Skipped History with Ben Tumin Skipped History with Ben Tumin blog brought to you by History News Network. Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 ( Welcome to Skipped History! Hello, HNN! 

My name is Ben, I’m a historical satirist, and I make Skipped History, a comedic web series exploring overlooked events, people, and ideas in US history. It’s a pleasure to connect with fellow history nerds here!

Before the pandemic, I created humorous multimedia talks to educate and entertain audiences on historical events. I was touring a piece on the 1954 coup in Guatemala when Covid struck, so I pivoted to producing Skipped History. To my delight, the show has been well-received. Skipped was even profiled in the New York Times!

I publish new episodes via a newsletter (you can sign up here), and I’ll post some of them here, too. Season 3 begins this Thursday with an exploration of the ongoing legacy of the Attica Prison uprising in 1971. From there, we’ll cover how a very religious senator from Utah temporarily succeeded in “terminating” Native American tribes in the 1950s, the origins of the Pledge of Allegiance, Koch Brother-related shenanigans in Oklahoma (can’t stop, won’t stop making fun of them), and more.

I’m also a little obsessed with the Confederate-y history of US history textbooks and will publish some ongoing research here. For even more bits of Skipped History, follow us on Twitter and Instagram!

I’m excited to unearth the past together. Much more to come!

Cheers, Ben

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
The Attica Prison Uprising, 50 Years Ago Today Good morning, HNN!

I'm pleased to present the first episode of Season 3 of Skipped History, chronicling the Attica Prison uprising of 1971. It’s been 50 years since the stunning rebellion, and still the consequences are unfolding:

You can also watch the full episode on Instagram and a preview on Twitter.

Today’s story comes from Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson. Have you read it? I found it truly draw-dropping.

I hope you enjoy the video. Questions, comments, and suggestions for further reading are welcome!



Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
How NY Covered Up a Massacre—and Helped Spark Mass Incarceration Greetings, HNN!

I come bearing the second of two parts exploring the Attica Prison uprising and its legacy today. In Blood in the Water, Heather Ann Thompson recounts the connection between New York's coverup of brutality at Attica and the rise of mass incarceration. In our episode, we try to do her arguments and the sacrifices of Attica's prisoners justice:

You can also watch the full episode on Instagram here. And ICYMI, you can view Part I on the uprising here.

Today’s story comes from Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson.

See you in two weeks with our next episode!



Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
How the Book of Mormon Inspired the "Termination" of Native American Tribes Hello, HNN pals!

In anticipation of Indigenous People's Day, let’s go back to 1953, when a Mormon senator tried to help native peoples become “white and delightsome.” Even Richard Nixon knew it was a bad plan. Alas:

New this week, you can listen to an audio version of the episode on Spotify and Apple Podcasts! If you listen on Apple and enjoy the new format, I’d love for you to rate and review the show! I’m tickled to be on the other side of this ask.

You can also watch the episode on Instagram here. 

This week’s story comes from The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer; Beneath These Red Cliffs by Ronald Holt; and an article in Utah Historical Quarterly by Carolyn Grattan-Aiello.

Next time on Skipped History…

We explore the origins of the Pledge of Allegiance, originally written in 1892. However, God only became part of the pledge in 1954. Not coincidentally, this timing coincided with corporate executives’ attempts to roll back the New Deal...

See you then!


Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
How Corporate Executives Quietly Shaped the Pledge of Allegiance Good morning, history pals!

Today, we explore how corporate executives thought God might be able to repair their image after the Great Depression. Although their efforts backfired, US students have pledged allegiance to “one nation under God” ever since:

You can also listen to this week’s episode on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and peep the episode on Instagram.

Today’s story comes from One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse. Holy moly, what a good book!

Next time on Skipped History...

We explore the Powell Memo, a confidential document written in 1971 that reshaped the role of corporations in politics and led to the rise of the lobbying industry as we know it today. You might already know about the memo. However, you might be less familiar with pharmacy-related jokes about Justice Lewis Powell.

Stay tuned :)



Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
The Genesis of US Corporations’ Political Dominance Good morning, HNN!

Have you ever wondered how elected officials became so beholden to money? Well, look no further than the Powell Memo, a confidential document from 1971 that inspired corporations to take over US politics.

You can also listen to the episode on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and watch it on Instagram.

Today’s story comes from We, the Corporations by Adam Winkler, and Dark Money by Jane Mayer. Have you read them? I find both positively stunning.

Next time, on the Season 3 finale of Skipped History...

We’ll examine the family foundation primarily responsible for undermining election integrity today. (I actually wrote about the foundation last week for paying subscribers to the Skipped History newsletter, which inspired me to make our finale on the same subject.)

See you then!


Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
The 1950s Dog Dads Responsible for Voter Fraud Claims Today Good morning, HNN!

In the past six months, over a dozen states have passed new restrictive voting laws that favor Republicans. If you follow the money, the original source of these efforts to undermine democracy becomes clear. Cat lovers, rejoice: it all dates back to a couple of pooch-lovers...

You can also listen to the episode on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and watch it on Instagram.

Today’s story comes from Dark Money by Jane Mayer, as well as a recent investigation of hers called “The Big Money Behind the Big Lie.”

Next season on Skipped History, beginning in March:

There’ll be Indigenous history, banking history, and the 1619 Project may make an appearance! We’ll try to get to the bottom of the question, “To what extent has the US ever really been a democracy?” while inevitably pivoting to explore the escapades of more poodles. Thanks so much for tuning in this season!

Cheers, Ben

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
Dr. Gillian Frank on the Decimation of Roe v. Wade Well, that was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad, Unprecedented, Precedent-Destroying Week at the Supreme Court. To help make sense of SCOTUS’ reversal of Roe v. Wade, I spoke to Dr. Gillian Frank, a historian of sexuality and religion. This is the first of a series of Skipped conversations on how Roe fell, and where we go from here.

Dr. Frank writes on the intertwined histories of religion, sexuality, and gender in the US, and is the co-host of Sexing History, a podcast about how the history of sexuality shapes our present. We chatted about the history of antiabortion laws, the public health crisis that's assuredly about to arise, and how the fight for abortion rights doesn't end now. 

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. If you'd like the audio of the full conversation (and/or more Skipped History in general), you can try out life as a paying subscriber here. I hope you learn as much as I did.

Ben: Dr. Frank, it’s a pleasure to chat with you, albeit under such disturbing circumstances.

GF: Thanks for having me.

Ben: To ground our conversation, could you talk about the rise of the first anti-abortion laws in the 19th century?

GF: Sure, though before we get to the restrictions, we need to note that abortion was widely practiced for most of American history up until the 1860s, 70s, and 80s. But then, a confluence of factors led to new restrictions on abortion. 

The first factor was the professionalization of physicians. With the founding of the American Medical Association (AMA) and the regulation of physicians, physicians tried to normalize and seize power over medical practices. Part of that meant stamping out what we would now call quacks or untrained unskilled physicians. But it also meant seizing power from skilled medical practitioners such as midwives, who offered competition and covered all the things an OB/GYN would cover, including abortion. 

Ben: Might I wager a guess that most of the members of the AMA, if not all, were white men?

GF: That would be correct, yes.

Ben: Well, as long as we are consistent.

GF: The second factor was the coincident rise of social purity movements. People like Anthony Comstock and others had huge concerns about what they called the “moral degradation” of American society. Comstock was a religious fundamentalist.

And he, like many white Protestants, feared that the arrival of Catholic Eastern Europeans meant good Protestant stock was declining. 

Ben: It's just a pure coincidence that his name is Comstock and he's worried about the population's “stock”?

GF: I had never thought of it that way, but yes, pure coincidence. And so Comstock, joined by others, went from town to town, city to city, state to state, to campaign for abortion restrictions. Their efforts succeeded. 

In the 1880s, state by state, legislators pass what are called Comstock Laws, banning information about abortion and contraception, as well as banning abortion except to save the life of the mother. By the late 19th century, we see the completion of a shift from abortion being widely practiced to abortion being tightly restricted and in the domain of licensed male physicians.

Ben: After the Comstock Laws spread, what options did women face when seeking an abortion?

GF: Of course, the demand never stopped. The question then is: who did women go to? Where did they get abortions? 

One answer is that, as we fast forward, to the 1920s and 1930s, most cities and towns had a reliable full-time abortion provider. Members of the medical establishment felt if our patient needs an abortion, we can at least send them to the known provider and have them do the procedure, and then we can tidy up the aftermath. 

At the same time, unskilled people knew there was a strong demand for abortion, and many women turned to a black market that emerged. Newspaper headlines would regularly describe how people would seek out a gas station attendant or a trusted friend or someone who knew someone who said they could supposedly do an abortion.

Skilled or not, all of these practitioners operated outside the law. As a result, expenses went up, safety went down, and there were fatalities.

Ben: Wow, okay.

GF: Now, post-1940s demand isn't ceasing. In fact, demand for abortion is growing as part of a post-war, sort of sexual loosening up.

Ben: The post-World War II orgy, if you will.

GF: I wouldn't phrase it that way, but I'm sure there were some. 

And around the same time, there's a strong push to establish the so-called “nuclear family.” As women are pushed out of full-time work into part-time or homemaking work, we see a tightening of abortion restrictions.

Not coincidentally, in the 40s, Catholic physicians conduct a survey of how their hospitals are treating abortions. What are the numbers of abortions that they're providing versus, say, hospitals like Johns Hopkins or others that are Protestant, secular, or just non-Catholic? 

And they find that there's a wide discrepancy, suggesting that non-Catholic hospitals are providing a lot of illegal abortions.

This leads to another round of regulation that spurs hospitals to self-regulate for fear of violating the law. Hospitals introduce hospital committees to review every abortion case that comes in. These committees basically became a way of driving down the abortion rates that were legal and accessible. 

And so, entering the 50s, we have what we might call a quiet sexual revolution going on and less access to safe abortions. What happens? Again, rising body counts. 

Ben: In other words, a public health crisis.

GF: Right. A public health crisis emerges. Lawyers are aware of it. Police are aware of it. The clergy is aware of it. 

Ben: How does this growing mass awareness coalesce into a pro-abortion movement? In your work, you describe a religious alliance that forms, almost like a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar and decide to support women’s rights.

GF: Yes, minus the priest at this point. 

The early abortion rights movement is largely coming from professionals. Physicians, lawyers, and clergy who believe that they should have the autonomy to make decisions with their patients.

As for the clergy, it’s mainly ministers from mainline Protestant denominations, as well as rabbis from reform and conservative denominations. They've already been on board with contraception for decades and see family planning as an ethical duty and sex for pleasure within marriage as natural, normal, and desired.

One of the big galvanizing factors was German measles, aka the rubella epidemic, which was causing a lot of fetal deformities. And there was a scare over thalidomide, a tranquilizer that also led to birth defects. So religious figures worried about the health of fetuses. (You can hear the ableist language of the decade.) 

Male lawyers, clergy, and physicians begin to see it as a moral outrage that when women they deemed worthy—i.e. women who were white, middle- and upper-class, and married—needed abortions, they had to either fly abroad or just couldn’t get them. 

Meanwhile, a growing women's liberation movement and second-wave liberal feminist movement are also seeing sexual matters as essential to recognizing the politics of oppression, and how to activate your own life to have full empowerment and social equality. Abortion becomes central to this conversation.

So, by the mid-60s, in California, New York, and other states, legislatures are considering abortion law reform. There's an emergent consensus about: what does it mean if hundreds of thousands of people a year are violating the law? 

And I haven't even gone down the full list of all the people who are concerned about abortion. But, long story short, by 1970, New York has legalized abortion with no residency requirements. Hawaii does the same around the same time. Kansas comes next. And then a whole other slew of states follow suit.

Ben: So, over generalizing, in a story that we’ll explore another time, this momentum leads to the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973. 

Something that occurred to me while reading your work, and which has occurred to me throughout the conservative push to overturn Roe is: isn't it very clear that we're heading toward another public health crisis? Why wouldn't there be more momentum toward stopping this public health crisis?

GF: Your basic question is what happens next?

Ben: It is, yes, but I hate to be too explicit about that in front of a historian.

GF: Okay. Will this create a public health crisis? Inevitably. 

By denying medical access, by making abortion more expensive, by trying to criminalize it, by increasing the social stigma around it; by empowering states to demonize those who seek and provide abortions and those who share information about the procedure; all of these things will have repercussions, the least of which is that for women who want to terminate a pregnancy in states with very restrictive laws, it'll become more time consuming, more expensive, and more difficult. 

These demotivating factors will be able to snare some, but if the past is any indication, many other folks are going to attempt self-managed abortions. 

Now, the past is not the same as the present. We have new technologies, new ways of getting information. But will there be people left behind? Inevitably. What will be the mental health, economic, or public health consequences of folks compelled to have children they don't want? As many people are pointing out, this oppression will have negative, cascading effects on people's lives. And for folks who inevitably end up traveling great distances, taking lots of time, and spending more money on abortion? Well, all of these things wear on a person and make an ordinary medical procedure traumatic. 

I can't predict body count. I can't predict maternal mortality. But I’d emphasize that the difference between now and in the past was, pre-Roe, there was not a political party that uniformly made anti-abortion its platform. In the past, both Democrats and Republicans were split over abortion.

Ben: As in, until even a couple of decades ago, members were split within both parties.

GF: Yes, split within both parties. But the ways in which the Republican Party has become radically conservative, if not outright anti-democratic and authoritarian, make for a different situation today.

In the past, you would almost never offer criminal penalties to someone seeking an abortion. Republicans are floating those penalties now and trying to expand a much greater punitive regime. This is an anti-abortion regime on steroids as compared to the past.

Ben: Wow. I suppose the increasing radicalization of this regime suggests there's no silver lining at the moment.

GF: No, I won't say there’s a silver lining, but I will say that it's not hopeless; that for decades now there have been groups preparing for this day; that there are many activists on the ground already creating infrastructures, and they have been creating infrastructures. 

This story doesn't stop with the decimation of Roe v. Wade. It's not a simple end of abortion. Rather, it's a transformation of how it can be accessed. It’s part of an ongoing struggle to provide health and dignity to millions of Americans.

Ben:  Thank you for that reminder, and for your time today.

GF: Real pleasure to speak with you.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
Abortion and Birth Control Have Always Been Linked It’s been three weeks since SCOTUS overturned Roe v. Wade. To learn how the Dobbs v. Jackson decision could affect birth control access (and about birth control history in general), I spoke to Dr. Kelly O'Donnell and Professor Lauren MacIvor Thompson, two experts on reproductive history. Turns out, birth control is wrapped up with abortion in a bit of a “turducken” (you’ll see).

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers to Skipped History can access audio of the full conversation here, as well as a written bit of Skipped History about the surprising big money, anti-abortion alliance here. This is the second in a series of conversations on how Roe fell, and where we go from here.

Ben: You’re both quite knowledgeable about the birth control movement and birth control history. To ground our conversation, let's start back in time with early views of birth control.

LMT: I can take that one. The biggest thing to know about birth control in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in colonial America and in the United States is for a long, long time women managed their own reproductive health. Care was not in the hands of physicians and it was not in the hands of the law. By and large, women were using herbs from their gardens, things like tansy and pennyroyal that grow and did grow in American gardens for centuries. 

Ben: Skipped gardening history.

LMT: Yeah. They're using these herbs in teas, and women soak sponges in solutions and insert those. They use douching mechanisms after sex. So women are really managing their reproductive health from start to finish. And before the early 19th century, the vast majority of women's pregnancies and births would have been handled by midwives.

