Posted in 20th century America, atomic bombings, death, journal articles, Ku Klux Klan, military, religion, terrorism, violence

Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field

Gage, Beverly. “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field.” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73-94.

“Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field” by Beverly Gage, appeared in the Journal of American History in 2011.  Gage sets the foundation for her argument by presenting historian Richard Hofstadter’s call in 1970 for historians to “remedy their ‘inattention’ and construct a history of violence that would speak to the present and the past.”[1]  She explains how the historical profession stepped up to the challenged over the course of the next forty years by publishing numerous studies on “racial conflict, territorial massacres, gendered violence, empire, crime and punishment, and war and memory,” yet, even though terrorism dominates American political discourse, historians have not effectively confronted the issue.[2]

In the early part of her essay, Gage shows that “terrorism” is difficult to define, although she does claim that terrorism tends to be a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[3]  Throughout the essay, certain examples are repeatedly cited as terrorist acts, such as Klan lynchings and labor violence like the Haymarket riot.

She also discusses political violence and social movements, and historians’ hopes of developing a general theory of terrorism through studying groups such as The Weather Underground and the Irish Republican Army.  But most of all, Gage contends that these historians sought to underscore the “illegitimacy of terrorism as a means of social change, a violation of state sovereignty and moral norms.”[4]  These historians afforded the state exceptional status rather than holding the government to the same moral codes as individuals.

There are many challenges to distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence, including determining whether formal “states” can be terrorists.[5]  Most specialists agree that the term terrorism needs to be “restricted to nonstate actors—specifically, groups or individuals seeking to challenge existing governments.”[6]  One of the big issues, though, was that the government funded many of the studies, so there seems to be a conflict of interest.  Chomsky and others emphasized the large role the United States government played in exporting a “state-sponsored ‘culture of terrorism.’”[7]  Such actions should not be ignored.

Since 9/11, there has been a boom of studies focused on terrorism.  Yet a primary focus of these studies has been based on a “new terrorism” framework, which Gage connects to sociologist Mark Jurgensmeyer’s work.[8]  In this framework, violence is always motivated by religion.  Placing the focus on religious motivations, however, pushes politics out of the discussion.[9]  Isabelle Duyvesteyn states that emphasizing religion tends to obscure the political nature of terrorism.  She offers Timothy McVeigh as an example and remarks: “[he] may have purported to love Christ, but he certainly despised the federal government.”[10]

I view the atomic bombings of Japan as acts of terrorism, so clearly I do not side with historians who wish to exempt the state from such considerations.  Bombing cities that were heavily populated with civilians aimed to send a very strong message to Japan and the rest of the world and therefore fits Gage’s assessment of terrorism being a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[12]  I do not necessarily think that there is anything for me to gain by labeling President Truman or other government officials as terrorists; however, my approach is to view the evidence from a guilty perspective.  What I mean by this is that I tend to analyze evidence without trying to justify the bombings.

Duyvesteyn’s point about religion is well-taken, but I also feel like religion is not the only lens that can obscure the political nature of terrorism.  Blaming the bombings on the American government’s racist attitudes, as some historians have, also distorts the truth.

I have read two of Jurgensmeyer’s books and a number of books on lynchings, Timothy McVeigh, Waco, Ruby Ridge, abortion clinic bombings, and about museum exhibits and memorials dedicated to these and similar themes.  The most frustrating issue I have found is that few authors (and even fewer public exhibits) seem to address the role American leadership plays in evoking and advocating these acts of terror.  The narratives tend to focus on demonizing the actor without effectively evaluating all of the contributing societal factors.

In her final paragraph, Gage writes, “The historiography of terrorism with its uneasiness about terminology, its political uncertainties, and its fractured discussions, is still struggling to find the proper balance between these imperatives.”[13]  I am not attempting to reach any definite conclusions about the atomic bombings or the definition of terrorism, but I hope that my project might help others in the field think about the issues and relationships in more creative and objective ways.

[1] Beverly Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 82.

[9] Ibid., 91.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 93.

[12] Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” 74.

[13] Ibid., 94.

Posted in 20th century America, Christianity, Civil Rights, conservative politics, gender studies, Ku Klux Klan, marginalization, racism, religion

Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Lisa McGirr’s book, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, is an interesting study of the grassroots conservatism that developed in Orange County, California beginning in the late 1950s.  The stories are both enlightening and disturbing as McGirr traces how this group learned to shift the conservative movement away from radical right-wing organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society to develop high levels of respectability for themselves—enough to successfully elect Ronald Regan to the Presidency in 1980.  The big turning point for these conservatives was Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat.  He lost support for opposing the 1964 Civil Rights’ Act and Social Security.  Another contributing factor was his campaign’s association with the John Birch Society.  Republican moderates were alarmed by Goldwater’s nomination acceptance speech where he stated, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”[1]  Following this defeat, but still concerned with “law and order” and “morality,” conservatives shed their extremist language to attract a more mainstream audience.[2]  The 1966 gubernatorial campaign for Reagan was their first real victory.

