Protest Playlist

Yesterday I found an old playlist on Spotify that I created two years ago for some students. These songs, all "oldies," describe moments of injustice in 20th century America. Troublingly, they have gained a new relevance in recent weeks. Although all of these songs share a critique of power--manifested in white skin privilege, capital, and the government--they differ in approach and intention. Some of these songs speak truth to power as an act of resistance, while others lament tragedy. Some cast blame, and others plead for justice.

In Woody Guthrie's "Blowin' Down This Road," the singer-narrator details the hardships faced by poor Americans. After each, he protests "I ain't a-gonna be treated this a-way." Bob Dylan wrote "Oxford Town" in the wake of the violent backlash against James Merediths' integration of the University of Mississippi. Graham Nash and David Crosby's "Immigration Man" tells the story of Nash--a British citizen--being stopped at U.S. customs and denied entry despite having the proper papers. The assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers inspired Nina Simone to write "Mississippi Goddam," a powerful indictment of whites' reluctance to relinquish their power and grant blacks' legal equality. 

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow!”
”Go slow!”
— Nina Simone, "Mississippi Goddam"

One of the most famous protest songs of all time, "Strange Fruit," condemns the lynching of black men and women--an occurrence as prevalent as a "bitter crop." Pete Seeger wrote "Last Train to Nuremberg" to condemn the Vietnam War, drawing a parallel between German civilians' cooperation in the Holocaust with Americans' complicity in the deaths of young soldiers drafted to fight communism in Southeast Asia.

Who held the rifle? Who gave the orders?
Who planned the campaign to lay waste the land?
Who manufactured the bullet? Who paid the taxes?
Tell me, is that blood upon my hands?
— Pete Seeger, "Last Train to Nuremberg"

"War" likewise critiques America's military intervention in Vietnam, by implying that the cost of the "fight to keep our freedom," for those who fight, is freedom itself. And finally, in Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City," the singer-narrator describes the unfree freedom of northern cities for black men and women who thought they were escaping Jim Crow segregation, only to find systemic racism, discrimination, and persecution. The song's last phrase, "stop giving just enough for the city," implores those with power to stop caring "just enough" to ensure their own survival.

In our current political moment, these songs offer several insights. They inspire resistance, certainly, but they also reveal that the nativism, xenophobia, and racism we see reflected in recent Executive Orders are deeply rooted in American history. These songs remind the listener that they have agency and can take action against injustice, but several also point to white Americans' complicity in maintaining hierarchies of race, class, and national origin.

Listening to them, I am reminded that I have trusted and supported an American government that has long condoned extralegal violence, persecuted "aliens," policed its borders, and sent its citizens to die in defense of their freedom. I too am guilty of having cared "just enough" about myself and not enough for others. Even though I was not alive during the Depression, or the Civil Rights movement, or the Vietnam War, my personal history is captured in these songs. Now it's my responsibility to listen, to remember, and to speak new truths--not alternative facts--to power.


On Monday, June 5, 1950, a group of conference-goers filed into a room to participate in a session entitled "The Need for a Central Archives." Attendees were in Atlantic City for the Annual Meetings of the National Conference of Jewish Social Welfare, the National Association of Jewish Center Workers, and the National Council for Jewish Education. For five days, Jewish communal workers and educators could sit in on panels and lectures, visit with colleagues at meals, and contribute to committees that were charged with guiding these professional fields. The Conference Program was filled with practical panels like "Dynamics of Inter-Relationships in the Marital Counseling Process," "Characteristics of Youth Programming in the Synagogue-Center," and "Jewish Music Activity in the Center." Professionals could learn how to improve their practices and processes and could gather new ideas for programming--it was all directly applicable to the present. The Conference Program, however, described "The Need for a Central Archives" this way:

The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the need for preserving institutional and organizational records and archives in the fields of Jewish community organization and social work, as well as methods of making them available for historical, social and professional research.
— Program, 1950 Annual Meetings. Association of Jewish Center Workers Collection (MS-654), Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives (Cincinnati, OH). Box 7, Folder 4.

This panel was forward-thinking. It pushed Jewish communal workers and educators to consider their legacy. How would future Jewish communal professionals learn from the past and continue to improve the field? 

My dissertation could not be written without the foresight of the men (sadly, yes, all men) who led and participated in this conference session. As they went back to their agencies, Federations, and associations, they implemented filing systems (executed by women, their secretarial staff) to save and preserve the history of their work. Their forethought means that historians can now  study how these organizations made decisions, big and small, and how those decisions had an impact on the communities they served. 