So this is really a woman's space and it's not until the early 19th century that we begin to see a transition to men in the field. The earliest laws that we have about abortion and birth control on the books and state legislatures really have more to do with the fact that there are unscrupulous business owners and manufacturers who are mailing out contraceptives and abortifacients, along with like headache, remedies or gout remedies, or you name it.

None of these remedies are regulated, and so legislatures start passing laws that try to prevent people from being poisoned. So they're not actually concerned about abortion. They're not concerned that women are regulating their fertility. 

KOD: Yeah, and it’s really in the mid-19th century when we see more of a focus on regulating the practice of medicine in addition to the safety concerns. We get Anthony Comstock coming along, whom I know you talked about in your last interview.

LMT: Right, states passed their own mini Comstock laws regulating contraception, pornography, abortion, sex education materials—anything that has to do with sex under the umbrella of “obscenity.” This is in the 1870s, 1880s, and those laws remained on the books until the late 20th century. In some cases they’re still on the books, they're just not enforced. Of course, now that Roe has been overturned, it’s anyone’s guess if they’ll be enforced again.

KOD: Getting back to birth control, this is why you can't really separate out contraception and abortion. Dating back to the 19th century, anything related to sexuality, and any kind of regulation of not having children, is wrapped up into one obscenity constellation.

Ben: An obscenity burrito.

KOD: Right, a turducken of reproductive options.

Ben: Interesting. So, physicians and moral crusaders like Comstock push abortion outside of the women's sphere. It becomes a regulated, male-dominated action...

KOD: Yes, by the end of the 19th century, going into the 20th century, all management of reproduction is going towards a male-controlled, medicalized model. And there were some benefits to that, right? For some women, hospital births were safer. Not getting infections and dying in childbirth was obviously an improvement (that is, for women who weren’t discriminated against in hospitals). 

So, undoubtedly, there are good things that happen. But alongside that comes—how do I say this in a way that's not super nefarious sounding—a sort of medical surveillance regime.

Ben: Totally not nefarious. 

LMT: Yeah. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, the immediate two decades before the Roe decision, that’s when we see the most cracking down by police forces and the legal system. Police forces become devoted to rooting out abortionists and also putting women on trial for seeking abortions. And so, for example, women ended up going to the hospital for some awful septic abortion, and the hospital committee and police officers would interview them on their hospital bed going, who did this to you? Why did you do this? And then the next thing you know, you're in court. 

And here’s a really important thing to remember that helps explain where we are today. There’s this popular idea that Roe enshrined women's rights, but it didn't.

Ben: In the sense that the decision didn't enshrine women's rights, but rather a right to privacy? How would you phrase that?

LMT: Well, if you read the text of the Roe decision and the way Justice Harry Blackmun words the key portions of the majority opinion, it's really about granting physicians rights and upholding physicians’ professional expertise. In fact, Blackmun says, the feminist movement has argued that “a woman's right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses. With this, we do not agree.”

In other words, he’s explicitly saying, this isn't about feminism. It's not about women's rights. It’s about this practical medical matter that women need to take care of in consultation with their (male) physicians and their (male) physicians need to have full professional authority to make those decisions without fear of getting arrested.

KOD: Yeah, the quick story that people have about Roe is oh, right to privacy, now women can have abortions and it's legal.

But that really collapses a lot of the complexity of the history of abortion, which is very much more uneven than people realize. Dating back to the Comstock Laws, there’ve always been women who’ve had trouble accessing abortion—lower income, women of color in particular. 

So one point to take away as we're facing this absolute chaos post-Dobbs is that, in a lot of ways, there’s always been this chaotic patchwork of women with uneven access to abortion. It steadily improved over the years, but now we’re descending back into chaos—in a lot significantly worse ways due to the oversight and surveillance of people's bodies that are available today. 

Ben: This return to an earlier patchwork seems to suggest that maybe the shape of progress is less a straight line than... a rhombus, with lots of little unexpected and unwanted turns and pointy edges. Moving forward, how does the Dobbs decision affect birth control access?

KOD: Again, abortion and birth control have always been linked. Unsurprisingly, we’re already seeing increasing discomfort with birth control types like emergency contraceptives. Prescribers are also worried about things like IUDs because they can’t be sure if a court would view them as abortifacients and not contraceptives.

So I imagine we’ll see a lot of preemptive CYA (cover your ass) moves, just for fear that doctors are maybe getting a little too close to what some people in their brains think is abortion. 

LMT: Right, we’re also heading into an uncertain future regarding ectopic pregnancies, where the sperm meets the egg and implants accidentally in the fallopian tube, which is terrible and you bleed out if it's allowed to continue. Now, according to interpretations of some abortion laws, you may not remove that embryo even though it's implanted in a place where it’s going to kill the woman and itself. Legal experts warn that abortion laws can be interpreted to say that if you treat an ectopic pregnancy, that's the equivalent of an abortion. It is madness.

Ben: What would you say to people who want to reverse the madness?

LMT: I think we can learn from other countries. If you look at places like Argentina or Ireland, two very Catholic countries that have liberalized abortion laws, activists haven’t glommed onto that language of choice and citizenship.

Rather, they’ve attacked the pro-choice question from an empathy angle, pointing out that women will die. Their messaging is fundamentally different than how Americans are approaching this, and it’s been successful.

KOD: I agree, and generally, I think it’s important to remember that there are no simple answers. This history is complicated, and anyone who's trying to give you a black and white version of it, whether they're a Supreme Court justice or someone on Twitter, they’re wrong.

There's never really been a simple solution to granting (or removing) women’s reproductive autonomy. We would not be having this conversation if there were.

Ben: Okay, got it. Your reminders are nothing is simple and the past is chaos.

KOD: No! But maybe.

Ben: I will let you go from there. This was so fascinating. Disturbing but fascinating. Thank you both so much for your time.

LMT: Thank you.

KOD: Thanks for having us.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
Dr. Karen L. Cox on Confederate Monuments With battles over Confederate monuments still brewing, I spoke to Dr. Karen L. Cox, a leading expert on the topic. Dr. Cox is the author of four books, including No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice.

Dr. Cox and I spoke about the enduring white supremacist purpose of Confederate monuments and why battles to remove them are nothing new. Surprisingly, Vanilla Ice also makes an appearance.

A condensed transcript is edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers to Skipped History can access audio of the full conversation here

Ben: Dr. Cox, it’s a thrill to chat with you.

KLC: Well, I appreciate it. I'm happy to be with you.

Ben: Today I'd like to trace the history of Confederate monuments, and though perhaps a challenging subject to cover over 150 years, hopefully, it won't be a lost cause...

Speaking of which, let's start with the development of Lost Cause mythology. Who concocted it, and was it in any remote way truthful?

KLC: I can answer the last question first—no.

The Lost Cause is essentially a revisionist history of the Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction.  It’s really an attempt to deal with Confederate defeat. White southerners thought when they entered the Civil War, they were going to kick Yankee butt and that it would be over very quickly. But, in fact, they were handily defeated, and it was hard for them to come to terms with that.

Edward Pollard, a journalist for the Richmond Examiner, helped them make sense of the South’s loss. In 1867, he published a book called The Lost Cause. It's well over 700 pages (and makes a fine doorstop). In the book, Pollard claims the South lost the war solely because Confederates were outnumbered. He also says the war had been fought over states’ rights, erasing the idea that slavery had ever been part of the war, let alone its central cause. He also praises Confederate generals and more or less paints the South as a superior civilization even though it’s been defeated. 

Ben: It's almost like if my soccer team lost, and afterward we were so upset about losing that somebody decided to write a 700-page book about why the other team scored more goals—when in reality, we were just really bad. 

KLC: Sure.

Ben: So Lost Cause mythology develops right after the Civil War. How does it become part of the US’ physical landscape?

KLC: Well, Confederate monuments appear on the landscape right away, mainly in cemeteries. That's where they stayed through the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

Then, when federal troops leave the region and, basically, former Confederates retake control of local governments, you begin to see monuments move outside of cemeteries as a backlash against the gains Black citizens made during Reconstruction.

Ben: In No Common Ground you also talk about the erection of monuments outside of courthouses. 

KLC: Right, so that’s the next phase: placing monuments on courthouse lawns. 

This new construction accompanies the rise of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the organization responsible for the vast majority of Confederate monuments that are built in the South. The Daughters formed in 1894, and they took off quickly as an organization. In this same time period that the UDC grows, from the 1890s through 1920, the vast majority of monuments were built.  

Most of them were adjacent to courthouses, a very purposeful way of signaling support for Jim Crow laws. It’s in that backdrop that monuments go up, both as physical, tangible manifestations of the Lost Cause and also as statements in front of courthouses about communities’ white supremacist priorities.

Ben:  Why does this construction slow down entering the 1920s?

KLC: Primarily because of World War I. Although organizations like the UDC continue to build monuments in the 30s, the pace slows from, I don’t know, maybe 400 a decade to 75 a decade. But yeah, obviously it continues. A new generation of “daughters” comes into the UDC, and they still build monuments, still seek out support for their projects from politicians. 

During the Civil Rights era, there was a slight uptick in monument building, in part because of the Civil War Centennial, a series of events from 1961 to 1965. At the same time that we saw the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) pass, the commemoration of the Civil War was occurring, at least in the South, and white southerners were still perpetuating the same sorts of myths about the Confederacy and building monuments in the spirit of the Lost Cause. 

Ben: Could you talk a bit about the longstanding, maybe more overlooked tradition of opposition to Confederate monuments?

KLC: From very early on, there has been a critique of the Lost Cause and monuments, with Frederick Douglass being probably the first and most obvious example. He predicted, “monuments to the Lost Cause will prove monuments of folly.” W. E. B. Du Bois later toured the South and said a better inscription on the Confederate monuments he saw would be, "sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.”

During the Jim Crow period, one place where I found many critiques was in the Chicago Defender, the nation's leading black newspaper. Columnists were very vocal about what they thought about these monuments; that they were erected to honor traitors to the US. One guy says something about the monuments teaching future generations of white children to hate “our race.”

So Black citizens always saw monuments as a problem in terms of race relations, and during the 60s you begin to see much more publicly visible protests against Confederate monuments. For example, during the Meredith March, or the March Against Fear, a major demonstration that included thousands of activists in 1966, marchers rallied in various cities in the Mississippi Delta. Usually, the place where they assembled was around a Confederate monument, because that would often be the center of town. And in a way, they were reclaiming these spaces in the name of democratic freedoms like voting.

In another of many examples, that same year, a civil rights and voting activist named Sammy Younge Jr. was murdered for trying to desegregate a whites-only bathroom in Tuskegee, Alabama. The man who killed him was acquitted, and in response, protestors defaced a nearby Confederate monument in the way that we’re more likely to associate with activism over the last few years. They painted “Black Power” across the monument.

Ben: Meanwhile, monument construction continues, right? Not at a rapid pace, but I know for example that the largest Confederate memorial was dedicated in the early 70s.

KLC: Yeah, that would be Stone Mountain in Georgia. It’s enormous. Spiro Agnew, vice president at the time, attended the dedication. You know Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore was the original sculptor of Stone Mountain.

Ben: Wow, I had no idea! Sounds like Gutzon should be on lists with Nickelback and Vanilla Ice for his artistic prowess. 

KLC: Ha! Maybe so.

Ben: Going back for a second, as more Black politicians were elected in the 70s and 80s, there was increasing resistance to monuments, is that right?

KLC: Yeah. So for most of the Civil Rights Movement, the symbol that most offended was the Confederate battle flag, which is often located on a flagpole adjacent to a Confederate monument. The first time I saw evidence of a suggestion to actually remove a monument was in Shreveport, Louisiana in the late 80s. You then begin to see this kind of push around the country with support from groups like the NAACP.

And yet, though Confederate monuments have long been on Black activists’ radars, monuments only really became part of the national discourse after the Charleston Church Massacre of 2015, when Dylan Roof murdered nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was obviously motivated by his interactions with neo-Confederate groups, and other kinds of white and racist groups, which lead to the Confederate battle flag coming off the grounds of the South Carolina Capital—and then to larger discussions about other Confederate symbols like monuments. Then, with the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the conversations reach a fever pitch.

In total, since Charleston, over a hundred monuments have been removed. Over seven hundred remain. The truth is that Confederate monuments have always represented white supremacy and systemic racism, both of which are still pervasive.

Ben: We started the conversation in the 1860s and are talking about similar dynamics today. Still, you write that “with the removal of monuments since 2015, the Lost Cause’s days may be numbered. And with that, perhaps there is common ground.”

Do you still feel that way?

KLC: My feeling is that, if we’re on the same page about history, if we’re learning the same history together, then maybe there is potential for us to come together and for the Lost Cause’s days to be numbered.

The thing is, for 150 years white people have been invested in rewriting history because they see it as a tool of power. Whenever there’s been racial progress, they’ve talked about how to influence what children are learning in schools.

This is why we still hear Edward Pollard’s lies today. For generations, proponents of the Lost Cause have feared that if children grow up and learn the truth, they're likely to reject the current power structures. They don't want that happening.

Ben: Well, I think that also speaks to the importance of the kind of history that you bring to light. Thank you for all of your work and for being here today. It’s been a pleasure.

KLC: Well, thank you. It's been good to talk this out.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
Professor Kellie Carter Jackson with Lessons from Black Abolitionists As the US becomes ever more divided, I spoke to Kellie Carter Jackson, the Michael and Denise Kellen 68’ Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. Professor Carter Jackson studies slavery, abolitionism, and the Civil War, and is the author of the award-winning book, Force & Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. She’s also the cohost of  “Oprahdemics,” a podcast where she and fellow historian Leah Wright Rigueur break down Oprah’s most iconic episodes. I highly recommend it!

In our interview, Professor Carter Jackson and I talked about Black abolitionists’ shifting strategies before the Civil War and the lessons their resistance can teach us today. A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the full conversation here.

Ben: It’s a pleasure to have you here, Professor Carter Jackson. 

KCJ: Thank you so much for having me. This is going to be fun. 

Ben: I hope so! To begin, I’d like to ask you about abolitionists’ tactic of “moral suasion.” What was it, and why didn’t it work?

KCJ: Very simply, moral suasion was the idea that you could morally persuade someone to give up their enslaved property and abolish slavery nonviolently. It was all about non-resistance, so not using force, guns, or violence to persuade someone, but more about saying, Hey, listen, slavery is wrong. Slavery is a sin that you need to repent. 

The main proponent of moral suasion was a white abolitionist named William Lloyd Garrison. On very rare occasions, in response to moral suasion, an enslaver would have a legit come-to-Jesus moment. But for the most part, this tactic was ineffective. Slavery was so profitable and such a powerful institution that practically no one was willing to relinquish that kind of control, power, and wealth.

Black abolitionists were happy to have an ally in Garrison, but they didn’t think moral suasion would work. They basically said slavery starts with violence, slavery is sustained through violence, and slavery will only be overthrown through violence.

Ben: There's a quote in your book that’s indicative of Garrison’s views, where he says, “Among the friends of moral reform... the belief is prevailing more and more that our Saviour meant to inculcate the doctrine of never fighting in self-defense.”

KCJ: Yeah, that's crazy. That stance is such a luxury. If you've never been enslaved, if you've never had your family members torn away from you, then you could say something like that.

But self-defense is natural. Frederick Douglass says “self-defense is God-given.” And I think almost all people can agree that the right to protect yourself, to preserve your own life, your humanity, and that of your loved ones is completely fair.

Ben: So moving into the 1840s, what pushes Black abolitionists away from moral suasion and toward more violent forms of resistance?

