Church of England become more Catholic, and against separation from the church. Between 1560-1630 Protestant reformers and the leaders of the Church of England accommodated each other.[7]

In the 1630’s the protestant reformers became Pilgrims by emigrating to New England for religious, political, economic, and social/personal reasons. The major reason why people moved to New England was that Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, Bishop Matthew Wren and other leaders of the Church of England ended their religious toleration of Protestant reformers and instituted reforms to move closer to Christianity.[8] They required following the Book of Common Prayer, installing a railing between parishioners and communion, sermons only be preached on Sundays, and that ministers to wear surplices. They also outlawed sermons on predestination and freely composed prayer. King Charles I also moved closer to Christianity by marrying the Catholic Henrietta Maria in 1625. However, the people that went to New England should not be thought of as radical separatists. Most just wanted to purify not separate from the Church of England.  For instance, John Winthrop famous “City on A Hill” speech said they have to be an example of religious purity because they were being judged by God and England. Since the boat ride was so expensive the typical Pilgrim actually had a higher than average social and economic standing.[9] Providence, which is God’s plans for people’s lives, was another reason for people to leave England. People looked for signs of Providence to ensure God wanted them to brave the dangerous journey to this new world.[10]

Religion was the major factor but there were also political reasons for leaving. For example, many opposed King Charles I ruling without a parliament from 1629-40. People also had economic reasons for leaving like trying to get rich by catching cod off the New England coast. Some people also had personal reasons for traveling to New England. For example, Susanna Bell went to Massachusetts a year after her relative had emigrated to the same place. [11]

The theology of these New England Pilgrims was called Congregationalism and the “New England Way.” It was different than the Church of England but not as radical as they have been portrayed. A major tenet was that each church community was required to sign a covenant binding everybody together, which meant one could not leave without permission. To enter the covenant people had to give a testimony to show that God had granted them grace. Unintuitively, this was used not to keep people out but to bind people together since they came from all different areas of England and were now in an unexplored land. This did have political consequences because only male freeman who gave a testimony could join the church and only church members could vote.[12]

There were several controversies involving the New England Way. The majority of New England protestants believed people had to live good lives in order for God to grant them grace. There were some Antimonians, who believed that God could grant people grace instantaneously. Many, including Anne Hutchinson, were excommunicated from New England for holding these beliefs.[13] Two different forms of church governance developed between England and New England. England developed Presbyterianism which emphasized church bureaucracy. New England developed Congregationalism where the most important unit of the church was the individual congregations not the church hierarchy.[14] The competition between churches reached its height in the Pamphlet Controversy where prominent figures sent pamphlets back and forth over the Atlantic Ocean to argue why their church was better or show the faults of the other church. The main criticisms of the New England church were that covenants and testimonials were good but not necessary, New England preachers were holier than though for thinking that their churches were purer than the ones in England. This was the main way the English found out about the New England Way. However, the time lag in receiving these pamphlets as well as the bias of the authors created the impression that the New England Protestants were more radical than they really were. For instance, they tied the New England way to Roger Williams who was a true separatist.[15] New England preachers had to preach middle ground between saying English churches were corrupt to justify them going to NE but were not too tough to avoid being called separatists

¼ of Pilgrims who went to New England returned to England in the 1640-50’s before King Charles II was restored and once again tied the Church of England to Catholicism.[16] The author explains that people who returned are usually written out of history but there was a significant amount of people who returned so it is important to know their motivations. The New England church established the Cambridge Platform to lay out clear rules for how people could exit the church. The main stipulations were that people could not leave for private gain but only for the benefit of the community and that the church leaders had the final say about whether people could leave or not. These were clear rules but people’s lives were much more complex. For instance, one priest wanted to go back to England for personal reasons but he gave sermons to persuade the congregation why it was in their best interest that he leave.[17]

People returned to England mainly for religious reasons but political, economic, and personal considerations also factored into these decisions. In 1641 Laud and Wren were put in the Tower of London. This caused many people to come back to England since they thought there would be less poperism and more toleration.[18] Some ministers return to England to get a more stable job or because they were dissatisfied with New England religious life.[19] On the other hand, some ministers were advocates of the New England.[20] Some people thought the tough life in New England was Providence trying to tell them to return. Whereas, other people stayed in New England because they thought Providence was telling them to convert the Native Americans.[21]

