Drawing the Road Map

In a marathon work session last Thursday, I hammered out the outline for my third dissertation chapter. After I reviewed a large sampling of sources that described the JCC movement's response to Civil Rights activism and the urban crisis, I pulled out my colored pens and began to outline the temporal and political themes that I observed.  

I began by identifying three distinct phases or "moments": a period I call the "open membership debates"; the "classical" period of the civil rights movement; and the urban crisis. The phases I pinpointed map neatly onto periodization that historians already use to distinguish between phases of the Black Freedom Movement: first, the early legal fights for equal rights in housing and education during the 1940s-50s (Shelley v. Kraemer; Brown v. Board of Education); then the national, legislative push for voting rights and equal hiring opportunities of the mid-1960s (Civil Rights Act, Economic Opportunity Act); and finally the rise of black nationalism and the urban rioting of the late 1960s. More critically, however, I observed in the documents that JWB staff and Jewish Center workers exhibited distinct attitudes and decision-making in each of these three periods. At the outset of the 1960s, the vast majority of JCCs accepted non-Jews (including non-white Jews) as full members of the JCC. Despite this "equal" policy, however, most Centers did not have African American members and did not serve non-white members of their community with any regularity. Centers used their progressive policy to avoid changing their practices,  and black community members recognized that although they could apply to join the JCC they were not necessarily welcome. By the mid-1960s, however, growing support for equal rights, equal facilities, and equal services pressured JCCs to explore how they could serve non-Jewish and non-white members of their communities as effectively as they served their Jewish membership. 

After I sketched out these transitions, I drafted my overall argument for the chapter and wrote some tentative claims that I would like to make in each section. In my first-year research seminar, my professor advocated for this process of "point-based outlining." Whereas a regular outline identifies the topics you plan to include in your paper (or chapter), a point-based outline models how your overall argument will build from a series of claims. In my experience, drafting a point-based outline helps you avoid summarizing when you begin to write--it forces you to select only the evidence and context necessary to support your claims. 

Armed with this point-based outline, I'm now ready to begin drafting sections of the chapter. I know that as I re-read, analyze, and argue my claims, the overall argument will subtly shift. In that way, the point-based outline is more like a hand-drawn road map than it is a legal contract. It's a tentative and flexible document, intended to be improved as I become more familiar with the landscape. As I proceed I will edit it to reflect new insights or counterarguments, making it more accurate, precise, and easier to follow. 

Reflections on Patriotism on the Occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Yesterday I attended a professional sporting event in a large arena. As is customary, everyone stood before the game for the national anthem. I got up from my seat but didn't sing along. I stopped singing the Star Spangled Banner a few years ago because I dislike the mindlessness of the tradition. We sing the anthem before sporting events... why? What does our affirmation of citizenship have anything to do with the game about to be played? I get why it's meaningful before an international match, but this was a group of men from Pittsburgh trying to beat a group of men from New York. 

In addition to not really understanding the custom, my feelings about America, democracy, and freedom have been tense in recent years. In the abstract, they're all great--I'm proud to be a U.S. citizen, I wholeheartedly believe in democratic elections and representation, and who doesn't love freedom? I do find it hard, though, to ignore the shortcomings of our government and our society, especially when we do not grant the same freedoms to all of our citizens equally. I struggle to proudly vocalize my support of the United States when I know how many double standards persist....

Anyways, I bring this all up because yesterday, at this professional sporting event, the singer of the national anthem did something different. For the middle verse of the Star Spangled Banner, he lowered his mic so that the only sound in the arena was the collective singing of the crowd. It surprised and powerfully affected me. The crowd carried the anthem, steadily and quietly. Without the magnification of the leader's voice, I felt enveloped rather than blasted. It seemed more thoughtful, more committed, and less like a spectacle. 

I confess that I wasn't moved enough to join in the singing for the last verse, but it did make me re-interrogate my abstention. Appropriately, this is the weekend when we, as a nation, have collectively decided to remember a man who dedicated his life to exposing the shortcomings of American citizenship, democracy, and freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not just a radical advocate for racial equality, he also fought for economic quality and against American' overreach abroad (particularly the Vietnam War). Dr. King was deeply critical of the false promise of American citizenship and the "American Dream," and he ceaselessly worked to remedy the worst policies, programs, and practices that disenfranchised vulnerable populations. 

Reflecting on Dr. King's legacy today, I feel foolish to have taken my citizenship for granted--what a privilege. So many men and women have fought over the past 238 years to expand access to the protections of U.S. citizenship beyond white male landowners. In my effort to not be blind to the miscarriages of justice that occur regularly in the United States and to see the rampant hypocrisy in our promotion of democracy and freedom abroad, my vision of the meaning and importance of American citizenship became blurry. I'm still not interested in singing the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events, but I appreciate that I had this moment--especially this weekend--to reevaluate why and when to be critical and when to do the brutally hard work of upholding values like democracy and freedom.