I entered Northwestern University in 1962 and was inspired by President John F. Kennedy to study history and politics in the hopes of pursing a career in government. Like many northern college students I was deeply influenced by the epic events of 1963. I was inspired by the Presidents speech calling racial inequality a moral issue, stunned by the assassination of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers that same night, then moved by Martin Luther Kings I Have a Dream speech in August and devastated by Kennedys assassination in November.
My interest in politics grew as a result of my contact with United States Senator from Illinois Paul H. Douglas, a former professor and the nations leading liberal. (I served as an intern in Douglass Washington office for two summers in 1965 and 1966.) While in Washington I had a chance to meet Senator Eugene McCarthy (whose presidential primary campaign I joined in 1968) and Senator George McGovern who earned a PhD in labor history from my university, Northwestern. All three men played roles in public life I admired. And so, I graduated college with a belief that historians and other civic-minded scholars could contribute to the public good.
In 1966 I began work toward a PhD in history at Yale University where I studied with C. Vann Woodward. As I became involved in the student and anti-war movements, I also became fascinated with the history of radicalism and political protest in the United States. Woodward not only encouraged my interest in social movements; he also inspired me with his own brilliant writing on Southern history, and his commitment to writing history with a purpose. My purpose was to study the past to understand injustice in our societyand then to explain how men and women who suffered from injustice gained the will to struggle against it and to strive for a better society.
My goal was to tell powerful stories of people in struggle, to create narratives that cut against the grain of scholarship that characterized protestors as paranoid fanatics. My research convinced me that populists, socialists and labor radicals were responding to real social and economic problems. Therefore, dissenters and insurgent movements needed to be studied in the context of social and cultural history, a new frontier of historical research during the late 1960s. Herbert Gutman and Eric Hobsbawm, two pioneers in this research, supported my first effort to publish a scholarly article in labor history, a study of protest among black and white timber workers in the South that appeared in the British journal of social history, Past & Present.
After discovering vital social movements in my own research, and interpreting them in my writings, I experimented with ways of telling movement stories in public. I did this in articles for activist publications in the 1970s and then, beginning in 1981, I authored a series of seventeen newspaper op eds and book review essays for the Boston Globe. In these essays I brought historical perspective to bear on current political issues and social problems ranging from civil rights to workers rights. I sought other outlets for bringing our scholarship to public audiences as well, including television, radio and newspaper interviews in which reporters asked for historical perspective as well as museum exhibits, public library lectures, union education programs, oral history workshops, film documentaries, historical commemorations and celebrations and public art projects. I describe these experiences with more detail in my semi-autobiographical book, Taking History to Heart.
My initial desire to reach the public with the new historical scholarship arose when I was still in graduate school, and was crystallized during the Yale student strike for peace and justice in May of 1970. As a member of the Student Strike Coordinating Committee I joined with other students and community representatives to demand that Yale be accountable and responsible to the publics of New Haven. By the time I left that fall for my first teaching job at Brandeis University I was committed to a life as a scholar and a community-oriented activist.
The 1970s were an exciting time for those of us in the academy who believed in the public power of the humanities; that was so because the National Endowment for the Humanities was supporting so many lively projects to promote public history and civic education. For example, the NEHs Learning Library Program offered me a priceless opportunity to bring my scholarship in labor history to a wider audience. In 1977 I was invited to present six public lectures on the citys working class at the Boston Public Library. The BPL later published an expanded and illustrated version of those lectures under the title, Bostons Workers: A Labor History. This was the first of many efforts I made to share the exciting discoveries of the new labor and social history with a diverse audience that included working people.
During the same years four experiences offered me stimulating opportunities to practice history in the world outside the academy: first, living and working in a contested neighborhood, Bostons South End; second, participating in the Radical America editorial collective; third, teaching in England and discovering the History Workshop movement and four, joining the faculty at the College of Public and Community Service, located within the University of Massachusetts Boston.
I chose to live in Bostons historic South End neighborhood where many of the first settlement houses were located, and there I joined in a struggle to protect affordable housing. Those first years of activity in the South End drew me into a circle of community activists and into a series of actions addressing city-wide issues ranging from school desegregation and neighborhood empowerment to the 1983 mayoral campaign of civil rights leader Mel King, a South End activist who created the nations first rainbow coalition. (See Why Movement History Matters: The Politics of Race and Class in Boston in Taking History to Heart.) My own interest in neighborhood history projects flowed out of these activities and led to a booklet of interviews with long-time residents of this culturally and racially-diverse lodging house district. This was the first of many efforts I made to engage working people in a dialogue about history and memory, about the past and the present.
