Leon Litwack: Cal Professor retires at height of popularity, still troubled by race relations

Historians in the News

America's push for racial integration began stalling in the 1970s and now seems mired in indifference, says UC Berkeley history Professor Leon Litwack.

Litwack, 77, a leading historian of race in America, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and much-admired teacher, ends his 43-year Cal career on Monday in front of 700 undergraduates in his History 7B class at Wheeler Hall. His final lecture on America's racial divide is titled "Fight the Power."

In an interview with The Chronicle, Litwack dwelled on a question that has bothered him since the 1970s and that fills him with foreboding about the nation's future. Why did America give up the fight for integration?

Denial over the legacy of slavery is a running theme in American history and is commonplace in contemporary America, Litwack says. He cites the nation's lack of outrage over segregated schools and communities. He finds that many liberals, admirers of Martin Luther King, have accepted the divide as a matter of parental and economic prudence.

"It's articulated today in a more subtle manner than the past 200 to 400 years," Litwack said. "In my course, I conclude with the observation of a black preacher from Mississippi in the 1970s or 1980s when he was asked what has been the impact of the civil rights movement.

"He said everything has changed and nothing has changed," Litwack said. "I think that pretty much sums it up."

What distinguishes Litwack is that despite his elite professorial status and international reputation, he's at heart a teacher. He teaches by telling stories, mainly stories of the unsung.
He grew up in Santa Barbara, the son of working-class Russian Jewish immigrants. His father was a gardener and his mother a seamstress. The experiences of his parents and neighbors, most of whom were Mexican, inspired his interest in people excluded from the history books....

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