My scholarship primarily focuses on a modified version of a “history from below,” specifically the vast and complex intersections among the “long” civil rights, Black Power, Chicano, and Puerto Rican movements. In other words, my analysis seeks to blur the lines between these different movements, between nationally known figures and anonymous grassroots people in the trenches, and between the South and the rest of the country. My book and the future projects mentioned below all reflect this attempt at exploring what could be called the space in between the local and the global.
My book, Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974, engages debates in civil rights, African American, Latino, and modern U.S. history. It argues that while poverty provided the greatest potential for multiracial coalition between African American and Mexican American activists in the 1960s and 1970s, similar histories of oppression were not enough to sustain collaboration. Blacks and Mexican Americans routinely viewed their poverty differently and had overlapping yet distinct solutions to address it. Thus, their relationship proved neither wholly collaborative nor competitive. Rather, meaningful coalition grew out of moments of multiracial conflict, while attempts at collaboration often reinforced black and Mexican American identities. Most broadly, this book reveals that coalitional politics and race-based identity politics in this era were not antithetical, but mutually reinforcing. The book also reveals complex origins of the Chicano movement and modern identity politics, undermines the black-white binary that persists in much of U.S. historical scholarship, and complicates the “long civil rights movement” by suggesting a fundamental shift in activism in the mid-1970s. I have published on several of these topics, including a national prize-winning article on media framing of multiracial collaboration in a civil rights context.
To illustrate activists’ complex interactions, my book uses a wide range of sources to examine several high-profile attempts at coalition, most notably Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last crusade, the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. Formed to demand the government’s rededication to the War on Poverty, the campaign captured the imagination of activists but also highlighted the distinct demands blacks and Mexican Americans brought to the campaign. Similar differences emerged within the civil rights coalition in support of California farm workers; New Mexican land rights leader Reies Tijerina’s alliances with black power adherents; and the first “Rainbow Coalition” led by Black Panther Fred Hampton in Chicago. In painting a nuanced portrait, I use FBI files, mainstream and underground periodicals, and manuscript collections such as the papers of King, Tijerina, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, the United Farm Workers, the American Friends Service Committee, the Highlander Folk School, and the National Welfare Rights Organization. As an oral historian and former journalist, I also draw on more than sixty oral histories – nearly forty of my own. Oral history routinely is the only way to reach otherwise silenced voices of grassroots folks.
Other research of mine builds on the first and again seeks to blur the lines between traditionally told African American and Latino narratives and local and national narratives. Focusing on Chicago, I argue that the 1970s and 1980s were a hotbed of innovative but fragile activism by both African Americans and Latinos. Both groups’ organizing helped cement the gains of the 1960s and laid the groundwork for the often overlooked electoral and policy triumphs of the 1980s. The 1983 election and administration of Harold Washington as the city’s first black mayor long has been heralded as the height of independent black political power in the city – and a model that made the national campaigns of Jesse Jackson, and even Barack Obama, possible. Less has been said, however, about African Americans’ unique role in transforming the city’s (and nation’s) Latino politics. The 1983 campaign built a durable urban coalition by tapping into blacks’, Mexican Americans’, and Puerto Ricans’ unique blend of neighborhood and transnational politics that reflected the growing importance of shifting demographics. Latinos proved essential to the implementation of Washington’s reform policies, including the heightened role of neighborhood activists and community development corporations. Thus, while certainly an era of federal retrenchment on urban and racial policy, the 1980s as a declensionist “Age of Reagan” has been exaggerated. Rather, innovative progressive policies instituted by multiracial urban electoral coalitions such as Chicago’s offered a genuine alternative organizing model to conservatism. This project so far draws on research in four Chicago archives, including papers at DePaul University, the Chicago Historical Society, the University of Illinois – Chicago, and the Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Library Center. I also make extensive use of oral histories with activists from the 1970s and 1980s, as well as mainstream and alternative periodicals from the time.
I am also interested more generally in civil rights memory and how we commemorate the black freedom struggle and other social justice movements in the 21st century, through film, television, tourism, and other means.