Political changes also pushed people back to England. Charles I personal rule ended so Parliament was called back.[22] The English Civil Wars from 1640-6 and 1648-9, on the whole, slowed immigration back to England but some did move back to England to take positions on the army.[23] In the 1650’s England went to war with the Netherlands, which motivated people tied to Amsterdam in Connecticut and New York to return to Europe.[24]

The economic reason for returning to England included having property/inheritance in England and to prevent financial loss since investment in Massachusetts dried up after 1640.[25] Some also moved back because there were better job prospects in England. For instance, Harvard was graduating more and more preachers at a time when they were less in demand since the population of New England was plateauing.[26] Traders were the most likely to return to England since they had Trans-Atlantic connections and yeoman farmers were the least likely since land was so cheap in New England.[27]

The economy, politics, and religious changes affected everybody but personal reasons determined why some people returned to England while other people stayed in New England. People returned because their family members got sick, to escape the harsh New England winters, to rescue their reputation, or to follow their family members.[28] Older people were less likely to return because they had a stronger commitment to New England and were in worse health.[29]

Once back in England most people returned to their old town or moved in with family. Oliver Cromwell wanted returning English soldiers to settle in Scotland and Ireland, where he was fighting wars, to establish more English influence in these places. Soldiers wanted to settle in Scotland but not in Ireland. People who returned did get positions in the English army but not as high as people who had stayed in England. People were still influenced by their time in New England even when they returned through trade ties and by setting up Congregationalists style churches in England.[30]

New England preachers were usually not radical, worked within the church bureaucracy, and had varied experiences upon their return to England. They did better when they instilled gradual reforms in places that were sparsely populated and had a disorganized church. They understood that they could institute radical changes in New England because they were starting from scratch but they needed to only institute reforms in England since they already had established churches. For instance, people had to give testimonials to enter into the church covenant. In England, they instituted half covenants where people could still be allowed to get baptized but excluded from the other sacraments. Others had a formal mass on Sundays but had informal masses other days of the week.[31]


[1] Susan Hardman Moore, Pilgrims: New World Settlers & the Call of Home, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), p 1-16.
[2] Moore, 3, 14, 31.
[3] Moore, 1-16.
[4] Moore, 123-143.
[5] Moore, 70.
[6] Moore, 1-16.
[7] Moore, 19-20
[8] Moore, 1-16
[9] Moore, 25-54
[10] Moore 1-16
[11] Moore 1-16
[12] Moore 34-54
[13] Moore 34-54
[14] Moore 34-54
[15] Moore 34-54
[16] Moore, 143-148
[17] Moore, 69-98
[18] Moore 16-35
[19] Moore 35-74
[20] Moore, 54-74
[21] Moore, 88-103
[22] Moore, 1-16
[23] Moore, 54-74
[24] Moore, 116
[25] Moore, 1-16, 54-74
[26] Moore, 34-54
[27] Moore, 88-103
[28] Moore, 1-88
[29] Moore, 88-103
[30] Moore, 103-123
[31] Moore, 123-143

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The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States by Gordon S. Wood (Review/Summary)



The Idea of America is an intellectual history of the American Revolution. It showed how ideas like monarchy, the Enlightenment, and sovereignty helped start the Revolution and shape the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Woods not only described standard topics like the intellectual arguments of the election of 1800 but also unique topics like questioning whether the Founders were insane (he said no). Woods kept an eye on the future by arguing that the Anti-Federalist were more forward looking than the Federalists and by showing how ideas of the Revolution effects 21st century America.

This intriguing book shined a new light on the American Revolution. Woods does not just recount a timeline of events, he asked more sophisticated questions about what the colonists were thinking and the causes of these ideas. The articles are tied together nicely with similar themes of disinterestedness vs. being in the economy, politicians looking out for the common good vs. looking out for their constituents, America being tied together not by genetics but by shared ideals, arguing that the Anti-Federalist were more forward looking than the Federalists, and that many of the founders feared there was too much democracy in state governments. At his best, Woods used tangible examples to prove his arguments. For instance, Chapter 4 used the contest between Robert Morris and William Findley for governor of Pennsylvania to describe the difference between the Federalists and Anti-Federalist. Morris was a rich Federalist who wanted to stay out of the economy so much that he eventually ended up in debtors prison and opposed paper currency because he said it was not in the “Common Good.” Findley was an Anti-Federalist who supported being in the economy and paper currency because it would help his constituents. He criticized Morris for having private motives for opposing paper currency since that would devalue the loans he gave out. [1]