McGirr’s overriding question considers “how conservative political ideology, often considered an antimodern worldview, attracted a large number of people in the most technologically advanced and economically vibrant of American locales.”[3]  She shows that the Orange County  conservative movement embraced some aspects of modernity while rejecting others.  Right-wing evangelical Protestantism offered meaning through community and morality, and helped to ease fears of looming social upheaval (Communism, integration, birth control and abortion, to name a few).  It also embraced consumerism and entrepreneurial endeavors, which were key aspects of the technological economy that flourished in the region since the end of World War II.

McGirr’s resources included newspaper articles, interviews, sermons, magazines, poitical newsletters, McGuffey Readers, court proceedings transcripts, presidential election statistics, letters, ACLU papers, and the papers of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and other politicians discussed in the book.

This book connects with others on this site in a number of ways.  For example, Estrid Kielsmeier, a woman in the suburbs who ran coffee klatches to gather support for Barry Goldwater’s election, is an example of an ordinary woman who found a way to effect change in her community and the world at large.  She was part of a network of women who “organized study groups, opened ‘Freedom Forum’ bookstores, fill the rolls of the John Birch Society, entered school board races, and worked within the Republican Party, all in an urgent struggle to safeguard their particular vision of freedom and the American heritage.”[4]  And while I would not compare the integrity of the works of Estrid Kielsmeier to Ella Baker, both women worked hard for what they believed in.  “Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations.”[5]  And even though Baker’s primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom, she dedicated herself to making the entire world a better place for everyone.

[1] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 140-141.

[2] Ibid., 186.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 4.

Posted in atomic bombings, imperialism, journal articles, Ku Klux Klan, labor, military, propaganda, terrorism, violence

Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field

Gage, Beverly. “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field.” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73-94.

The “State of the Field” essay that I am addressing is “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field” by Beverly Gage, which appeared in the Journal of American History in 2011.  Gage sets the foundation for her argument by presenting historian Richard Hofstadter’s call in 1970 for historians to “remedy their ‘inattention’ and construct a history of violence that would speak to the present and the past.”[1]  She explains how the historical profession stepped up to the challenged over the course of the next forty years by publishing numerous studies on “racial conflict, territorial massacres, gendered violence, empire, crime and punishment, and war and memory,” yet, even though terrorism dominates American political discourse, historians have not effectively confronted the issue.[2]

In the early part of her essay, Gage shows that “terrorism” is difficult to define, although she does claim that terrorism tends to be a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[3]  Throughout the essay, certain examples are repeatedly cited as terrorist acts, such as Klan lynchings and labor violence like the Haymarket riot.

She also discusses political violence and social movements, and historians’ hopes of developing a general theory of terrorism through studying groups such as The Weather Underground and the Irish Republican Army.  But most of all, Gage contends that these historians sought to underscore the “illegitimacy of terrorism as a means of social change, a violation of state sovereignty and moral norms.”[4]  These historians afforded the state exceptional status rather than holding the government to the same moral codes as individuals.

There are many challenges to distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence, including determining whether formal “states” can be terrorists.[5]  Most specialists agree that the term terrorism needs to be “restricted to nonstate actors—specifically, groups or individuals seeking to challenge existing governments.”[6]  One of the big issues, though, was that the government funded many of the studies, so there seems to be a conflict of interest.  Chomsky and others emphasized the large role the United States government played in exporting a “state-sponsored ‘culture of terrorism.’”[7]  Such actions should not be ignored.

Since 9/11, there has been a boom of studies focused on terrorism.  Yet a primary focus of these studies has been based on a “new terrorism” framework, which Gage connects to sociologist Mark Jurgensmeyer’s work.[8]  In this framework, violence is always motivated by religion.  Placing the focus on religious motivations, however, pushes politics out of the discussion.[9]  Isabelle Duyvesteyn states that emphasizing religion tends to obscure the political nature of terrorism.  She offers Timothy McVeigh as an example and remarks: “[he] may have purported to love Christ, but he certainly despised the federal government.”[10]

My project began with my Religious Studies MA thesis, where I explored how Americans think about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  My exploration was guided by Susan Sontag’s question from her book Regarding the Pain of Others: “Which atrocities from the incurable past do we think we are obliged to revisit?”[11]  For my history MA thesis, I continued to explore these themes through a public history digital project.  “Terrorism and the American Experience” was an appropriate “State of the Field” essay for me to consider in light of my project.