KCJ: In 1843, abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet gave a famous speech saying, "Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour... You cannot be more oppressed than you have been... Rather die freemen than live to be slaves.”

So he basically gives the “give me liberty or give me death!” speech to enslaved and free Black people. And people were torn. This was one of the most divisive speeches of the 19th century, and abolitionists wondered if Garnet’s speech was too incendiary.

But soon you get the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which basically said: it doesn't matter if you ran away from slavery five days ago, five years ago, or fifty years ago. If your master finds you, he can retrieve you and take you back to the South.

This meant that Southerners go into the North to retrieve Black people. Even people who were born free but might not have had papers or a white person to vouch for them were at risk.

This inhumane legislation changed a lot of Black abolitionists’ minds. People like Frederick Douglass, for example, who had believed that moral suasion might be viable, started viewing violence as the only way to end slavery.

Ben: So how did this shift toward violence materialize in the 1850s, and what was women’s role in the resistance?

KCJ: I love talking about this moment because it's so empowering to see the kind of courage that men and especially Black women had.

I really zero in on Black women too, because oftentimes we think that fighting back or protecting one's household is men's work, but women were maybe even more entitled to the use of violence because of sexual assault, because of the theft of their children and their bodies.

In Force and Freedom, I talk about a story in Christiana, Pennsylvania called the Christiana Resistance. A couple, William and Eliza Parker were station masters on the Underground Railroad. They started a Black self-protection society and had a creed that’s like: we will not allow any fugitive slave to be returned even at the risk of our own lives.

And there's one particular incident in which four escaped slaves leave Maryland and get to the Parkers’ home in Pennsylvania. They’re only there for a few hours before Edward Gorsuch, the owner of these four men, arrives with slave catchers, knocks on the Parkers’ door, and demands his property back.

William Parker's like, “Over my dead body, it's not happening.” And his wife, Eliza, says, “Listen, babe, want me to sound the alarm? I will sound the alarm!” And she goes to the roof of the attic of their home and starts to blow this loud horn. The Black self-protection society comes by the dozens and about 80 men and women, both white and Black, some of them Quakers, armed with guns, pistols, pitchforks, and farm equipment, surround Edward Gorsuch.

And long story short, no one knows who fired the first shot, but Edward Gorsuch is fatally wounded. William Parker writes in his memoir that as he lay dying, the women “put it into him.” It is wild! And everyone managed to escape: Eliza, William, and the four escaped slaves—they all eventually made their way to Canada and lived out the rest of their days there.

Ben: I found it thought-provoking that Black abolitionists increasingly saw these absurd, violent, egregious laws that were passed or upheld in the 1850s as illegitimate and refused to follow them. They're pretty much like: that is not something we are going to comply with. (SCOTUS in 2022, take note.)

KCJ: Yeah. One of the things I ask in a lot of my research is: how should oppressed people respond to their oppression? What do you do when you don't have the ability to be able to vote? How do the powerless procure power?

And the simplest answer to that, I think, is violence. If you can't vote, use moral suasion, or soften people’s hearts with slave narratives or memoirs—other tools abolitionists used to try to get people to pay attention—well, violence is something that guarantees an audience. You cannot guarantee change, but people will have to respond. 

It's not a coincidence that we teach classes from the slave trade to the Civil War, from the Civil War to World War I, World War II to Vietnam, and Vietnam to 9/11. Every single major historical turning point in this country is hinged around some sort of violence.

And so, as much as we abhor violence, we have to be honest about the fact that it really is an engine that moves us in a different direction. That direction's not always positive or progressive, but it moves us places.

Ben: You quote Frederick Douglass when he looks back on the Civil War as saying, “The American public discovered and accepted more truth in our four years of civil war than they learned in forty years of peace.”

KCJ: Yeah, that's sad, right? But that's true! The Civil War did a lot in a very short amount of time. Now, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, but you got the end of slavery. People had been asking for the end of slavery, begging for it, pushing for it, and advocating for it for decades, and they got nowhere. And then you got war and you got death and you got change. It’s a sobering reality.

I think you could even say the same thing about the Civil Rights Movement. People look at the movement like it’s nonviolent, but I tell my students all the time, “No, the Civil Rights Movement is a response to violence.” It's a response to the death of Emmett Till, to the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and to four little girls killed in a church. 

The truth is that there’s no form of protest that white supremacy is going to approve of. Whether you throw a Molotov cocktail, torch a car, march, picket, boycott, take a knee—there's no form of protest that white supremacy is going to sanction. Like when Colin Kaepernick took a knee—a physical sign of subservience—we lost our minds! 

So the problem is not necessarily the rock that’s thrown. The problem is the reason the rock is thrown. 

Ben: So what do you see as the utility of violence today? Because, in the 1860s, the oppressive institution was clear: slavery. Today, white supremacy seems more diffuse and maybe harder to combat.

KCJ: Yeah, racism and white supremacy are kind of like Covid, right? You get a vaccine for one thing, or you overthrow one thing, and then it mutates into something else, and you're constantly trying to play catch up, figuring out how to stop it. 

In 1837, an abolitionist named Joshua Easton says, “Abolitionists may attack slaveholding, but there is a danger still that the spirit of slavery will survive, in the form of prejudice, after the system is overturned.”

And that is still the conundrum we face right now. We have effectively overthrown slavery, as well as Jim Crow and segregation (kind of), but the real issue is not necessarily these institutions: it's the ideology that fuels them.

So how do you change that? One thing, maybe, is electing younger people who believe in change. A lot of the abolitionists in power after the Civil War, like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, were really old. 

Ben: The Bernie Sanders of their time.

KCJ: Seriously! They didn’t have the ability to maintain that momentum, and that’s one reason Reconstruction was so short-lived. There was a lot of really great progressive change and then all of it got overturned in part because there weren’t enough people to uphold and push for the progress that needed to continue to happen.

Another point to recognize is that abolitionists were a very small percentage of the population. There were hundreds of them, and they were considered a radical fringe group. Still, how they were able to empower Black people is mindboggling to me. So, you don’t need a lot of people to make progressive change; you need the will to make it. You need the will to recognize that we live in a society that’s really harmful if you are poor or Black or Indigenous or an immigrant or a woman, and you shouldn’t need to see a horrid viral video of a policeman or new, vile legislation to reveal that harm and fight back against it.

I have every reason to hope we can get to that point. Now, does that mean change will come tomorrow? No. Does that mean I’m looking at the world with rose-colored glasses? No, but hope is sustained over time, from generation to generation, and you are dead in the water without it. 

Ben: Well put, and encouraging, although I should note that Professor Carter Jackson is literally wearing rose-tinted glasses.

KCJ: Ha! I’m not. Red lipstick, yes, but glasses, no.

Ben: Alright, well this was so illuminating and a blast. Thank you so much for being here. 

KCJ: Thank you so much for having me. It's my pleasure.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
Professor Kevin M. Kruse on "Suburban Secession" Suburbs in swing states will play a pivotal role in deciding the upcoming midterm elections. To learn how the ‘burbs developed in Georgia, I spoke to Professor Kevin M. Kruse at Princeton. Professor Kruse is a specialist in modern American political, social, and urban/suburban history. He's the author and editor of several books, including White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.

We talked about the role of transportation in cementing “the secession” of suburbs from Atlanta, and how this transformation, which occurred all over the country, changed conservative politics. Carnivorous fish also made an appearance in our conversation.

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers to Skipped History can access audio of the full conversation here.

Ben: Professor Kruse, thank you so much for joining us.

KMK: My pleasure.

Ben: Today I’d like to focus a bit on transportation, the growth of the suburbs, and their centrality to US elections, particularly in the Atlanta area. I suppose a good place to begin is by talking about traffic. For the uninitiated, is traffic bad in Atlanta? 

KMK: Traffic is legendarily bad in Atlanta. It’s funny, my sister was up visiting a week ago and when I lived in Atlanta doing research for White Flight, she lived just over the city limit line in Gwinnett County. We were wondering why we didn't see each other more. And then we were like, Oh, right, the traffic.

It would be an hour, two-hour trip sometimes to get just from the city to the suburbs, and there are people who do that for their daily commute.

Ben: A convenient excuse for not visiting your loved ones. Can we go back in time to explore how the traffic got so bad, and what traffic has to do with the ‘burbs?

KMK: Yeah. So the City of Atlanta has often thought of itself as incredibly progressive. Mayor Bill Hartsfield, in office from 1942–1962, called Atlanta “the city too busy to hate.” But the story’s a little more complicated than that.

As the Civil Rights Movement broke down the walls of segregation and discrimination, Atlanta’s population exploded. It hit a population of one million with much hullabaloo. Suddenly, the city had to think about new systems of transportation to make that metropolis work, like the interstate highways. It also had to consider public transportation, which hadn’t really been a thing in the South, especially not in Atlanta. 

When the city was first considering where new interstate highways would go in the early 1960s, the mayor was quite explicit in wanting the highways to go between the white and Black communities. Legally, you couldn't formally segregate the races. You couldn't say this neighborhood is zoned white. This neighborhood is zoned Black. But you could certainly lay a major infrastructure project down between historically segregated neighborhoods to keep them separated, and that’s what Atlanta did.

Ben: Right, in White Flight, you say the federal government shouldered much of the financial burden of the highways, but local planners got to decide where they went. And the explanation they often gave was something like, Erm, the highways just happen to run through predominantly Black neighborhoods.

KMK: Yeah, and it's no surprise, right? When we think about the highways built in the 50s and 60s, they weren’t laid down on a blank canvas. They went through 100- or 200-year-old cities. And if you were going to lay down a major road, you’d have to wipe out certain neighborhoods.

So the calculus for any mayor had to be, which neighborhood do we sacrifice? Well, they naturally picked the neighborhoods they regarded as slums. Which neighborhoods did they regard as slums? Usually poor minority neighborhoods. This logic appeared across the country, to the point that if you want to know where the poor Black neighborhoods were in any major city in say, 1940 or 1950—and I'm talking, Kansas City, Cleveland, wherever—go look at where the highways are today. Because they almost always ran through those neighborhoods, displacing people of color in the process.

Ben: So the highways were constructed, and they ran through these so-called “blighted” neighborhoods. Who used the new roads and how did drivers feel about public transportation?

KMK: As cities built highways to bring those people in and out of the city for work, a question arose: what do you do for the people who don't have a car? And this is where the story of MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) comes in because obviously, one way to relieve congestion on highways is to get people to take trains.

I live in New Jersey. You're in New York. Between us, New Jersey Transit does a lot of the heavy lifting. The New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway are still pretty packed, but they'd be a lot more packed without those trains bringing in commuters.

Ben: Don't forget about the Dinky.

KMK: The Dinky, yes. For those who don't know, the Dinky is the vital train that links Princeton to Princeton Junction. It’s a local institution. [Editor’s note: the Dinky is the shortest commuter rail line in the country.]

But commuter trains can bring anyone in, right? Not just the people who can afford a car. And there was real fear on the part of white suburbanites that trains would bring “certain people” away from the center city out into their suburbs. So from the onset, they opposed MARTA, even if it led to the kind of traffic we see today.

Ben: In White Flight, you quote Emmett Burton, a politician in Cobb County just outside of Atlanta, as saying he's so committed to preventing MARTA's growth that he promised to “stock the Chattahoochee [a local river] with piranha” if that were necessary to keep MARTA and Black Atlantians away.

KMK: Mm-hmm.

Ben: Just to be clear, was the train supposed to go through the water and the piranha would stop the train? How was that supposed to work?

KMK: I don't think he thought it through. I think the metaphor was that the river was a moat, right? They'd do anything to keep “those people” away. At the time, Cobb County was 96% white. Gwinnett County to the northeast was 95% white. A sliver of Fulton County between them was 99% white. 

And there was a feeling in these counties that the civil rights struggle had overtaken the city. They wanted out, and the last thing they wanted was for minorities to follow them across the river.

Ben: How did the predominantly white counties/suburbs begin to play into conservative political strategy in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s?

KMK: Well, what I argue in the book is that white flight was not just a physical phenomenon. It was also a political transformation. In the process of uprooting their lives, many white people changed their basic political assumptions and embraced a new sort of politics.

Think about the relationship new suburbanites had to, say, public places. When they lived in Atlanta, white residents had lots of public places that were available to them: public parks, public pools, public golf courses, and on and on. Most white Atlantians thought of them as their spaces, as spaces that were paid for by their taxes.

As those spaces opened up during the Civil Rights Movement, white citizens didn't see them as shared spaces. They saw them as lost spaces. This was a zero-sum game, and they perceived every gain by African Americans as a loss for white people, so they resolved to stop using these spaces. And if you don't want to use public spaces, if you opt for private spaces instead—well, that’s where we see the origins of a tax revolt.

In fact, although we associate a conservative move toward privatization with Reagan and the 80s and beyond, it actually began to take hold in the 50s and 60s. There was a trend toward private golf courses, private swimming pools, and private schools. White citizens sought private spaces as alternatives to integrated shared spaces.

This is what I call the politics of suburban secession, or what political economist Robert Reich dubbed the “secession of the successful.” In essence, it’s really just leave-me-alone politics. From the 50s onward, suburban conservatives didn’t want the government involved in their lives, which was a change from the attitude they held when living in cities before.

Ben: As you point out in your book, suburbs have diversified over the past few decades. And yet in 2019, Gwinnett County, one of the counties outside of Atlanta, still voted against MARTA's expansion. How do you reconcile changing demographics with continued resistance to public services? 

KMK: My hunch is that, as we’ve reviewed, suburbs were literally built around a certain set of assumptions. The physical environment of a suburb favors having a car. Again, in my sister's neighborhood in Gwinnett, there weren't sidewalks on the side of the street because who would walk there? It’s assumed that you have to have a car to get anywhere.

Ben: Or maybe a Razor Scooter.

KMK: Well, yeah, or maybe a skateboard. But the built environment means that even if you come in and you don't have these racial attitudes about people in the cities, your assumption is I've got a car. Everyone's got a car. Why do we need public transportation? 

So a place can get locked into a certain set of policy choices even as its population changes.

Ben: Heading into the 2022 midterms, many publications report that the suburbs are the most crucial voting bloc in swing states like Georgia. Should we be troubled that communities that formed around segregationist instincts hold so much influence today?

KMK: Well, in some ways, sure. There are undoubtedly holdouts in swing state suburbs who still live outside of cities for racially motivated reasons.

But in other ways, this is just a demographic reality now. 1968 was the first election when there were more people in the suburbs than there were in cities or rural areas. By 1992, there were more people in the suburbs than anywhere else in the country combined.

So, increasingly, we’re a suburban nation, but not all suburbs are the same. The idea of having a Mad Men world where the suburbs are all uniformly white and upper/middle-class conservative was certainly the original model, but even back then, there were working-class and prominent Black suburbs. (Scholars like Becky Nicolaides and Andy Wiese have written great books on both.) And those kinds of suburbs have become more and more common today.

So I don't think there’s reason to fear that suburbs are all one kind, and our politics are therefore all one kind. We've seen the suburbs bounce back and forth between blue and red in recent elections. I think the simple fact that they're so hotly contested shows how much of suburbia and the US as a whole is contested now, too. So things are up in the air at the moment, and it'll take a future historian to decide where we landed.

Ben: Here’s hoping the landing isn’t too rough. Thanks so much for being here, Professor Kruse.

KMK: My pleasure.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
Professor Adam Winkler on Limitless Political Spending To understand how political spending spiraled out of control—projections estimate $9.7 billion spent on ads alone during the 2022 election cycle—I spoke to Professor Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law. His book We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights was a finalist for the National Book Award.