Woods lack of focus on slavery was disappointing. Woods even stated “Our present preoccupation with race and gender has sometimes tended to misrepresent the period in much the same way that Charles Beard’s Progressive generation misrepresented the period with their preoccupation with the common people against business interest.”[2] The book certainly was not racist and did at times mention slavery but it always was a side note. For instance, Chapter 9 argued that the Federalists were out of step with the future of America by showing that they believed slavery was going to a die a natural death when it was really expanding.[3] Woods also mentioned the hypocrisy of the early Americans thinking of themselves as enlightened when they owned people.[4] Every history does not have to be about slavery but it does deserve more weight than what Woods gives it. In Chapter 7 Woods explained that the South’s desire to keep slavery was the reason why the South was at the forefront of the revolution but conservative by the time of the Civil War.[5] This was a fascinating incite and certainly could have been expanded to an entire chapter.

Even though the book was a combination of eleven articles going back to the 1960’s Woods did a good job of having some common themes so the chapters built upon one another. Woods wanted to break down the distinction between the Revolution and Early America, which can be seen by the titles of the book’s three sections: The American Revolution, The Making of the Constitution and American Democracy, and the Early Republic. Woods has fabulous insights but can be wordy and his arguments could be simplified. His titles were helpful but his opening paragraphs were often hard to understand. One needed to read halfway through the article to figure out the thesis. Each chapter had a brief afterward with Wood’s contemporary commentary. It would have been better to put these at the start of the chapter to introduce the article and put it in historical context. The worst example of this is when Woods spent all of Chapter 4 arguing that the Anti-Federalists were more forward thinking than the Federalists but then in the afterward he basically discounts his entire argument by saying that he now would not take that firm of a stance.[6] This book is dense but many people who have already had an introduction to the American Revolution will enjoy Wood’s new perspectives.

Woods was influenced by things that were happening at the time this book was written in 2011. He said that the current “Imperial Presidency” showed the legacy of monarchy in the American Republic.[7] He said that it is a testament to the Federalists that America has the biggest economy and military in the world.[8] Woods also asked if America’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was the fulfillment of the revolution since the USA was spreading democracy or against the revolution since America was using their superior power to squash popular rebellions.[9] Woods said America was better able to assimilate immigrants because it is united not by genetics but by shared ideals.[10] So it would be interesting how Woods views have change in todays more anti-immigrant society spurred by President Trump.


[1] Gordon S. Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, (New York: Penguin Press: 2011), 127-170.

[2] Wood, 21.

[3] Wood, 251-72.

[4] Wood, 273-290.

[5] Wood, 251-72.

[6] Wood, 127-170.

[7] Wood, 231-250.

[8] Wood, 251-272.

[9] Wood, 319-318.

[10] Wood, 273-290.


Chapter 1 explained the cause of the American Revolution. 18th Century historians said the revolution formalized what had already taken place since the colonists enjoyed a lot of freedom. Early 20th Century Progressive historians thought the rich had economic motives but used the high-minded ideas of the revolution to get popular support. Later historians, such as Edmund Morgan, showed that the colonist’s were consistent in supporting Parliament’s ability to regulate trade but opposing Parliament taxing them without representation. Woods argued ideas do not just shape events events shape ideas. He stated that there was so much conspiratorial thinking that the revolutionaries had to believe some of it even if it was not true. He showed that events like the weakening of the British Empire might have contributed to the revolutionary ideas.

Chapter 2 examines the legacy of Roman Republicanism on the American Revolution. Woods argued that the events of the time, (corruption, idleness, etc.) led colonists and Europeans to support republican virtues of simplicity while still supporting monarchy. For instance French nobles admired the painting The Oath of the Horatii even though it was undercutting their legitimacy. Eventually, however, the meaning of these republican values changed into opposing monarchy. These republican values can be seen in the Neoclassical style of Washington D.C., the decision of Washington to refuse a salary for being president, and the Americans support of positive liberty (participating in government) and negative liberty (rights). Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” quote was also inspired by a Roman playwright named Addison. (73) Woods said the colonists adopted only the parts of Roman philosophy that appealed to them.