I view the atomic bombings of Japan as acts of terrorism, so clearly I do not side with historians who wish to exempt the state from such considerations.  Bombing cities that were heavily populated with civilians aimed to send a very strong message to Japan and the rest of the world and therefore fits Gage’s assessment of terrorism being a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[12]  I do not necessarily think that there is anything for me to gain by labeling President Truman or other government officials as terrorists; however, my approach has been to view the evidence from a guilty perspective.  What I mean by this is that I tend to analyze evidence without trying to justify the bombings.

Duyvesteyn’s point about religion is well-taken, but I also feel like religion is not the only lens that can obscure the political nature of terrorism.  Blaming the bombings on the American government’s racist attitudes, as some historians have, also distorts the truth.

I have read two of Jurgensmeyer’s books and a number of books on lynchings, Timothy McVeigh, Waco, Ruby Ridge, abortion clinic bombings, and about museum exhibits and memorials dedicated to these and similar themes.  The most frustrating issue I have found is that few authors (and even fewer public exhibits) seem to address the role American leadership plays in evoking and advocating these acts of terror.  The narratives tend to focus on demonizing the actor without effectively evaluating all of the contributing societal factors.

In her final paragraph, Gage writes, “The historiography of terrorism with its uneasiness about terminology, its political uncertainties, and its fractured discussions, is still struggling to find the proper balance between these imperatives.”[13]  I am not attempting to reach any definite conclusions about the atomic bombings or the definition of terrorism, but I hope that my project might help others in the field think about the issues and relationships in more creative and objective ways.

[1] Beverly Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 82.

[9] Ibid., 91.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 93.

[12] Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” 74.

[13] Ibid., 94.

Posted in 19th century America, African Americans, education, Ku Klux Klan, law, marginalization, material culture, missionaries, paternalism, religion, resistance, slavery, violence

Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom

Williams, Heather Andrea. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Heather Andrea Williams’ study emerged from one historical question: “What did ordinary African Americans in the South do to provide education for themselves during slavery and when slavery ended?”[1] Williams dispels common myths that African Americans did little to educate themselves while enslaved and that white Northern missionaries were chiefly responsible for educating emancipated slaves. Self-Taught claims that the fight for education was inseparable from the fight against slavery. Williams shows that enslaved and free African Americans highly regarded literacy for practical purposes (e.g., recording children’s births, reading the Bible), and as a means for freedom. Both before and after enslavement, African Americans organized to educate themselves, and in the wake of their newly found freedom, collectively pursued public education as a right, which positively influenced the overall development of public schools in the South. The sight of black adults and children filling schoolhouses inspired many whites to seek an education for themselves. But many white leaders worried that blacks would ultimately surpass poor whites and upset the traditional social order.[2] By declaring their right to public education, formerly enslaved people paved the way for state-funded education for all races in the 1800s.[3]

Williams’ first book is based on her 2002 dissertation from Yale University, “Self-Taught: The Role of African Americans in Educating the Freed People, 1861—1871.”  Before returning to graduate school, she served as an Assistant Attorney General and Section Chief for the State of New York and as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice.[4]  Clearly, Williams’ legal background assisted her nuanced interpretation of evidence, which came from diverse archives, such as the Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands; U.S. Senate reports on the Ku Klux Klan; U.S. War Department 128 volume The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; and the American Missionary Association Manuscripts, 1839—1882. In addition, she scoured historical newspapers and periodicals published by sources that offered first-hand accounts, such as the American Missionary Association and black presses. Through detailed biographical descriptions, Williams invites her readers to enter into the captivating details of individuals’ lives and struggles.

Williams acknowledges the research that her study was built upon, most of which she challenges. In 1941, Henry Lee Swint was the first to write a monograph on the topic, The Northern Teacher in the South, 1862-1871. The book justified white southern hostilities towards black education, focusing mostly on how northern abolitionist beliefs disregarded the southern way of life.[5] Williams values the contributions of Robert C. Morris’ Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction (1981), but points out that it focuses more on missionary teachers than on freedpeople.[6] And Jaqueline Jones’ Soldiers of Light and Love (1980) showed African Americans as active participants in their education; however, the main focus of the book is on missionary teachers and their motivations for heading South to teach.[7] To balance these biased accounts, Williams crafts her narrative of the early stages of African American education from the perspective of slaves and free blacks.

The story is told in nine chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix that documents various antebellum statutes that prohibited teaching slaves and free blacks. The first three chapters are instrumental in setting the foundation for the rest of the book. Chapter 1, “In Secret Places,” explores what literacy meant to enslaved people and recounts how they achieved this goal against almost insurmountable odds. Williams mentions that many historians attribute antiliteracy legislation to Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831; however, she notes that it began a century earlier in 1739 in the aftermath of the Stono Rebellion.[8] Fearing insurrection, southern legislatures implemented laws to prevent people from instructing slaves or free blacks to read and write. Around 1830, as southern states “ratcheted up their efforts to sustain a way of life that depended on slavery,” northern abolitionists shifted into action prompted by a North Carolina statute that articulated the connection between slave literacy and slave control.[9] Other states soon followed suit. Williams discloses how slaves developed superior listening and memory skills, which enabled them to share news through word of mouth. Slaves observed the intense surveillance and control related to their literacy skills, and recognized them as a means to freedom. Williams explores the ways African Americans stealthily grew literate and shared their skills with one another.