We chatted about changes to election processes in the 1880s and 1890s, and how a political operative named Mark Hanna introduced corporate spending into politics. Professor Winkler connects Hanna’s innovations to the political campaigns we know and don’t love today.

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the full conversation here.

Ben: It’s a pleasure to have you with us, Professor Winkler.

AW: Thanks for having me on.

Ben: Absolutely. In We, the Corporations, you trace the growth of corporate spending in politics, but how did candidates finance elections before corporations came into play?

AW: Well, back in the 1800s, campaigns were generally funded by the wealth of the personal candidate or the personal candidate’s family, or sometimes by very wealthy individuals in the community who supported a particular candidate.

But election funding was much less important then than it is today because you didn't have these mass market campaigns where you had to spend a lot of money to get people to support a candidate. Often in fact elections were really determined by patronage and by local machine politics.

Ben: An example of a political machine being something like Tammany Hall, is that right?

AW: Tammany Hall is a good example. And when a machine like Tammany Hall wanted to get its candidates elected it would often distribute ballots out to members of local communities for that particular candidate.

At the time, the government didn’t issue ballots. Voters would appear at the polls with their own ballot that they would then cast. 

Ben: Does that mean you could bedazzle your own ballot?

AW: Sort of. You came and you took a piece of paper with the name of your candidate and you put it in a box. Political machines printed out their own ballots for their own candidates and distributed them among people who lived nearby. Those voters were expected to go to the ballot booth and cast the ballot that had been given to them by the machine.

Ben: So the machine in some ways is literally just a printing machine. Assuming that the federal government begins issuing ballots, when does that change take place?

AW: The government started printing its own ballots around the 1880s. Prior to then, we didn't have a secret ballot. You would just go into a room and drop your vote into a large box.

But in the 1880s, we saw a real reform of how elections were managed, and one of the developments was the rise of secret voting. So you could vote in private behind a booth and you had a government-printed ballot that had all of the candidates on it. You could always write in your vote for another candidate, but instead of relying on self-printed ballots, the government decided to rely on government-printed ballots, for ease of counting and for administration.

Ben: Am I right in assuming that the government official who devised the secret ballot was always picked last for his kickball team in PE?

AW: No, I think it's more likely that the government official who devised this reform was modeling the electoral reforms of the laws of Australia. This was known as the Australian ballot and the goal was to clean up the electoral process, prevent corruption, and make elections more meaningful as a reflection of the popular will.

Ben: Interesting. Moving forward to the 1890s, is there someone in particular who takes advantage of the new reforms?

AW: No one understood the implications of the transformation in the political process more than Marcus Alonzo Hanna, kind of the Karl Rove of his day. He was the political mastermind behind a twice-successful Republican presidential candidate: in Hanna's case, William McKinley, who won the White House in 1896 and was reelected in 1900. 

Hanna was raised in Cleveland, where he was a high school classmate of John D. Rockefeller, and Hanna had enjoyed a successful career in the coal and steel industries, but his true passion was politics. In 1895, he handed off his company to his brother and turned his full attention to electing William McKinley, a fellow Ohioan, to the presidency.

Hanna used his businessman's instinct for innovation and marketing to revolutionize how election campaigns raised and spent money, and for the first time brought significant amounts of corporate cash into the electoral process. 

Ben: Hanna’s nickname becomes Dollar Mark, is that right?

AW: That's right.

Ben: How did Dollar Mark change the way that campaigns were run at the time?

AW: Hanna was the chairman of the Republican National Committee in the 1896 presidential election, and he understood that he needed to raise more money than any previous presidential campaign in history.

The Democrats had nominated a firey populist named William Jennings Bryan, who was an outspoken opponent of corporate power and who drew a lot of broad support from farmers and the working class. Early in the campaign, Bryan had a lot of momentum. To counter him, Hanna decided to undertake an exhaustive and systematic publicity campaign to educate voters.

Among Hanna's innovations was to centralize control of the presidential campaign. Traditionally, state-based party committees managed local campaigns, even for national candidates like the president, but Hanna centralized all of the state committees under his authority. He also created the first nationwide advertising campaign to market a presidential candidate and produced over a hundred million pieces of campaign literature printed in German, Spanish, French, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and even Hebrew to appeal to immigrants. 

He also promoted William McKinley through the creation of things like buttons, posters, billboards, cartoons, and leaflets that were manufactured by the carload. Hanna hired thousands of people to go out and distribute these buttons, post these posters, and promote McKinley in every competitive district.

It was the kind of campaign that today we take for granted but had really never before occurred in American history.

Ben: I suppose there were a few side effects to this campaign, though? 

AW: Right, so Hanna's new methods of electioneering required far more money than the campaigns of old. Hanna found a lot of that money in corporate America. Hanna was someone who perhaps more than most appreciated the role of money in politics. He once famously quipped “there are two things that are important in politics. The first is money. And I can't remember what the second one is.”

Ben: The obvious answer is lawn signs.

AW: Yeah, exactly. But you need money to make the lawn signs.

To raise the money for McKinley's campaign, Hanna thought the corporate giants of the era were the perfect contributors. 

Business leaders at the time were very fearful of the potential economic consequences of William Jennings Bryan being elected to the presidency. So Hanna went to those business leaders and said, it's time for you to put your money behind a business-friendly candidate like William McKinley. He went to banks and said, you should give one-quarter of 1% of your capital. He went to large industrial corporations and recommended that they give five- and six-figure amounts. Standard Oil, the economic giant run by Hanna's schoolmate, John D. Rockefeller, was asked to give $250,000 (at the time an enormous amount) to the McKinley campaign.

Hanna really systematized the fundraising for political campaigns the way no political operative had ever done, and the overall fundraising haul that Hanna generated for McKinley was estimated to be $7 million, more than ten times the amount that was spent by William Jennings Bryan. It was the most ever spent for a presidential candidate. 

Ben: Wow. To better understand the magnitude of that figure, could you please convert it into Bitcoin for our audience?

AW: Ha! The way to conceptualize how big it was is this: although election campaigns tend to cost more every single season, Hanna's haul in 1896 was so huge that no presidential campaign would equal it for nearly half a century. This was really an unprecedented effort to raise and spend money on an election campaign.

But no one really knew about it! There were no disclosure laws back in the 1890s. So today Americans worry about dark money, about money that comes from unidentified donors, but virtually all of the money in the 1896 election was dark money and we didn't get the first federal laws requiring campaigns to disclose funders until 1910.

To learn more about how the first campaign finance laws came to be, check out the episode of Skipped History on the Great Wall Street Scandal of 1905.

Ben: Ha! I appreciate the plug. On a concluding note, how should we consider Mark Hanna’s reforms when viewing today’s election cycles?

AW: Well, if we want to know why our election campaigns are so out of control, we have to go back to Mark Hanna and the 1896 campaign. We're still living in the world that Mark Hanna built where the wealthiest of Americans and big businesses are expected to support campaigns, and where campaigns use advertising techniques that business corporations were developing around the turn of the century to market political candidates. So many of the ills of our political system can be traced back to Marcus Alonso Hanna.

Ben: An important, discouraging, and illuminating connection to make. Thank you so much for being here and for this captivating history lesson. 

AW: Thanks so much for having me.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
Professor David J. Silverman on the Thanksgiving Myth Ahead of turkey season, I spoke to Professor David J. Silverman about the marketing campaign that created Thanksgiving—and the white supremacist motivations that popularized the holiday. Professor Silverman is a historian of Native, colonial, and American racial history at George Washington University. He’s the author of This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving.

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the conversation here.

Ben: Professor Silverman, thank you so much for being here. 

DS: Thanks for having me. 

Ben: Of course! Let’s begin by discussing when Thanksgiving became a holiday. The famed “first Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621, but it took a lot longer for the country to commemorate the meal, is that right?

DS: Yes, as you allude, I think there's a widespread misconception that Thanksgiving was celebrated by colonists and then their white descendants in an unbroken chain from that 1621 event onward. That’s simply not true—Thanksgiving only became a national holiday in 1863.

Ben: Why did it take 240 years for that to happen?

DS: Well, to be clear, people in old England had been celebrating “Thanksgivings” since time immemorial. Like people all around the world, when droughts ended or when a good harvest came in, or when there was a military victory, the English would hold a Thanksgiving.

Accordingly, in colonial New England, colonists celebrated Thanksgivings whenever their local governments pronounced them. For many years you might have a Thanksgiving in the spring or the summer, but in New England the time became standardized in late fall / early winter when people closed their account books for the year and settled their debts (as good a reason as any to celebrate).

This was a decidedly northeastern or “Yankee” tradition. Thanksgiving only became a national holiday in 1863 amid the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln had the idea planted in his head that perhaps announcing a national holiday centered on the idea of offering thanks for what's good in our lives would be a unifying act.

So, he pronounced Thanksgiving and the tradition stuck from that point on. Notably, it was only also around the same time that the country began to associate the holiday with a shared feast between the English colonists of Plymouth and the surrounding Wampanoag Indians in 1621.

Ben: Right, it wasn’t exactly like the meal was famous for 240 years and then became the centerpiece of a holiday. Rather, that “first” Thanksgiving meal was kind of lost to history until a footnote in the 1840s?

DS: Yeah. I'm a historian, and I read a lot of footnotes, but believe me when I tell you, there are not a lot of famous footnotes out there. This is one of them.

In 1841, a minister named Alexander Young published one of the few primary source accounts of the Plymouth Colony. He included a four-line description of a feast hosted by the English and attended by the Wampanoags in 1621. To that description, he added a footnote stating “this was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England.” 

No one had ever made that connection to 1621 before. But Young’s account was widely read by some of the leading lights of the era: Emerson, Thoreau, and the like. And those high-profile figures propagated the idea in the footnote until it became taken for granted among the broader public.

Ben: So the broader conception of Thanksgiving derives from Young’s footnote. Why did he include the note? Like, was he trying to start a cookbook empire and wanted people to purchase his harvest festival recipes?

DS: Young was part of a decades-long movement that tried to rescue the obscure, marginal, and unimportant Plymouth Colony from the dustbin of history. In reality, Plymouth Colony was never an important place. 

Ben: Sorry to all readers and listeners from Plymouth.

DS: Eventually, Plymouth was annexed by the far larger Massachusetts colony and fell into the great stream of Massachusetts' history.

In the late 18th century, Plymouth town effectively started a booster campaign to drum up tourism. They started trumpeting this obscure band of religious separatists, whom they called the “pilgrims,” as the founders of colonial America. They held up the Mayflower Compact, the group’s agreement to abide by democratic rule, as some sort of template for the American constitution (it was not).

Gradually, their campaign started to generate notice, particularly again among the New England literati who had an outsized influence in American letters and politics. And I suspect that Young’s footnote was an extension of that movement.

Ben: Put another way, Thanksgiving started off as a very good marketing campaign by people in Plymouth.

DS: Yeah, that’s effectively correct. 

Ben: It sounds like a town in the middle of Idaho erecting a giant potato statue and using that as a way to draw in tourists off the highway—but a lot more effective.

DS: In that analogy, Plymouth Rock is the potato. The historical record makes no mention of the rock—it’s only added to the Thanksgiving myth later on. 

Ben: Okay, so the Plymouth Rock legend is made up, too. Broadly speaking, how did this kind of strange mythology become so embedded in the American psyche?

DS: After the Civil War, there were a host of social and political anxieties that the story of a shared peaceful meal between Native people and white colonists served to calm. 

The first source of anxiety was immigration. In the 19th century, Catholic and later Jewish immigrants gave mainstream Protestant Americans agita. Conveniently, the growing Thanksgiving myth established Protestants as the colonial founding fathers; laudable figures who believed in democracy and religious freedom (despite the fact that, let's be clear, 17th-century Puritans had no interest in freedom of religion).

The second source of anxiety was racial upheaval. On one hand, African Americans had been set free by the Union victory in the Civil War, and the newly free Black population made many white people anxious. The Thanksgiving story was a way of asserting white racial authority throughout the land.

At the same time, wars against Native peoples on the Great Plains and in the West were winding to a close. The brutality of those wars—fair-minded historians now characterize them as genocide—deeply embarrassed much of the US public, particularly in the East. So, obscuring the viciousness of expansion into Indian Country was palatable to the white American public, and a myth contending Native people had dined with their colonizers and peacefully ceded their country did just that.

Ben: In reality, the participants of the 1621 meal merited the occasion little significance, is that right?

DS: That's right. There was a meal shared by the Wampanoags and the colonists of Plymouth. The two sides had a military alliance, but the meal was not all that critical in forming their relationship. Neither side ever mentioned it again. 

And the English relationship with Indigenous peoples degenerated into utter bloodshed in 1675.

Ben: This is King Philip’s War. 

DS: Yes, one of the most horrific wars in colonial American history. The history of Euro-American / Native American relations from the 16th century to the close of the 19th century is a tale of one bloody conflict after another.

So, celebrating a shared meal misses the point—deliberately. The only truth of the holiday is that there was a meal shared by the English and the Wampanoag. Everything else about the story is pure myth. 

Ben: That leads to my last question, which I have to ask: what foods were at the Thanksgiving meal in 1621, and which ones are made up?

DS: Okay, there was almost certainly turkey. The primary account only says “fowl,” which also includes ducks and geese, but we have earlier accounts from that fall suggesting Plymouth colonists had bagged an awful lot of turkeys. So turkey was served that day.

That's about the only contemporary item that appeared at the meal in 1621. They didn’t have any livestock, so there was no butter. No cream. Probably no milk. And there was no sugar, so there goes half of our side dishes and dessert, right?

Instead, there would've been a heavy emphasis on fish (which I'm all in favor of). Clams, oysters, lobsters, eels, maybe striped bass. The Wampanoags contributed venison. And then mainly wild fruits and vegetables, whatever the English were growing in their garden. Maybe peas and some salad greens. 

Let's be clear too, there was no dining table or chairs or silverware. The actual meal bears very little resemblance to modern Thanksgiving. 

Ben: What I’m hearing is that if we really want to celebrate a mythical meal that helped reestablish a white supremacist hierarchy after the Civil War, we should order sushi and eat on the floor.

DS: Sounds about right. 

Ben: Well, thanks again for being here, Professor Silverman. This was really illuminating.

DS: My great pleasure.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
Professor Stephen Nissenbaum on Santa Claus’ Elitist Origins To learn more about the holiday season’s jolliest, most iconic figure—Santa!—I spoke to Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor emeritus at UMass Amherst. Professor Nissenbaum specializes in early US history. His book, The Battle for Christmas, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Professor Nissenbaum and I discussed the debauchery that used to characterize Christmas, and how elite New Yorkers in the early 1800s invented Santa Claus to quiet growing social unrest. A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the conversation here (~42 minutes), which includes an exploration of how Santa disguised the growth of commercialism in US society.

Ben: Thank you so much for being here, Professor Nissenbaum. I admit I’m a little gleeful about cutting Santa Claus down to size.

SN: I’ll do my best to help you.

Ben: Let’s begin in early modern Europe. How was Christmas celebrated from the years 1500 to 1800?

SN: Well, Christmas has always been celebrated in a variety of ways, and there have always been people who have tried to make it a purely religious holiday. But I don't think those people have ever actually been in control of Christmas. 

The majority of people saw the Christmas season as a time to let loose. December was the one time of year when there was virtually no work to be done (at least for males in the temperate zones of Europe and North America). It was also the only time of year when fresh meat, wine, and beer were ready to consume. So, Christmas was a season of drunkenness, overeating, and debauchery. 