The Ghetto: Concept, Conditions and Connections in Transnational Historical Perspective

Rarely do faculty members of the Carnegie Mellon history department come upstairs to visit the offices of their graduate students. With the exception of four professors who pass through because their offices ring our bullpen, the history grads are segregated and enclosed in a windowless room with yellow fluorescent light. It's just 30-something of us, four columns of cubicles, a mini-fridge, and Livy (our temperamental high capacity printer). So when Prof. Joe Trotter, one of my committee members, showed up on the top floor of Baker Hall last April it was already quite unusual. Then, when it turned out that he was looking for me, it was terrifying--the 20th grade version of being called to the Principal's office. What had I done wrong? Did he know about.... how could he? 

Instead of getting in trouble, I was offered an opportunity to become a pre-doctoral fellow and participate in the Department of History's A.W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar Series on "the ghetto." Prof. Trotter and Prof. Wendy Goldman applied for this unique grant two year ago after they became curious about the long history of the ghetto as a place, as an experience, and as a term to describe crowded and poor urban spaces. The A.W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar Fellowship Program provides a university academic department with funding to intensively study a research question through a year-long discussion series. This seemed like the perfect way to explore the "concept, conditions, and connections" of the ghetto from its inception in 11th century Italy to the "making of the ghetto" in the twentieth century American city. Profs. Trotter and Goldman invited scholars to submit papers related to the seminar's four case studies: Jewish Ghettoes in Early Modern Europe; Ghettoes and the Colonial Project in Southern Africa; Nazi Ghettoes and the Holocaust; and the African American Ghetto in the United States. Seventeen were selected (plus  two bonus papers from post-docs) and these papers were circulated before each meeting for participants to read closely. We then gathered at each session and, after a twenty-minute presentation by the author, began asking questions about the specifics of their research and about the "big picture" questions of how the ghetto, as a place and as a term, has changed throughout history.  

Over the course of this academic year, I attended 18 seminars and spent in the range of 60 hours reading, thinking, discussing, and arguing about the definition of a ghetto, the role that the ghetto has continued to play in creating social hierarchies, and the enduring value and relevance of  the term (i.e. have historians overextended its usefulness by applying it to too many different kinds of spatial separation?). It was an incredibly valuable experience because it forced me to think more critically about a) the neighborhoods I study in my dissertation and b) the words I use to describe those neighborhoods. I will write more about our findings and its influence on my work in future posts, but for now it suffices to say that the Sawyer Seminar has had (and will continue to have) a big impact on how I theorize and approach my research. 

1969, or 2014?

Today our nation is moving towards two societies - one black, one white - separate and unequal. Reaction to summer disorders have quickened the movement and deepened the division. What white Americans have never understood and what the Negro can never forget is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it. A study of the aftermath of disorder leaves disturbing conclusions. Despite the institution of some post-riot programs, little basic change in the conditions underlying the outbreak of disorder has taken place. In several cities, the principal official response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weaponry. In several cities,increasing polarization is evident with continual breakdown of communication.
— "Analysis of the Problems Encountered by Jewish Community Centers in Acting on the Urban Crisis," William Kahn (Executive Director, St. Louis JCCA)

Downtown St. Louis in 1969.  Missouri History Museum.

It's depressing to read this and consider how little has changed in St. Louis over the past 45 years. I found this statement in the published transcript of William Kahn's keynote speech to the Jewish Community Center Action on the Urban Crisis Conference. The Jewish Welfare Board conducted a survey in 1968 to learn how JCCs were reacting to the urban crisis. Even after the results were published in December of '68, the organization still felt lost. Leaders wondered, how could they best guide agencies towards effective programming to address urban poverty and racial discrimination? The Public Affairs Committee of the JWB called a conference together on March 25-26th, 1969, and invited executives and representatives from urban JCCs to come to New York and discuss their successes and their struggles. 

William Kahn was incredibly progressive, and under his leadership the St. Louis JCCA mounted one of the most well-organized responses to the riots and disorder of the summers of '67 and '68. While no one expected him to change the world, or for the JCCA to single-handedly defeat racism in St. Louis, how can we not despair over this evidence? It's unfair to say they failed--in fact the JCCA did make a big impact on many black lives in St. Louis. I'm just left unsure about what to learn from this parallel. I've long believed that change happens at the margins, and that you have to believe in baby steps, but I've never been particularly idealistic either. It's so easy to swing towards cynicism when you see history repeating itself.