Chapter 2, “A Coveted Possession: Literacy in the First Days of Freedom,” follows African Americans out of slavery into contraband camps and freedpeople’s villages. Community leaders contacted Northern missionaries requesting their assistance. Williams presents the story from the vantage point of former slaves, challenging earlier studies framed solely by missionaries’ perspectives. Earlier works promoted the notion that newly freed slaves passively accepted their education from northern missions. In contrast, Williams reveals freedpeople’s motivations and drive for obtaining an education for themselves. They built and taught within their own schools, many times facing great risk of violence from white southerners. Benevolent societies, including the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association, often took credit for single-handedly educating former slaves. Although the resources provided by these groups were essential, many well-meaning reformers carried their racial misconceptions with them, which in turn, colored their interactions and resulting documentation of the events.

Chapter 3, “The Men Are Actually Clamoring for Books: African American Soldiers and the Educational Mission,” also follows African Americans out of slavery, but this time, into the Union Army. Williams discusses the link between perceived manhood and soldiering. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, many African American men joined the Union Army in the hope of finding equal treatment, which they did not find. Literate men, however, were afforded elevated status within black communities. Central to Williams’ discussion are the men and women who were integral to the “teaching corps” for soldiers.[10] These soldiers helped to build and teach in schools across Arkansas, Virginia, Georgia, and other states. Additionally, these teachers contributed thousands of dollars toward the founding of the Lincoln Institute, a permanent legacy for future generations. The most notable personality was Elijar Marrs, a self-taught slave who became a sergeant in the Union Army. Following the end of war, he became a teacher in Kentucky for thirty years, modeling the highest ideals of Williams’ study.

Chapters 4-9 focus on African American schools, students, and communities. Chapter 4, “We Must Get Education for Ourselves and our Children: Advocacy for Education,” examines the political organizing of newly freed people, revealing the importance of self-help and self-determination as community values. The chapter also traces early efforts to make education a civil right. Chapter 5, “We are Striving to do Business on our own Hook: Organizing Schools on the Ground,” explores how African Americans initially implemented their schools and the resulting conflicts with white northerners over their control. Chapter 6, “We are Laboring under Many Difficulties: African American Teachers in Freedpeople’s Schools,” exposes the struggle to secure adequate physical supplies and the fight to attain suitable levels of education for teachers. African American teachers in Georgia in 1866 are the main focus of the chapter.  Chapter 7, “A Long and Tedious Road to Travel for Knowledge: Textbooks and Freedpeople’s Schools,” investigates the content and availability of textbooks for freedpeople’s schools. This chapter also examines the proslavery ideology taught to white children in Confederate States. The primary focus of chapter 8, “If Anybody Wants an Education, it is Me: Students in Freedpeople’s Schools,” is students’ motivations for attending school and their expectations of teachers. The chapter also focuses on how teachers assessed student intellect and potential. Finally, chapter 9, “First Movings of the Waters: The Creation of Common School Systems for Black and White Students,” traces how African Americans influenced white communities’ interest in education in the South.

The book concludes with a short summary of a 1911 study of black Southern schools by W. E. B. Du Bois and a team of researchers at Fisk University. Du Bois concluded that most black teachers were underpaid and undertrained and school facilities were “wretched and inadequate.”[11] By this time, Jim Crow legislation had been enacted across southern and western states. The team emphasized that the educational focus on industrial training reduced the amount of time students should be spending on basic academic skills, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

My only disappointment with the book is that it ended too quickly. Williams’ ending leads particularly well into the “education of black people” debates that Du Bois and Booker T. Washington had during the early part of the twentieth century. There is also much to be said about Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington’s collaboration on the Rosenwald Schools of the 1920s through the 1940s, which is a topic of great interest among historic preservationists today. Hopefully, Williams will write a sequel.

[1] Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 1.

[2] Ibid., 183.

[3] Ibid., 176.

[4] Lauren Feiner, “Historian to Join Africana Studies Department as a Presidential Professor,” The Daily Pennsylvanian, May 14, 2014, accessed January 22, 2017, http://www.thedp.com/article/2014/05/heather-andrea-williams-presidential-professor-africana-studies.

[5] Williams, 3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid., 15.

[10] Ibid., 49.

[11] Ibid., 199.