To give you a sense, one English clergyman in the 1700s thought that Christmas caroling, of all things, should be gotten rid of because it involved cross-dressing and was “generally done, in the midst of rioting and chambering.” (“Chambering” was a common euphemism for sex.)

Ben: Ah, that helps contextualize Christmas songs like “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

Ummm, I really hope not! Get a room!

SN: Right, uh, yes. Another tradition associated with Christmas was wassailing, which included singing but was more or less a form of begging. Bands of mostly young males would go around to the houses of the well-to-do and demand the best food, the best wine, the best beer—the stuff that you’d typically save for your family. 

But on this occasion, the well-to-do gave gifts to the wassailers. This was part of a long tradition of what you might call “social inversion” on Christmas. At every other time of year, the poor owed their labor and sometimes their goods, the product of their labor, to the rich.

But December was the one time of year when those roles were reversed. The rich felt a moral obligation to give to the poor—in exchange, peasants offered their goodwill for the rest of the year. This tradition served a purpose. Far from destroying the social hierarchy, it sustained and reinforced the hierarchy for the rest of the year. It allowed lower classes to vent within clearly defined limits.

Ben: On a related note, can you describe how similar rituals of social inversion existed in the slaveholding South?

SN: Yes. In all of my research, I wasn’t able to find a single instance where white enslavers didn’t give enslaved Africans a day off at Christmas time (at minimum). Enslavers often provided food and liquor for reveling, and though enslaved peoples often enjoyed Christmas, abolitionists criticized how, like in Europe, the holiday celebrations were intended to maintain order.

Ben: In your book, you quote Frederick Douglass, who wrote “these holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.”

SN: Mhm. I’ll add, too, that a lot of enslaved people took their time off as an opportunity to escape. 

Ben: A subject worthy of another interview in itself. Shifting to Santa and the North, how did Christmas celebrations change entering the 1800s?

SN: Earlier, when peasants would go around demanding gifts from the rich in their villages—wassailing also occurred in the northern colonies—each side knew the other on a personal basis. But entering the 19th century, Christmas traditions underwent their biggest transformation in the last thousand years, at least as far as I can tell.

The change coincided with the rise of industrial capitalism. As the industrial revolution accelerated in the late 18th century, cities like New York exploded in growth. Accordingly, the tradition of wassailing became more impersonal, and the rich increasingly viewed groups of young people in the streets during the Christmas season as threatening mobs. In fact, by the late 1820s, in direct response to gang activity in New York during the Christmas season (think Gangs of New York crossed with wassailing), the city introduced a professional police force.

So that was one way of changing and controlling Christmas during this new era. Let’s call that the stick. Wealthy New Yorkers decided that the carrot to go along with the stick ought to be new Christmas traditions; traditions that moved Christmas from outdoors to indoors and changed the recipients of the wealthy’s largesse from poor peasants to members of their own families. That way, the ritual of social inversion would still exist, but the rich would no longer have to interact with the poor.

Ben: This brings us to Clement Clarke Moore, author of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

SN: Yes, Clement Clarke Moore wrote “The Night Before Christmas” (or “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) in 1822. He was a patrician’s patrician. His father had been the Episcopal Bishop of New York and in fact, had given Alexander Hamilton his last rites after dying in the famous duel with Aaron Burr.

Ben: If I’m not mistaken, the last rites were, “Your name is Alexander Hamilton, and there's a million things you haven't done. Just you wait... just you wait.”

SN: …that seems to be correct.

And Moore wrote his famous poem amid what he viewed as very disturbing developments in the city. At the time, he owned the Chelsea estate, which encompassed a vast area (the modern-day neighborhood in New York is named after this estate).

Ben: Moore was an enslaver himself, no?

SN: Yes. Slavery was still legal in New York at this time—Moore forced five enslaved people to work on his property—and he opposed growing calls to abolish slavery.

He also opposed the gridding of New York. In 1811, the New York City Council implemented a plan to construct a regular grid system of numbered streets and avenues that would crisscross Manhattan. By 1821, Moore went from being listed as living in the Chelsea estate to living on the corner of 23rd Street and 8th Ave. The city seized much of his land through eminent domain.

This was a momentous change in Moore's life, and he was livid. He published a pamphlet attacking the development of New York, insisting that the city was going to be ruined; that it was falling into “destructive and ruthless hands,” the hands of people who did not “respect the rights of property.”

So the Santa Claus he described in “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was a direct result of this frustration, as well as Moore’s fear of the growing “misrule” on New York City streets during Christmas. In a nutshell, the poem contains the new, quieter Christmas that Moore and other patricians wanted to devise.

Ben: The first line of the poem is, “‘Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” I suppose that’s an aspirational view of Christmas considering the unrest actually occurring outside Moore and his pals’ houses.

SN: Yes, and immediately after those opening lines, you get a symbolic household invasion, but it’s a totally unthreatening one. This character who we learn to be Saint Nicholas comes down the chimney, uninvited, and scares the business out of the narrator of the poem, who’s presumably the father of the household. Most of the poem goes on to describe this jolly figure and to make it clear to the narrator and of course to the reader that this house invader has not come to take, but rather to offer.

You can see the whole poem as a reference to outside wassailers demanding entry into the patrician narrator’s house—but this time it's harmless, and this Santa Claus figure has come to bring gifts to kids who, again, replaced the poor as the recipients of largesse.

Ben: Where did this idea of Santa come from? Did it exist before?

SN: Moore was part of a group of conservative men who called themselves Knickerbockers. The Knickerbockers were fond of inventing Dutch traditions that harkened back to a supposedly calmer and more peaceful time. To be clear, the Knickerbockers weren’t Dutch, but they used the fact that a couple of hundred years earlier the Dutch had controlled New York (then called New Amsterdam) to invent a mythical, quaint Dutch tradition. 

Ben: So did the Dutch celebrate Christmas with Santa Claus? Or was Santa kind of like Häagen-Dazs in that he was a “Dutch” tradition created by non-Dutch New Yorkers?

SN: Häagen-Dazs originally comes from the Bronx?

Ben: Yeah.

SN: Well, yes, then kind of like Häagen-Dazs, I don’t want to say Santa was fake but he was almost fake.

Technically there were Dutch people who, going back in time, celebrated Christmas with a St. Nicholas figure who’d come to punish bad kids and give gifts to good kids. Catholics practiced this tradition but notably, the Dutch who populated New Amsterdam were almost exclusively Protestant, and they insisted on getting rid of exactly those kinds of celebrations of saints.

So, there was a faint glimmer of historical fact in saying that Santa Claus was an old Dutch tradition, but he wasn’t part of New York history and really he was invented by Knickerbockers like Clement Clarke Moore.

Ben: Wow. So modern-day Santa Claus was largely the invention of an anti-abolitionist looking to go back to the good old days when his power wasn’t threatened.

SN: Yeah, I think that's clearly on one level what Santa Claus is about. 

Ben: Oof. So often on Skipped History, we end up exploring different efforts to paper over the structural ills of society. Santa seems to be yet another example: a manifestation of New York’s upper classes' eagerness not to address the ills of industrial capitalism but to push them out of sight. Does that seem like a fair assessment to you?

SN: I think that's eloquently put. I would only add that by the 1830s and 1840s, celebrating Santa Claus on Christmas wasn’t just an upper-class ritual. Rather, thanks to the reprinting of Moore’s poem, which proved indelibly popular, the tradition spread very quickly among the middle classes and even those aspiring to join the middle classes. So celebrations of Santa rapidly permeated all of American society and transformed Christmas into a private celebration.

Ben: The widespread embracing of Santa reminds me of the conclusion to your book, where you write: “Perhaps the very speed and intensity with which rituals like Christmas were claimed as timeless traditions shows how powerful was the need to protect children and adults from understanding something troublesome about the world they were making.

“In our own time... that protection may be an indulgence we can no longer afford.”

Looking at calls for fairer wages and working conditions this holiday season—whether in the railroad industry, at the University of California, or at The New York Times—your conclusion seems particularly resonant today.

SN: Yes, I agree. My only add-on is that maybe the dynamics we’re seeing today have been present forever; that people who have means have always tried to come up with meaningful disguises for the lives of people without means, lest they have to confront the disparity between the two.

Ben: An astute point and I guess, now that we've traversed history from forever until today, we've reached a logical endpoint. I really appreciate your time and insights, Professor Nissenbaum.

SN: Thank you for the opportunity.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
Professor Marcia Chatelain on McDonald's and MLK To reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, celebrated on Monday, I spoke to Professor Marcia Chatelain about the interconnected rise of McDonald’s. Professor Chatelain is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America

Professor Chatelain and I discussed McDonald’s growth in Black communities following MLK’s death, corporations’ distortion of MLK’s legacy, and the long entrenchment of food inequity. A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below.

Ben: Professor Chatelain, thank you so much for being here.

MC: An absolute pleasure, Ben.

Ben: Of course—it's all downhill from here. To begin, who started McDonald’s and when?

MC: So Richard and Maurice McDonald were the founders of McDonald's, and they were two brothers from New Hampshire who moved to California during the Depression to figure out their lives. They worked in the movie industry, then they tried hotdog carts, then opened their first restaurant in San Bernandino, California in 1945.

The restaurant served barbecue and generally, they had a relatively big menu. When the brothers saw that their burgers were bestsellers, they realized they could automize the production of burgers, fries, and drinks if they kept the menu simple. So they closed and reopened with a smaller menu. The idea was a success, but they didn’t expand very much. They opened a couple of more restaurants in Southern California, and one or two in Arizona.

And then, in the mid-1950s, Ray Kroc, who people often think of as the founder of the franchise system, got involved. At the time, Kroc sold milkshake makers. He couldn’t understand why the McDonald’s brothers needed so many, and he went and checked out McDonald's and was like, what is this?

It really sparked his curiosity in the business, which is why he began working with the McDonald’s brothers in the 50s before purchasing the business outright in 1961. The McDonald’s brothers sold the restaurants to Kroc for $2,000,000—that's it! It's kind of bananas to think about.

Ben: It’s even more bananas when you consider that Ray Kroc also made a fortune selling rubber shoes later on.

MC: I don't think I knew that...

Ben: They’re called Crocs?

MC: Oh, I see what you did there.

Ben: So moving into the 1960s, how did the death of Martin Luther King Jr. factor into the expansion of McDonald's?

MC: So this really weird thing happens after MLK’s death.

In April 1968, MLK had been in Memphis talking about sanitation workers and economic boycott before he was killed. After he was assassinated on April 4th, McDonald's became one of many companies involved in a public racial reckoning, akin to what we experienced in 2020 in the United States. People asked: What did it mean for businesses to operate in Black communities, and what did it mean for them to give economic opportunities to Black entrepreneurs?

Conversations and studies among foundations, think tanks, and commissions revealed that economic and social problems plagued Black America. As advertising and marketing reports advised companies to target a growing market of Black consumers, all of a sudden, Black wealth building and the opening of businesses like a black-owned McDonald's became the fulfillment of MLK’s dream. 

So following King's assassination, McDonald's, along with a lot of major companies, started to recruit Black franchise owners. 

Ben: And this wasn’t exactly the fulfillment of MLK’s dream... as you write, “Almost immediately after he was laid to rest in his hometown of Atlanta, King’s death became inextricably tied to the advancement of capitalism, which he had believed ‘failed to meet the needs of the masses,’ and was on a par with the ‘evils of militarism and evils of racism.’”

That sounds about as evil as evils get. 

MC: Yeah, but corporate America was only too happy to turn up the volume on King’s alleged support of Black capitalism as a way to suppress his far more critical and complex ideology. That’s why he almost seamlessly became tied to the advocacy for programs like Black capitalism and Black entrepreneurship.

And the federal government, under Nixon, promoted the idea of Black capitalism, too. Related, McDonald’s learned how profitable Black franchises could be. Even though the number of Black franchises was small, throughout the 60s and 70s their margins were high. They were located in the urban core; serving a consumer market that visited multiple times a day because it was a cheap, reliable food option; and many white franchisee owners had fled cities for the suburbs.

So fast food companies like McDonald’s, which had good relationships with the White House, pushed the government to provide loans to Black franchisees. And Nixon was only too happy to comply and champion Black capitalism because it meant supporting individual business owners rather than addressing the systemic socioeconomic issues that had long held Black communities back.

Ben: That reminds me of another quote of yours: “The option of bartering civil rights for economic opportunity has been presented to African Americans for centuries. In exchange for silence, Black communities could acquire a plethora of resources.”

MC: Right, and I’ll add that people across the political spectrum, many Black people included, embraced Black capitalism because they felt it was the one strategy where they would see real, tangible outcomes; that, while policy initiatives often failed, you could go to a store or franchise opening and say that is a Black-owned McDonald's.

I say to my students all the time that it's very easy for us to be dismissive or make fun of people in the past because we actually know what happened now. But from the vantage point of a Black citizen in 1968, you can see how owning a McDonald's might’ve seemed super hopeful. There was so much potential. I liken it to if Mark Zuckerberg texted me right now and said you own Meta. Do whatever you want with it. I wouldn't be able to wrap my head around that level of wealth and power and access.

Ben: Eh, when comparing you and Elon Musk...

MC: Right, maybe I couldn’t do much worse owning Twitter. But all of this is to say that the opportunity of owning a McDonald’s was unfathomable at the time. And people thought if we open this McDonald's in this community, it'll provide good jobs, we’ll make money and we can support local youth programs and athletics.

It's not that people weren’t critical of companies like McDonald’s (or other companies) suddenly offering business opportunities in Black communities. Resistance to McDonald's came from the Black Panther Party and local groups and other black businesses that were trying to compete, all of whom were very suspicious and skeptical.

But from the vantage point of that moment—when considering the cautious optimism that Black people were emerging from years of strife and grief and loss—there was a lot of hopeful speculation projection about the opportunities that McDonald’s, which was incredibly powerful, could bring to this long marginalized group of people.

Ben: Moving into the 80s, can you speak about how McDonald’s doubled down on its presence in Black communities through marketing campaigns?

MC: One of the most poignant parts of my research process was watching old McDonald's commercials all day. I went to the Paley Center For Media in New York and I was in tears. I couldn't figure out why, until I realized it was my whole childhood unfolding in front of me. 

McDonald's was the leader in the type of advertising that we would call “ethnic” or “segmented” marketing: the use of Black celebrities, Black models, and Black athletes like Michael Jordan to sell the franchise. McDonald’s enlisted the services of Burrell Communications, a Chicago-based Black advertising and marketing firm, to create content for Black consumers.

Their efforts were really, really effective. Obviously, so much of advertising is about gender and class fantasies, and so whether it was first dates or family meals, McDonald's really knew how to aesthetically create a world that I think a lot of African American consumers wanted to be in. 

Ben: In Franchise, you describe one commercial, whose catchphrase was “a hamburger wallet and a beefsteak appetite.”

MC: Oh my gosh. They had this crazy product called a McSteak sandwich, and it was supposed to elevate the dining experience because the market research showed that adults didn't really love McDonald's. They just tolerated it because their kids liked it and they found that African American men especially didn't like eating there.

So they tried to create this fake steak sandwich that you could order on a date, and “onion nuggets” to go along with it. But the nuggets gave people really bad gas.

Ben: So funny. This calls to mind some of McDonald's other failed food creations, like the Hula Burger.

MC: Oh, so gross. It was just a piece of grilled pineapple with cheese melted on it and put in a bun.

Ben: Maybe they should’ve tried the “McCantouloupe” and used mayo to glue french fries to a melon.