Chapter 3 asked were the revolutionaries insane given their support of untrue conspiracy theories? Woods said it was actually their enlightenment thinking that led the colonists believe these conspiracies. The Enlightenment said everything could be explained by the deliberate action of people not divine providence. However the world was getting more complex, interconnected, and fast past then they could imagine. They did not understand unintended consequences or societal forces greater than each person’s decision. So they believed that the changes taking place were the result of somebody’s willful decision. John Swift moved beyond this by saying that there is an “invisible hand” in society. He showed that a decision that is good for an individual might be bad for society and vice versa.

In Chapter 4, Woods argued that the Anti-Federalist represented the future of American society more than the Federalists. Federalists believed politicians should be disinterested umpires of society looking out for the common good not involved in the economy since that would lead them to look out for their own self-interest. The best way to be disinterested was to collect rent but this was impractical since there was so much inexpensive land. Even rich politicians had interests. For instance, rich land owners opposed printing money after the economy slowed down at the end of the revolution since this would devalue the loans they had given out. Federalists feared excessive democracy characterized by popular participation in government and logrolling politicians trading favors. Woods does say every time current society criticizes corrupt politicians who value their private gain over the common good they are harkening back to Federalist ideas. On the other hand, Anti-Federalists realized everybody had interests, it was a benefit to be in the marketplace, politicians should represent their constituents not be disinterested umpires, and believed could move up in society.

Chapter 5 showed that both Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were radicals who believed that all people had an innate moral and social sense and could succeed if they were given enough education. They believed in the goodness of society without realizing the gender, racial, and age tensions within it. They thought government was a necessary evil because it restrained people’s liberty and that the economy brought people together. Even though they shared the same philosophy they did have some differences. Paine was not a slave owner and was willing to say anything since he was in the working class and he supported democratic revolution above America. Jefferson was a slave owner and hid some of what he thought since he was in the upper class and supported America more than the concept of democratic revolution.

Chapter 6 explained why the American constitution is so unique. The founders wrote out the Constitution so that it would be more permanent than just another statute. Courts received the power of Judicial Review to rule that bills passed by the legislature were unconstitutional. They shifted sovereignty from the legislature to the people This implied that politicians are imperfect representatives and led them to go from virtual representation, where each member of the legislature represented the whole country and usually just came from the upper class, to proportional representation, where representation was based on population size.

Chapter 7 asked how America became a democracy. English government mixed monarchy (King), Aristocracy (House of Lords), and democracy (House of Commons). In the early 1700’s, colonists could go over the royal governor’s heads by appealing to trade guilds or English politicians. In the late 1700s colonist-English ties weakened so the rich appealed to the people’s sense of liberty as a new way to subvert the royal governors. The movement started out being top down but the people soon expanded the ideas of liberty to include the importance of voting, support for a less hierarchical society, and the belief that politicians should represent their constituents not be disinterested umpires. The founder’s support of slavery obviously went against these democratic views and showed their racism. Woods said these views led some people to oppose slavery but even Northern abolitionists were hesitant to make African Americans full citizens because that would mean they were completely equal to whites.

Chapter 8 considered how monarchy shaped the American Republic. The founders replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution to limit the democracy in state governments and to create a stronger central government with many of the same powers that used to belong to the king. The election of 1800 was important because power shifted from the Federalists, who leaned more towards monarchy, to Thomas Jefferson, who favored limited government, republicanism, and an egalitarian society. Andrew Jackson was criticized for acting like a king for using patronage to gain power. However, by this time American republicanism was on firmer ground so Jackson remained popular. Even the current “Imperial Presidency” shows the legacy of monarchy in the American Republic.

Chapter 9 argued that the Federalist had a faulty vision for America. They did not believe a country could be tied together just by people’s moral and social sense of justice. So to tie people together they supported a stronger constitution that enabled the federal government to tax and call up the military, more infrastructure (canals), and Hamilton’s idea to subsume state debt into the Federal government. They assumed the Northwest Ordinance would lead to a peaceful and orderly move west but settlers, in fact, ignored treaties with Native Americans and did not pay what they were supposed to for the land. Woods does admit that it is a testament to the Federalists that America has the biggest economy and military in the world.

