Historian James McPherson Interviewed by the World Socialist Web Site on History of Slavery and NYT's 1619 ProjectHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, historians, James McPherson, 1619 Project
Q. When you look at the way the historiography on the Civil War and on slavery has changed over the generations—and I know you’ve made this point in the past—it’s been influenced by contemporary politics. Why do you think the 1619 Project is happening now, and being so heavily promoted?
A. I think it’s partly an outgrowth of broader social and political developments of the past twenty years or so. Just as the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s influenced a lot of new scholarship on slavery, the abolitionists, the radical Republicans, the Civil War and Reconstruction—including my own introduction to those subjects in the 1950s and 1960s—I think that the current events, and contemporary matters, are going to influence something like the 1619 Project. That is, apart from the 400th anniversary, which is the convenient hook on which this is hanging.
Q. It seems to me, however, that the mass Civil Rights movement transmitted really healthy impulses to the scholarship...
A. …Absolutely, I think so. Up until that time, the perspective on slavery and the abolitionists was very much a southern perspective—that’s oversimplifying it, but it was there—and a kind of right-of-center perspective. And the scholarship that emerged with the Civil Rights movement—to oversimplify it again—moved in a leftward, and northern liberal perspective.
Q. You were a student of C. Vann Woodward, if I am not mistaken. Could you tell us something about him?
A. Back in the 1930s, he, like many intellectuals and artists, flirted with socialism, even the Communist Party. As a young man in the early 1930s he went to the Soviet Union. He never made the complete trip over to the Communist Party, but he was very much on the left wing of academics. And his interpretation of the southern Populists and Tom Watson grew out of that.
Over time, like most people I suppose, he became more conservative, moving toward a sort of southern liberal ideology, in his interpretation of segregation in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, which Martin Luther King publicly called a kind of Bible of the Civil Rights movement. He was very much in that mode in the 1950s. He was one of the academics that did the research for the plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education in the early 1950s. I studied with him at Johns Hopkins from 1958 to 1962, when, I think, he was gradually moving a little bit toward the right.
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