MC: Perhaps.

Ben: Speaking of healthy food options (or not), how do you reflect on the connection between fast food and health disparities in the US today? To cite some stats from your book, Black children are at far greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than white children, and as of 2015, Black citizens were 1.4 times more likely than white citizens to be obese.

MC: Yeah, people often think that when you write a book about race and fast food, there’ll be a lot of finger-wagging, saying it’s better to eat kale than burgers. I'm really not interested in that. What I'm interested in is helping us understand the racialized food system that exists today.

Since the late 60s, fast-food restaurants have been hyper-concentrated in the poorest and most racially segregated places. Fast food is often identified as the culprit for high rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension among the Black population. But in the public conversation about fast food, race, and health, we have to remember the centuries-old structural indifference to providing Black communities with nutritious foods. 

Sometimes, people will say to me, well, my family lived on the farm and we ate great, and then we came to the city and we ate poorly. And I'm like, that's really unlikely when we think about sharecropping and subsistence farming and the poverty that gripped people in the South. There has always been a long fight for diverse and robust and nutritionally balanced access to food for African Americans.

I don't blame McDonald's for that. But I think McDonald's is a symbol of the failures of the state to really take seriously how we're going to facilitate racial justice and all of the things that justice entails, from food to jobs to healthcare to education. When we abdicate the responsibility of the public good to corporations—when we blame Black citizens for eating at McDonald’s more than the structural lack of better food options for our communities—well, then more McDonald’s is what we get.

Ben: To quote you one last time, “Ultimately history encourages us to be more compassionate toward individuals navigating few choices, and history cautions us to be far more critical of the institutions and structures that have the power to take choices away.”

MC: Yes, and with the rise of Black Lives Matter, I think more and more people are starting to get it. They’re noticing the tendency for government and corporations to offer meaningless gestures that don’t address the origins of the rage and the disappointment that people have in a structure that has stayed unchanged for so many people.

Thankfully, too, people increasingly look at things like MLK weekend sales for sheets and guns and washing machines, and they’re like: you’ve got to be kidding. That is not the fulfillment of his dream.

Ben: A good concluding note. Professor Chatelain. Thank you so much for your scholarship and for being here. It’s been a pleasure.

MC: Thank you.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
Lesley M.M. Blume on Hiroshima and Nuclear War According to the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group with the gloomiest job on earth, we’re closer to nuclear war than at any point since World War II. Ahead of their planned update to the Doomsday Clock, which currently stands at 100 seconds to midnight, I spoke to Lesley M.M. Blume, an award-winning journalist, historian, and New York Times bestselling author. 

Lesley is the author of Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed it to the World, which documents how American war correspondent John Hersey helped expose the true effects of the nuclear bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Paying subscribers to Skipped History can access audio of the full conversation here (~1 hour... Lesley and I covered a lot of alarming ground). Skipped History is a reader-supported publication, so consider signing up today!

Ben: Lesley, thank you so much for being here.

LB: Well, thanks for inviting me.

Ben: To begin, let’s discuss Little Boy. What was it, and why is “Little Boy” arguably the worst euphemism ever?

LB: Yeah, Little Boy was not a little boy, but rather the first nuclear weapon ever used in warfare, dropped over Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. We’ll never know the full extent of casualties, but probably 100,000 to 250,000 people died after the US detonated the bomb.

Little Boy was followed by another bomb, three days later—more appropriately called Fat Man—which decimated Nagasaki. A slightly smaller casualty count there, but numbers become academic when you’re in the tens of thousands.

Ben: In Fallout you quote Hiroshima’s governor as saying even today, “You dig two feet and there are bones.” Pretty stunning.

LB: Yeah. Researching in Hiroshima was really disturbing because, as the governor told me, you are literally walking on a graveyard.

Ben: On that ghoulish note, let’s dive into the US attempts to cover up the radioactive fallout of the bomb. What happened after August 6th, 1945?

LB: When looking at the initial coverage of the bombing, it was undoubtedly a huge story. For example, the New York Times ran a huge banner headline, and not long after that, the US released pictures of devastated landscapes in both of the bombed-out cities. 

So, it seemed like the government was divulging information, and that newspapers were fully covering it. But after the bombing, a few especially daring reporters entered the bombed-out cities to see what life was like. It was very clear to them that, actually, something very sinister was happening; that the atomic bombs continued to kill long after detonation. 

They managed to get a few initial reports out of Hiroshima, but the US government and military were very quick to lock down Japan and squelch subsequent accounts. They didn’t want the international community or American citizens to know that radioactive activity was still killing people in really agonizing ways.

Ben: Per your book, US Secretary of War Henry Stimson explained that the US wasn’t eager to “get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities.”

LB: Which makes sense, right? The US had just won an incredibly difficult war against undeniably evil powers. Japanese atrocities were horrific, just like those carried out by Germany and Italy.

So the US had the moral high ground, and the truth of what had just happened to the largely civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would put that position at risk.

Also, the US military was about to station tens of thousands of Allied troops throughout Japan, including in the atomic cities. Some of them, especially in Nagasaki, were quite close to ground zero. And so of course the US government would say, Look, no harm done here, this area is safe for anybody.

So after September 1945, the story went quiet. US occupation authorities wouldn’t even allow mention of Hiroshima in Japanese poetry, let alone press reports about people dying in Hiroshima from horrific hemorrhaging and worse. As reporters moved on, the American public moved on, too.

Ben: Your discussion of the US public's (and the world’s) fatigue with war stories is quite thought-provoking.

LB: Thanks for bringing that up. Yes, the bandwidth for the American public to absorb yet another outside atrocity story in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was pretty minimal. People suffered from what in the book I call “atrocity exhaustion.” When the government released pictures of the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what differentiated those ruins from Dresden or Cologne or London after the blitz? So the exhaustion was total, and I'm more empathetic than ever with that exhaustion given all we’ve been through over the last few years with the Trump era, climate change, Ukraine, and more.

Ben: Ditto. And as a New York Knicks fan, I’ve felt a far lesser yet still persistent form of atrocity exhaustion for a long time.

LB: We have Mets and Jets fans in our family, so I hear you.

Ben: How did John Hersey manage to penetrate this exhaustion?

LB: So John Hersey was this young, gorgeous, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and war correspondent who'd worked for Time magazine from 1939 to 1944.  He also had a reputation as a hero for evacuating wounded Marines while covering battle in the South Pacific.

A free agent in the fall of 1945, Hersey had lunch with William Sean, the New Yorker’s managing editor. Sean was this strange, elfish, quiet man with shrewd, unerring news instincts They called him the “hunch man” because sometimes he’d just send a correspondent to some part of the globe on a hunch that something was going on, and he was never wrong.

Ben: Little do people know that Quasimoto was actually a very famous journalist during his time, too.

LB: Yes, the New Yorker tried to get him on contract.

Ben: But he was mired in his own drama.

LB: A sad chapter. 

So Hersey and William Sean were at this lunch and they realized that there was something kind of odd about the Hiroshima coverage. It all seemed to have been about what it did to the landscape, but they were like what happened to the humans? 

Hersey had a deep background in Asian coverage and grew up in China, so his idea was to go back to Asia, starting in China, and then try to get into Japan and find out what had happened to civilians in the atomic cities.

Ben: He was up against some pretty nasty American instincts toward the Japanese, right? There’s a quote from Hershey where he says, “If our concept of civilization was to mean anything, we had to acknowledge the humanity of even our misled and murderous enemies.”

LB: An extraordinary thing to have written on Hersey's part given how Hollywood, the military, and much of the media recast the Japanese as this kind of bestial subspecies during the war. 

So Hersey arrived in China in early 1946. While on assignment, he got sick, and amid a sort of feverish haze on a military ship, he read a book called The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which detailed the intersecting lives of five Peruvians killed when a suspension bridge broke. Hersey thought that’d be a good approach to telling the story of Hiroshima: pick a handful of everyday citizens and describe their overlapping experiences of the attack. He wanted American readers to put themselves in the shoes of his protagonists.

After going from China to Tokyo, spoiler alert, Hersey managed to get to Hiroshima.

Ben: Right, that's a dramatic tale in its own right, which you detail compellingly in Fallout. For now, let’s just say it involves surfing a giant sea horse into town.

LB: Yes… anyway, suffice to say, Hersey’s war reputation made him a perfect Trojan horse of sorts to get into the city.

Once there, over the course of a few weeks, he interviewed dozens of survivors who were in various positions vis-a-vis the blast, some of them quite close (it was deeply miraculous that they’d survived). Ultimately he whittled down his list of protagonists to six people: a young Japanese medic, a young female clerk, an older Japanese doctor, a young widowed mother who had three young children, a Protestant minister who also had a young family, and then finally a German priest who’d been living in Hiroshima. All of their stories overlapped in the lead-up to the bombing.

Hersey returned to Tokyo and then to the US to write his story. Titled “Hiroshima,” he began the story at the moment of detonation, describing what each of his subjects was doing. The reader then gets background information on each of the individuals, before Hershey shows what each of those individuals and each of their families went through in the minutes, hours, then days, and weeks after the bomb went off. Interspersed throughout are statistics about casualties and facts about radiation that almost nobody knew. 

For most people then (as now), the story is unputdownable; it’s the most compulsive reading possible. It’s one of the few stories you can access for free on the New Yorker website.

Ben: You cite one of Hersey's contemporaries, a reporter named Lewis Gait, who said, “You swallowed statistics, gasped in awe, and turning away to discuss the price of lamb chops, forgot. But if you read what Mr. Hersey writes, you won't forget.”

LB: Yeah, by eliciting sympathy and empathy, “Hiroshima” penetrated the public consciousness. Millions of people in the US and around the world read it in real time. Over 500 radio stations in America covered it. ABC, BBC, and newspapers and publications around the world syndicated it. When the story came out as a book, it immediately sold out. I can't overstate the global impact of the book and how voraciously it was consumed.

Ben: How did the US government respond to Hersey blowing their coverup?

LB: To put it mildly, the government reacted with displeasure. 

I mean, first, officials tried to ignore the story entirely. When Harry Truman was asked if he’d read “Hiroshima,” he said he’d never even read the New Yorker. 

But when it became clear they couldn’t ignore the story anymore, a handful of war department old boys got together and published a retort article (though they never called it a retort), ostensibly written by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson but really written by committee. And the retort basically argued in a very calm and unemotional way that the bomb saved a million lives that would’ve been lost through invasion—not just American lives but Japanese ones, too. The authors argued the US couldn’t in good conscience just sit on the technology when they could’ve ended the war in a faster way.

It’s a very paternalistic, reassuring document that conveniently didn’t mention civilian costs, radiation, the ongoing effects of the bombs, the fact that the US had sent troops into the atomic cities without really knowing if there was residual radiation (luckily, there wasn’t), or the fact that the Japanese had put out peace feelers via the Soviets before the bombs were dropped.

Fascinatingly, the Soviets were also extremely pissed about “Hiroshima.” Their US allies left them out of the decision to use the bomb, and now they were at a huge disadvantage. The US had this mega weapon and overnight became the world’s sole superpower.

The Soviets immediately accelerated their own efforts to create an atomic bomb. In the meantime, they had no interest in their public being panicked by their disadvantage, so the Soviets barely reported on Hersey’s story. And then a Soviet publication sent a correspondent to Nagasaki to write a rebuttal article about how the bombs weren’t that bad after all, and any suggestion otherwise was American propaganda.

So, in effect, both the US and the USSR engaged in their own respective coverups of the true aftermath in Hiroshima. To me, as a researcher, that was pretty bananas.

Ben: As a reader, it was too. And regarding the suppression of memory, you write, “The greatest tragedy of the 21st century may be that we've learned so little from the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.” Could you elaborate on that conclusion?

LB: Sure. So at least in the US, try as it might, the government couldn’t counteract the influence of Hersey’s article. We know what nuclear warfare looks like largely because of John Hersey. His article alone became a pillar of deterrence over the following years because the US government knew it couldn’t use nuclear weapons in other conflicts without generating the kind of outcry that followed the publication of “Hiroshima.”

Still, today, I think the threat of nuclear annihilation is probably sharper and fresher for most people than it has been for years. We’re learning yet again that the world has never been able to figure out how to walk away from the nuclear framework. 

One question that’s of profound importance to me, and which I believe was similarly profound for Hersey, was what are we capable of when we’ve dehumanized another race or country on a big scale? The answers to that question, which the world witnessed during World War II, are fading from memory. We’re seeing a terrifying rise in anti-Semitism right now; ethnic concentration camps in China; and of course war with the unlikely but still possible use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

So it’s a scary time, riddled with disinformation. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is very clear in its warnings that the nuclear threat is more real now than at any time since World War II.

With that being said, I don't think that most people, especially in America, realize how much agency they have in nuclear matters. Whom we elect to control our nuclear destiny really matters. And at some point, we also have to take on the issue of presidents having sole authority to launch nuclear attacks.

I’d also remind everyone to support their local journalism communities, whom we need to tell the kinds of policy-affecting, eyewitness stories that Hersey was able to bring to the world in 1946.

Ben: An excellent reminder, and a good concluding note. The unsettling content aside, Lesley, this has been a blast.

LB: No pun intended?

Ben: Oh, wow. Not at all. I’m going to stop this interview before I’m tempted to launch more. Thanks again for being here.

LB: My pleasure.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
Professor Michael Kazin on the Turbulent History of American Socialism In a new book called Myth America, top historians (including many who’ve appeared on Skipped History!) set the record straight on some of the most pernicious myths about US history. When reading, I was particularly intrigued by Professor Michael Kazin’s chapter about the history of socialism in the US. He kindly agreed to chat further with me for today’s interview.

Professor Kazin teaches history at Georgetown and is an expert in U.S. politics and social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. The former editor of Dissent Magazine, he’s also the author of several highly respected books including, most recently, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, and earlier, American Dreamers: How the Left Change a Nation.

Professor Kazin and I discussed the successes, failures, and legacies of socialist movements in the US dating back to the 1820s. Our conversation went pleasantly long, so a condensed transcript edited for clarity is below, and paying subscribers can access the full transcript and audio here.

Ben: Professor Kazin, thank you so much for being here.

MK: It's great to be here, Ben. 

Ben: Let's begin in 1825. What happened then that in your words “suggests the philosophy of economic equality and cooperation” may not be so un-American after all?

MK: So by 1825, a Welsh-born Scottish industrialist named Robert Owen, who’d made a lot of money investing in textile mills, had become a socialist. He believed that he hadn’t been treating his workers well enough and began to treat them much better.

But more importantly, he believed that the competitive system, the market system, which was just getting going in a lot of countries, including his own, was unjust and a more communitarian system was necessary. He called this system “socialism” and was the first person to really popularize that word.

A lot of people in Congress were interested in his ideas, and in 1825, he spoke to a joint session. He detailed how the competitive market system was a bad thing and that a more cooperative humanitarian system would be much more humane. Two presidents—James Monroe, who was leaving office, and John Quincy Adams, who was just entering it—came to hear Owen speak. Afterward, he visited John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in their homes to talk to them about socialism.

Ben: It’s fascinating that so many of the so-called “founders” were open to socialism. 

Can you describe a few of the leftist movements that preceded the Civil War? I’m thinking of abolitionism, the women’s rights movement, and the labor movement.

MK: You mention the three major movements actually. 

The abolitionist movement was crucial. As we know, slavery was the great contradiction to the ideals of American freedom and equality and of course, abolitionists pushed the Republican Party to abolish slavery.