Chapter 10 showed how Americans thought of themselves as the most enlightened society. The Constitution was based on the Enlightenment principle that knowledge was gained through the senses not through divine providence or reason alone. Since everybody had senses everybody could gain knowledge. This went against European society that was more hierarchical. They believed prisons could be for improvement not just punishment so they created solitary confinement so prisoners could think about what they had done. Americans prided themselves on going above parochialism and religious customs by having the largest newspaper circulation in the world. Their goal was to unify many different people into one country, which has enabled America to assimilate immigrants better than other countries.

Chapter 11 talked about the history of rights and sovereignty. In early English history the King had all the power and the parliament was just a court to settle private matters. The Magna Carta forced the King to write down his powers, which inherently limited them, and made Parliament seem like the true representatives of the people. Early Americans took this a step farther by saying that sovereignty lay with the people so citizens needed to have rights that the government could not take away. They also increased the scope of the judicial branch to not just deal with private matters but to also judge the constitutionality of laws.

The conclusion discussed the legacy of the American Revolution. Americans were connected not through similar genetics but by the shared ideas of republicanism and revolution. This made them support other democratic revolutions until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 because it represented the Soviet Union and Communism overtaking America and democracy. Woods asked if America’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was the fulfillment of the revolution since the USA was spreading democracy or against the revolution since America was using their superior power to squash popular rebellions.

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Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, by James Forman Jr. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 2017


Locking Up Our Own showed that African-Americans supported and, in some cases, were instrumental in the creation of the laws and police practices in the 1950’s-60’s that led to the recent dramatic rise in African-American imprisonment.

The first part of the book, “Origins,” showed how the heroin epidemic of the 1960’s, crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the rising crime rate spurred politicians to institute mandatory minimums for gun possession and all drugs, including Marijuana. Forman also showed that African-Americans believed they were making progress by getting more African-American police officers and more aggressive police tactics toward drug and gun offenders. African Americans saw this as taking bad people off the streets and did not realize the full effect these changes would have on the prisoner’s themselves and the African American community in general.

The second half of the book, “Consequences,” showed the effects of these laws and police practices that were not fully considered when they were created. Forman explained how the police tactic of “Stop and Search” led African-Americans to be arrested at a much higher rate for drug possession compared to whites even though whites and blacks used drugs at the same rate. “Stop and Search” was a tactic where police pulled people over for minor violations with the motivation to search their car for guns. The police limited their searches to places with the most guns which, inevitably, where mostly in low-income African-American neighborhoods. Even though the program targeted guns it led to police searching cars owned by mostly African Americans. Drugs were found in some of these stops and the police would arrest the driver.

Forman would agree that these were well-intentioned laws but as Jimmy Carter said “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”1 Instead Forman argues that in order to solve the crime and drug problems much deeper issues of poverty, lack of education, and lack of job training/treatment centers need to be solved.

Despite what the title may imply, Forman shows that racism was prevalent throughout this time period. The most stark example of racism maybe when Washington DC elected Walter Washington as its first African-American mayor since Reconstruction the US House Representative John McMillan from South Carolina sent him a truckload of watermelons. This was not in 1865 or 1930 but 1975. Forman does a great job of showing how the Civil Rights Movement’s reaction against racism accelerated these changes in drug penalties and police practices. He showed that African American politicians instituted tougher penalties because they knew African-Americans were discriminated against and could not afford to get involved with drugs or guns. Forman recalled a judge who constantly told the defendant that Martin Luther King didn’t die so they could use drugs or commit violent crime.

This book was a surprisingly easy read given the subject matter. Forman wrote in a very conversational tone and it helped that all of the notes are at the back of the book instead of at the bottom of the page. Forman did an excellent job of including pictures as another effective type of evidence for his arguments. A bonus was that the pictures were located next to the relevant text instead of all combined in the middle of the book.

The “Origins” section had strong arguments but he used a lot of secondary sources. Even some of the primary sources he cited were found in other secondary sources. He focused on Washington, DC so further research on other cities maybe necessary.

The “Consequences” section was by far the best part of the book and probably why it won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in general non fiction. Forman used his first hand experiences in the Washington DC Public Defender Service to show the dramatic toll these laws have taken on the African-American defendants he represented. He humanized the defendants and argued that they should not be defined by their worst decision.



  • Jimmy Carter, “Drug Abuse Message to the Congress,” 1977/08/02, found in James Forman, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, by James Forman Jr., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017, p 21.



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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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2013-05-13 · 12:49 pm

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

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


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


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?


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


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.


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 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


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.


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.


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


[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


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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