The women’s rights movement grew out of the abolitionist movement. Women— mostly white women, but some Black women as well—met in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. They put together a Declaration of Sentiments which began, “all men and women are created equal.” Attendees of the convention argued that if they were fighting for the liberation of enslaved men and women, why not fight for the political and economic liberation of all women? 

After the Civil War, white suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony demanded, in effect, that abolitionists support giving all women the right to vote. Frederick Douglass, who’d been a leading supporter of women’s suffrage—in fact, he attended the convention in Seneca Falls—said no, we can't jeopardize winning votes for all Black men, thinking the Fifteenth Amendment would fail to pass if women were included in it. Because of that, Stanton and Anthony broke with Douglass and with other abolitionists who, at least tactically at the time, opposed women’s suffrage.

As for the labor movement, before the Civil War, it was mostly a local movement. There were workingmen's parties, as they were called, in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, which won a fair amount of votes in local elections.

Unfortunately, some people in the labor movement back then were opposed to abolition because they were afraid of enslaved people coming north, taking their jobs, and driving down wages. Some members of the labor movement were sympathetic to abolitionism, mostly in New England, but in general, there was tension between those movements. And white working men weren’t just threatened by the abolition of slavery, but also by women having the ability to work “men’s jobs.”

So there was tension between each movement. This has long been true in lefts around the world: people consider themselves part of the left in a broader sense but disagree about a lot of details.

Ben: So the left has... contained multitudes for a long time? 

MK: Yes, as Whitman might say.

Ben: Moving forward, can you talk about the left came this close to seismic electoral gains in New York in 1886?

MK: Sure. That year there was a momentous mayoral election, which pitted an iron manufacturer named Abram Hewitt against a pretty radical candidate named Henry George.

George ran on a third-party ticket for the United Labor Party, and he was a celebrity for having written probably the most popular economics book of the 18th century, called Progress and Poverty, where he argued that land speculation was at the root of poverty. He was a great supporter of workers and unions, and just about every kind of socialist you can think of campaigned for him. The thinking was that if the most populous city in America could elect George, it would be a new dawn for the left. 

Well, George lost—narrowly. Tammany Hall stole some votes, as they were known to do, and the Republican candidate—a young guy named Teddy Roosevelt—secured 60,000 votes, almost three times the margin that separated George and Hewitt, the eventual victor. The best opportunity to launch an American labor party probably died when the polls closed in Manhattan that evening in November 1886.

Ben: On the flip side, you write, the critiques of monopoly and capitalism voiced by radicals like George persuaded national major-party nominees “and thousands of candidates who followed... to put an end to the freebooting capitalism of the nineteenth century.” 

MK: Yes, socialists really played a key role in the Progressive Era (from the 1890s through the 1910s). Though George lost, the Socialist Party of America formed in 1901, and its members continued to put out radical ideas about how the economy should be democratized. To a certain extent, they were really successful, and before World War I, over a thousand local officials were elected on the Socialist Party ticket at different times around the country.

Now, say what you want about politicians like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt—and there’s a lot to critique about them, of course—but they were skilled politicians, and they adopted some of the anti-monopoly, anti-corporate rhetoric of socialist movements gaining steam. In that sense, the Progressive Era can be viewed as a coopting of the more radical tendencies in politics.

Ben: Which, again, sounds like a success to some extent. But as you point out, socialists couldn’t sustain their electoral gains.

One reason for this failure was major party nominees coopted socialistic policies. Another reason, posited by a German academic around this time named Werner Sombart, was that there was too much prosperity in America, or what he described as “reefs of roast beef and apple pie.”

Do you agree with that assessment, and would it be correct to assume that the reefs also contained vanilla milksharks, as well as a despondent clownfish searching for his son, Filet Mignemo?

MK: ...I don’t remember writing that, and no, I don’t agree. The real zapper of socialists’ momentum was World War I, a watershed in the history of the American left. The Socialist Party opposed going to war in 1917, and the federal government responded by effectively banning socialist discourse in newspapers and through the mail. 

The Socialist Party was never as strong again, though it did revive a bit during the Great Depression. In the late 30s, the left joined what people at the time called the anti-fascist Popular Front, which included labor unions, immigrant African American and Hispanic groups, and more.

It was a very broad left, supportive of the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, and thanks to their influence, in 1935, Congress passed and FDR signed the National Labor Relations Act (or the Wagner Act), the most important piece of labor legislation in the 20th century. The act granted most workers the legal right to organize or join unions and bargain collectively. 

The act was seriously flawed (notably, it excepted agricultural and domestic workers from unionizing, which disproportionately affected African Americans), but the government wouldn’t have granted unions legal protections if it weren’t for radicals pushing for more progressive policies.

Ben: That’s more or less the argument in your book: that throughout US history, leftists have been better at winning reforms than elections. In a similar vein, let’s move to the rise of the New Left in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, which you say “did more to discredit the old liberal order than to lay the foundation for a new one.”

MK: And here I'm talking about my own generation. I was a co-chair of Students for a Democratic Society at my university, helped lead a strike there, was part of the anti-war movement, and was in a crazy would-be terrorist group called Weatherman for a very short period of time.

Ben: What led to your rise and demise, so to speak?

MK: It’s a long story, but I'll make it short. 

The rise had a lot to do with the Black Freedom Movement. As I’ve mentioned, with the exception of abolitionists, leftist movements in American history, at least white-led ones, have not been great about supporting racial minorities, especially African Americans

But many new leftists were deeply involved in the Black Freedom Movement. Some went to Mississippi to work during the Freedom Summer in 1964. Others worked on their own campuses and within their own communities for civil rights and integration, as I did. 

Then came the war in Vietnam. The New Left really grew large when the US took over most of the fighting from the South Vietnamese army in 1965. This was an outrage to us.

At the same time, the New Left was the first left in American history that came primarily from what you might call more privileged quarters, especially the white new left. People think about the baby boomer generation as being a hugely college-educated generation but in fact, in 1960, only 16% of Americans 25 and older had college degrees.

So going to college was still something of a mark of privilege (with some exceptions of course). The idea that people like me, at places like Harvard where I went to school, were smashing and denouncing America, spelling America with three Ks, hoping for the Vietcong to win (we were), supporting the Black Panther Party, and promoting the idea of revolution—well, that turned a lot of people off from the left. And even though the war in Vietnam became more and more unpopular during the1960s, in the early 1970s, the anti-war movement became just as unpopular. 

Ben: On the flip side, you write, “The New Left articulated a critique of everyday life, which was, in time, taken up by millions of people who had little regard for those who had originated the ideas.”

So, many of today’s ideas about equality, whether for racial minorities or the LGBTQ+ community, were furthered by your generation, too.

MK: Yes—and just to clarify, though liberals have adopted those stances today, the New Left was not liberal. Many of us likely came out of liberal households, but we identified as anything but.

Ben: Moving into the 80s and 90s, that brings to mind another point of yours. You write that “conservatives acquired the pernicious habit of describing the leadership of the Democratic Party simply as ‘the left.’ Soon the mainstream media followed along, squeezing everyone from Bill Clinton to Noam Chomsky under the same saggy terminological umbrella.”

My first question is: what did an umbrella ever do to you?

MK: Ha! Maybe I could use some therapy.

Ben: Happy to help.

My second question is: how much merit is there to equating Democrats with the left today?

MK: Well, of course, it serves Republican and conservative interests to equate the Democratic Party with the left, especially with more radical leftists. It's also just sort of easier for journalists of any political leaning to say one party's the right party, one party's the left party, especially when you’re on deadline.

But as much as I don’t identify as liberal, I’ll say there’s some merit to this point, because a lot of people on the left, like me, did become Democrats with the capital D in the 70s. So the left did become part of the Democratic Party or at least some parts of the left did, even before Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2015 as a socialist.

Ben: This brings me to a concluding question. What is your take on the future of the DSA? It seems to me that your main takeaway from studying this history is that socialists should strive for a utopian vision through more pragmatic short- and medium-term goals.

MK: You've described my outlook well. I believe in what Michael Harrington, who was head of the Socialist Party for several years in the 60s and 70s and a founder of the DSA, called “the left wing of the possible.” I think you’ve got to put out a left-wing vision of where America should go and articulate that very strongly in a language that most Americans understand.

At the same time, you can't just say you refuse to participate in a filthy, corrupt system because people need help, housing, and jobs now. The environment needs to be preserved now. We need to move away from a security state now. And the only way to accomplish those goals is to win elections. 

Unfortunately, with few exceptions, American history suggests you can’t win elections with a third party, a socialist party, or any kind of radical party. Socialists have to take power seriously in this country and to take power seriously, you have to work with people whom you wish you didn't have to work with, just like leftists did in the mid-19th century, the Progressive Era, amid the Great Depression, and now with DSA members aligning with the Democratic Party. 

Ben: Well, I think that’s a compelling way to synthesize the history that you've presented today. I really appreciate your time, Professor Kazin.

MK: Thank you, Ben. It's been a lot of fun.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
“The beginning of the culture wars” with Professor Ed Larson As the US’ s culture wars deepen (thanks in no small part of late to the New York Times), I spoke with Edward J. Larson, a professor of history and law at Pepperdine University. He traces the tendrils of our cultural divide back to the famed Scopes trial (aka the Scopes Monkey Trial).

Professor Larson is the author of fifteen books on science, history, and law including most recently, American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795, and earlier, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Professor Larson and I discussed the momentous trial in 1925, and how, alarmingly, conservatives continue to borrow arguments developed by members of the prosecution today. A lightly condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can also access audio of the full conversation here, which includes mention of Shackleton, a whale shark, and a lengthier exploration of the famous play and movie Inherit the Wind.

Ben: Professor Larson, you’ve appeared on The Daily Show, The Today Show, CNN, and the BBC but, correct me if I’m wrong, Skipped History is the crowning media achievement of your career?

EL: It's all worked up to this point.

Ben: Thank you. Today, I’d like to talk about the legacy of the Scopes trial. I suppose there's no better place to begin than with Darwinism. When did Darwin publish The Origin of Species?

EL: Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 just before the American Civil War, which delayed its introduction into the US. The idea of evolution had been around for a long time, but what Darwin did was add a mechanism for evolution: natural selection. 

What made natural selection controversial was that it suggested evolution was not done by working hard, which the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had theorized—for example, by giraffes stretching their necks further over time, and therefore being able to eat higher leaves. Americans interpreted Lamarkianism more or less as pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.

Christians didn’t have a problem with this form of evolution, because they could say that God designed the changes. God guided evolution. But natural selection suggested otherwise. If we move forward based not on our own hard work or not on a divine plan, but through random changes—well, that seemed to them to undermine faith in a loving God.

That led to a chorus of objections from evangelical fundamentalists early in the 20th century, which coincidentally was just about the time that high schools became ubiquitous across America. The start of compulsory education in the US coincided with the brewing controversy over evolutionary theory.

Ben: There are a few things to unwind. First, to recapitulate evolution, it’s more or less the idea that giraffes pulled themselves up by their bootstraps?

EL: Evolution just means species evolve from other species, which isn't problematic. What became problematic to evangelical Christians and many others was the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection, especially as applied to humans.

Ben: Could you talk a bit about the rise of fundamentalism? What was the fundamentalist movement, what did they preach, and why were they so opposed to Darwin’s ideas?

EL: Well, the term fundamentalism wasn't coined until World War I, an incredibly traumatic event. Add on the “Spanish Flu,” all sorts of industrialization and urbanization in America, the jazz age, the rise and fall of the czar in Russia—there was just so much turmoil.

So fundamentalism was a cultural, religious movement about getting back to the basics and interpreting the bible literally—rather than interpreting lessons from it—and just supposedly going back to a plain reading of scripture. 

Of course, this view had never existed before! No one ever literally believed the earth was created in six days.

Ben: Right. In a reflection of this new dogmatic fervor, a fundamentalist minister at the time named Billy Sunday toured the country in opposition to evolution. During one appearance, you describe how he worked himself into such a frenzy while stating there’s “no such thing as pre-historic man" that, according to one reporter, “Mr. Sunday gagged as if about to vomit.”

EL: Yes, Billy Sunday was a baseball player, sort of like Herschel Walker was a football player. Sunday went preaching around the country with a traveling evangelical movement and would draw enormous crowds in cities as well as in rural areas. He wasn't trained in ministry—he was trained in baseball—

Ben: —which is its own ministry— 

EL: Right, and like many fundamentalists, he read the Bible literally, which raises a lot of questions like do all the animals get on the arc?

Ben: Does Jonah actually live inside the whale for three days?

EL: Yup, or as William Jennings Bryan would clarify when on the witness stand during the Scopes trial, the Bible doesn’t say “whale.” It says “big fish.”

Ben: I guess he had a point: if you're going to live inside a whale, you'd need to pack a lot of granola bars, but with a fish, you’d just need a mini bottle of Soylent.

Speaking of William Jennings Bryan—and by the way, if you ever get so excited that you need to gag, this is a safe space—how did he become the figurehead of the fundamentalist campaign against teaching evolution in schools?

EL: Well, Bryan had arisen in the 1890s as a democratic member of the House, representing Nebraska, though he was originally from Illinois. And he deeply believed in a loving God. He wasn't a narrow-minded fundamentalist—he predated that movement. And he got tied in with the Populist Movement. He was fighting for the working people of the factories in Chicago and the farms of Nebraska and the Midwest.

And he became their hero. Bryan argued for populist reforms like regulating banks, regulating railroads, limiting big business, and breaking down monopolies, as well as, later on, prohibition and women’s suffrage.

He was nominated for president, both by the Democratic Party and the People's Party, which was the old populist party. He came close to winning in 1896, opposed of course by big business and supported by immigrants and by working people and farmers.

And he had always opposed “social Darwinism,” an idea really that predated Darwin. Social Darwinists believed that people are on their own. It's a struggle for survival out there. It's survival of the fittest. They actually coined those terms rather than Darwin, who just adopted them.

This objection was at the heart of Bryan’s opposition to teaching evolution in schools. He thought if kids read The Origin of Species, they’d lose their faith and become militarists and capitalists. He crusaded around the country advocating for the banning of human evolution in public schools, giving hundreds of lectures a year. Some historians argue he was the best orator in American history. And just like now we see an abundance of laws popping up around the country limiting the teaching of critical race theory, in the 1920s you saw the same thing: a bunch of laws outlawing the teaching of evolution.

Ben: There are certainly lots of parallels. Related, when Bryan went on his crusade, you've written that he cloaked it “as a benign appeal to parental rights.” Can you talk a little bit about that approach?

EL: It fit right in with his populism. He just thought “the people” should decide everything; that taxpayers should decide how government money is spent. In his view, a teacher shouldn't teach something that the taxpayer didn't want, and parents should have a special say in the teaching and education of their children. 

So it was populism wrapped into religion, wrapped into a critique of social Darwinism and big business. It was an unorthodox mix of viewpoints, and even Bryan’s friends were a little confused by his simultaneously populist, religiously conservative, and politically liberal ideology, but he certainly had passion.

Ben: So Tennessee was the first state to heed Bryan's call to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1925, Tennesse lawmakers made it a crime “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of men.” 

This led to what is often referred to as the “trial of the century.” Could you give us a little background on the trial?

EL: To put the famed trial in context, this was not just a local issue. Anti-evolution bills had been proposed throughout the country.

When the first bill passed in Tennessee, the ACLU offered to defend any teacher willing to challenge the law in court. People in Dayton, a dying little town in East Tennessee, read about the ACLU’s offer. The local head of the coal mines didn’t like the new law, so he convinced the superintendent of schools, the high school principal, local lawyers, and school board chairs that it’d be a good idea to stage a test trial. He said thousands of people would come to Dayton to watch the trial. They’d hold it in the summer, it’d be a public event, and it’d help reinvigorate the town.

From there, Daytonites asked a first-year teacher named John Scopes, who was actually the football coach but also taught science, if he’d be willing to challenge the law. If indicted, they promised him his job back, and the penalty for teaching evolution was only a small fine, which they promised to cover.

Scopes agreed to stand as the defendant, and the ACLU soon formed a legal team to back him up. They recruited world-class scientists and theologians to testify that the theory of evolution didn’t violate beliefs in Christianity.

Then, Clarence Darrow, the most famous defense lawyer in American history, who was sort of the village atheist on a national scale, joined the defense. In response, William Jennings Bryan, a national celebrity in his own right, volunteered to join the prosecution. 

So the two of them came together in this tiny little town, whose residents were sitting back and hoping to enjoy a PR festival.

Ben: Did the thousands of predicted people descend on Dayton?

EL: Well, over 200 reporters from all over the country and as far away as England came. The trial didn’t end up drawing a lot of people, but it drew enormous press coverage. The best reporters in America representing every major newspaper went to Dayton. It was the nation’s first trial broadcast on nationwide radio. It was literally the two most popular public speakers in America, Bryan, and Darrow, fighting over the issues of science versus religion and popular control versus academic freedom, two of the biggest issues of today or any day in American history.

Ben: It sounds like it would be very exciting even today, particularly the climax of the trial when Darrow cross-examined Bryan and more or less challenged Bryan's literal interpretations of the Bible.

Could you talk about this exchange?

EL: Late in the trial, which lasted only 11 days, the defense was exasperated. They’d tried calling all sorts of expert judges, but the judge wouldn’t let them, saying the case was just about whether or not Scopes taught evolution. In desperation Darrow said, okay if you won't take any of our experts, let's get Bryan up on the stand and let him defend his law. Bryan agreed, eager to defend his views.

Cleverly, Darrow never asked Bryan about evolution because he knew Bryan had stump speeches prepared. Instead, he asked him the kinds of questions about Christianity that have been around for 2000 years; questions that nobody can answer like where did Kane get his wife? Do you believe all the animals got on Noah's arc? Was Jonah in the whale (or big fish) for three days?

Bryan didn’t know how to answer these questions. He knew if he said Jonah hadn’t lived in the whale for three days (which historically is interpreted as a metaphor for Jesus in the tomb for three days), he’d alienate his fundamentalist followers.

Then again, if he said yes, and that God had in fact built the world in six days, he’d sound like a dang fool to most Americans. 

Ben: Which explains why he gradually lost his cool and yelled, “I'm simply trying to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States!”

EL: Yes, he tried every possible approach, but all these questions put him in an endless bind. 

Ben: And yet, despite what we might perceive as an embarrassing exchange, it didn’t really affect how the jury ruled in the case, did it?

EL: The judge reminded the jury that the only question they had to answer was did Scopes violate the law? They’d heard no testimony suggesting otherwise, so they quickly huddled in the corner of the courtroom and convicted Scopes. He was assigned the $100 fine, and that was that.

Ben: Right, there was so much drama in the trial, but it took me longer to decide what to pack when camping with Jonah inside the whale than it did for the jury to deliberate. 

How did the ruling affect policies in other states? In some ways, the legacy of the trial is that it was a defeat for the anti-evolution crusade, but the reality seems to suggest otherwise.

EL: Well, you could say this was the beginning of the culture wars in America. Because on the one hand, Bryan, his testimony, and the whole idea of banning the teaching of a scientific theory in schools were ridiculed, especially in the North.

On the other hand, Tennesse’s law was ultimately upheld. During appeals, the Tennessee Supreme Court struck down the conviction of Scopes on a technicality while upholding the law. Since Scopes wasn’t convicted, the ACLU couldn’t appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

A week later, Bryan happened to die, and proponents of anti-evolution laws used him as a martyr to the cause. Fundamentalist and sort of neo-conservative groups started pushing for the laws nationwide. School districts all over the country adopted them, as did states like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas.

So while among liberals, progressives, moderate Christians, and northerners in general, anti-evolution became a laughing matter, evolution was outright banned in many parts of the country. You can literally watch evolution drop out of textbooks beginning in 1925, and it didn’t come back in until 1960 with federally funded textbooks. 

During this intermediary period, the play and movie Inherit the Wind came out, which doubled down on the idea that the anti-evolution movement was absurd, even though in reality, it got its way.

Ben: Moving to the present day, you’ve written that politicians have “resurrected” the strategy of “parents’ rights” to “cloak objections to teaching sensitive matters, including climate change, gender roles, and topics surrounding racism and its history — lumped under a banner of critical race theory.” Would you elaborate, please?

EL: Whatever you might say about William Jennings Bryan, he was a great politician. He was an instinctive politician. He knew what worked and he knew what didn't work, and Bryan knew that instead of having to defend anti-evolutionism or creationism, it’s much easier to say I'm defending my child from being offended. 

This strategy worked then, and it still works today. That’s why when you hear arguments in opposition to Black studies, you don’t hear people trying to justify the often racist views underpinning this opposition. Instead, they say they’re protecting their children, a line of reasoning that Bryan proved could be used to great effect, and which endures today.

Ben: It’s not so encouraging to hear that the arguments Bryan used a hundred years ago are still around today, but it is enlightening to learn about their genesis. Thank you so much for being here. 

EL: Thank you for having me.

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0
The "Singular and Emblematic" History of Tuskegee with Dr. Brian Jones After our last couple of interviews, exploring the history of socialism and the culture wars, I wondered: are we destined to fight the same battles from the past over and over again, or are we (haltingly) moving closer to a more just society? Dr. Brian Jones, the inaugural director of the Center for Educators and Schools of The New York Public Library and author of The Tuskegee Student Uprising: A History, answers that question through the lens of the Tuskegee Institute.

Dr. Jones and I discussed how (to borrow his words) “the contradictions of Tuskegee Institute’s history are bound up with the contradictions of Black history.” I asked him about these contradictions, the lasting influence of Black student activism in the 60s, and why he still can’t find a way to score on me (we play soccer together every Sunday!). 

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below.

Ben: Dr. Jones, thank you so much for being here.

BJ: It's great to be with you.

Ben: To begin, let's discuss the founding of Tuskegee. Who founded it when, and how were “compromises and contradictions” baked into the school from the beginning?

BJ: Tuskegee Institute was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington in a moment of counterrevolution.

Remember that after the Civil War, with support from the victorious northern armies, Black people tried to build a biracial democracy. It was a revolutionary moment, and as Black southerners were elected to office during Reconstruction, top on their agenda was building schools. Soon, all southern states included public education in their constitutions, which meant that many white folks went to school for the first time thanks to the initiatives of their Black neighbors. 

Of course, this interest in education and the democratic aspiration to build a society from the bottom up was thwarted. A counterrevolution followed. Using violence, terror, intimidation, and murder, whites and the newly formed Klan put the genie of Reconstruction back in the bottle. 

It was in that moment that Washington founded Tuskegee. And any new school that was going to attract white people's funding, that was going to be well supported in this counterrevolution, was necessarily going to be a school that was not singing the same song as the earlier Black Power calls for public school, democracy, and for “one person, one vote.” It was going to be a different kind of animal by necessity. 

Ben: Can you discuss Washington's pedagogical philosophy and how it chafed with students’ expectations? In 1896, he tells students, “We are not a college, and if there are any of you here who expect to get a college training, you'll be disappointed.” By college training, I assume he was not referencing the ability to do keg stands, but correct me if I’m wrong.

BJ: Well, it's complicated. Undoubtedly, Booker T. Washington was making a big public show of promoting “industrial education,” which meant a curriculum oriented toward manual labor that would essentially train Black students to serve segregated communities. No doubt he made some of these comments to secure continued white funding of the school, but there’s also evidence that because Washington relied on college-educated teachers, what you might call “the classical liberal arts education” ended up being on offer anyway.

To this day, people debate whether Washington was a sort of sly fox taking white folks’ money and then providing subversive education on the sly, or if was complicit in the erection of the new Jim Crow order.

What’s so interesting to me is that it's not like students showed up and said, well, Booker T’s doing his thing. It's understandable because look at the counterrevolution and the violence and the lynchings and everything that's going on around us. 

Instead, students from Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana showed up on the campus and pushed back. They thought there was too much compromise on the campus. They wrote petitions, they wrote letters, and sometimes, like in 1896 and 1903, they went on strike. Students were required to work on the campus: construct its buildings and maintain its premises. This was part of their instruction in learning the supposed value of manual labor.

But in those years, the students refused to work, trying to get more time for study. They recognized that questions over the purpose of their education resonated with implications about their place in society. So you can see how from early in Tuskegee’s history, student protests were both singular and emblematic of the larger, deeper patterns and problems in Black society and the US writ large.

Ben: In a reflection of this protest tradition at Tuskegee, I was taken aback that as far back as 1907, you found records of 41% of the students being subject to disciplinary actions in one school year. That's so many people! If 41% of the players in our soccer game got yellow cards, it would be really hard to keep the ball moving.

BJ: A good point.

Ben: Washington led Tuskegee until his death in 1915. How did the school evolve in the following decades?

BJ: There were a number of shifts after Washington's death. Nationally, there was a dramatic expansion of schools as an institution. As more and more people went to high school, Tuskegee had to raise its standards for Black students to be able to get somewhere with their degrees. Tuskegee would've gone out of business if it maintained this “we are not a college” stance, so it grew into a university offering graduate degrees.

Still, during the Great Depression and the buildup to World War II, the philanthropy that had underwritten the university, once donated by the Carnegies of the world, faded away. So Tuskegee, like other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and really all of higher education at the time, became deeply enmeshed with the federal government and the military. For example, the now-famous Tuskegee airmen program began in 1939. 

There was a radical edge to these developments. Tuskegee leaders still deferred to the local white, political power structure in Tuskegee proper (Tuskegee is a city in Alabama), but there were increasing numbers of people with advanced degrees working on campus and a really well-educated group of people living in the surrounding community who essentially weren’t allowed to vote.

Ben: Right, to limit Black voting power in the area, in 1957, the Alabama state legislature passed a bill to change the shape of Tuskegee City limits from a “simple square” to what one person at the time called “a curious 28-sided figure resembling a stylized seahorse,” aka a seahorse that cuffs its jeans.

BJ: Ha! Eventually, this tension came to a head, and Tuskegee faculty patiently but persistently campaigned for the right to vote, bringing a lawsuit that went all the way up to the US Supreme Court. It’s not widely remembered today, but at the time the battle over voting rights in Tuskegee was national news. In the Court case, Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960), the Tuskegee faculty successfully overturned the gerrymander.

Ben: Building on this victory, and moving toward the student uprising, you write “the generation of young Black people who went to college in the 1960s confronted a contradiction between raised expectations and a power structure (white and Black) resistant to change.”

Could you elaborate?

BJ: So the same year that the faculty stepped out of the paradigm of deference to the local white supremacist hierarchy and scored a slam dunk at the Supreme Court, four students at an HBCU sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, setting off a new phase of the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile, between the years 1960 and 1961, several African nations became independent. 

Tuskegee students watched all of these developments unfold. At the same time, they went off campus, out of their privileged little bubble, into rural counties to fight for voting rights, where they encountered the violence, terror, and intimidation that rural people heroically endured. 

So, they got this tremendous political education off campus, and when they got back to school, class seemed boring as hell. They weren’t reading any works by the leaders of African decolonization; they weren’t learning about how the world actually worked. They felt like their intellectual growth outside the classroom far outstripped what was happening within it.

And then Sammy Younge, a Tuskegee student very involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee, was murdered by a white gas station attendant in the early days of 1966. His death, the acquittal of his murderer by an all-white jury 11 months later, and the administration’s reaction, which the students reckoned was more about tamping down the student movement than trying to get justice for Younge, was a radicalizing moment. Suddenly, all of the compromises Tuskegee had made over the years felt 1000% intolerable. How could the students stand another moment of injustice? 

In the aftermath of Younge's murder, the students successfully campaigned to elect the first Black sheriff in the South since Reconstruction. Then, they turned their attention to the campus, insisting that the school needed to change, too, and articulating a “Black university” idea then spreading around the HBCUs. The idea was to change the university from a feeder to corporate America into an institution that served the larger social agenda of the Black community. To get their point across, just days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, students took the school’s board of trustees hostage.

Ben: A reminder that you should never mess with nerds.

BJ: Well-put: as you allude, the hostage-takers were led by engineering students. I should mention, they didn’t have any weapons or anything. They were armed really with documents and walkie-talkies. Nobody was in physical danger. One of the trustees was a former major general in the US Army, and when he told the students I gotta go catch a flight, they were like, well, I guess you gotta go! and let him leave. When the white press asked him how violent the students were, he laughed.

The state of Alabama responded differently. They sent in the National Guard, armed with bayonet tips on their rifles. Ultimately the administration made the decision to close the campus to avoid a blood bath, which conveniently also served their agenda of trying to weed out the radicals. Afterward, the administration basically dismissed every single student and said you had to reapply to come back. A federal judge intervened, but this move really blunted what had been a very powerful student movement.

Still, when classes resumed, it was clear that the students had won significant victories: representation on all committees dealing with student affairs, full scholarships for athletes, 50 new course hours devoted to Black culture and an African studies program, and the ability to withdraw from courses at any time—in other words, things that made it possible to be successful students and which equipped them to participate in making change.

The victories reflect how Black students throughout the 20th century, and particularly in the 60s, had a transformative impact on all of higher education. The democratization of campus life, student participation in governance, the opening of new intellectual horizons that made space for women's studies and LGBTQ studies and ethnic studies, the origin of Black Studies as we know it today—all of these things came from students’ efforts.

Ben: I’m curious about some of the conclusions you draw when reflecting on this movement today. As you write, we’re now witnessing a crisis for Black Studies departments, which are increasingly “underfunded or cut altogether.”

Related, you say that “depending on your perspective, one could conclude either that the Black movements in the 1960s ‘went too far’ or, alternatively, that they didn’t go far enough. To me, the latter framework makes more sense than the former.”

I wonder if you can explain your perspective a little further.

BJ: I go back to where we started: Reconstruction; to the promise of restructuring society in a more fundamental way.

Until we make a more fundamental change, I think we're going to feel like we’re stuck in an endless cycle; that we’re fighting the same battles over and over and over again—because there's some truth to that. Until we destroy the institutional supports and edifices of white supremacy, we're going to keep finding grassroots, armed white supremacist groups; we're going to keep seeing manifestations of inequality in education; we’re going to keep stamping out one kind of power structure only for further injustice to arise someplace else.

What gives me hope that we can break out of these cycles is that we've seen periodic possibilities for more democratic and egalitarian modes of life. I take heart from moments like Reconstruction, where the world gets turned upside down and you glimpse the contours of something totally different that can be created in this country.

And there’s a reason that, as Tuskegee’s history suggests, we often get these glimpses at educational institutions. They are where young people gather, and despite all of the compromises, despite everything we lay on top of education, despite the ways parents try to ban books or put young people into boxes, students break out of them and push us to think in new ways, to see in new ways, to continue trying to build a new society.

Ben: A graceful concluding note, Dr. Jones. Thank you so much for your time and erudition. I look forward to returning the favor and schooling you on the soccer pitch soon.

BJ: It's been a lot of fun. See you out there!

Mon, 27 Mar 2023 07:14:15 +0000 0