While living in Boston I was invited to become an editor of the journal Radical America when the editors moved the publication there from Madison, Wisconsin. The journal provided an enormously stimulating milieu in which to write history for activist readers. I edited and wrote several articles on labor topics, past and present, and assisted rank and file workers in telling their own stories. I also became a journalist in 1978, traveling to West Virginia to cover a national wildcat strike of coal miners who were resisting the concessions their officials had accepted. (See the collection of essays from Radical America I edited for Temple University Press: Workers Struggles, Past & Present.) The RA essays I regarded as most important were those putting the explosive issues of race and class in the local context of Boston events, and in the broader historical context provided by the new social history. (See Discovering Movement History with the Radical Americans in Taking History to Heart.)
While I wrote for Radical America to reach out to movement activists and teachers with my writing, I remained engaged in the effort to democratize the way United States history was read and taught in universities and colleges. One way I attempted to contribute was to accept an invitation by Eric Foner to write a synthesis of the new labor and social history for university courses. The World of the Worker, published in 1980, has been read by many college students, activists and union members during the next 18 years when the book was reprinted sixteen times. (The current paperback edition is available from the University of Illinois Press.)
In 1975 I was invited to lecture for a year in England at the Centre for the Study of Social History at Warwick University founded by E.P. Thompson, whose work as social historian and a public intellectual exerted a great influence on me. During my year at the Centre I made contact with the History Workshop group whose members were bringing the new social history directly to working people in local settings while encouraging them to become their own historians. These exciting encounters inspired me to return to the U.S. and to pursue the kinds of peoples history projects I had discovered in Britain.
In 1979 I founded the Massachusetts History Workshop with Mary Blatt and Susan Reverby in effort to apply what I had learned in Britain about democratizing historical practice. During the 1980s our group organized history workshops with retired Lynn shoe workers and Lawrence textile workers. We orchestrated two historical pageants in Bostons Fanueil Hall, the first to celebrate the founding of the Womens Trade Union League there in 1903 and second to mark the centennial of the first May Day and the eight-hour strikes of 1886. (See Bringing the Boundaries of History Closer to Peoples Lives, in Taking History to Heart.)
In these public events we aimed to share the rich findings of the new social history with the people whose forerunners were the subjects of that research. In addition, we also wanted to share the authority historians had claimed for interpreting the past, as Michael Frisch said of his oral history projects. Two Workshop projects conducted with Boston clerical workers and packinghouse workers involved collaborative research and writing efforts with working people.
My growth as activist scholar was greatly advanced after I joined the faculty at UMass Boston’s College of Public and Community Service (CPCS) in 1977. My career at the College has been liberating and rewarding, the embodiment of what academic freedom means. Our students lived in all the city’s neighborhoods and worked in many of its public-sector and community-based agencies. Through them I gained a deep knowledge of how a wide variety of people experienced life and work in the city.
During the 1980s I became deeply involved in the union movement as a critic of certain labor officials and a supporter of rank and file workers. Although I participated in various rallies, protests and acts of civil disobedience in order to support workers on strike in various place, my involvement focused mainly on playing a role as an engaged historian and journalist, and as a popular educator and commentator. I drew most directly upon my own research in working class and labor history in teaching courses for union members, particularly those enrolled in the Labor Studies major I created at my college in 1981. I also applied my historical studies in leadership trainings for unions like the United Mine Workers of America, as well as in lectures I first presented to union members at the Harvard Trade Union Program in 1987, a role I continue to play. (See Learning to Teach Movement History to Workers, in Taking History to Heart.)
For the next decade I attempted in many different ways mostly in history workshops and lectures and in essays and editorials to tell movement stories in public. Then during the 1990s my approach to writing movement history changed as a result of my experience with documentary film makers. In 1989 I participated in supporting union coal miners on strike against the Pittston Corporation in Appalachia by organizing events, writing editorials and helping to make a video with film maker Barbara Kopple in which the Pittston strike is featured as the central event in what became the centennial film history of the United Mine Workers union.
Next, I worked closely with film maker Henry Hampton and his producers who were making a documentary history of the 1930s for PBS. In 1992 and 1993 I served as research coordinator for The Great Depression, a seven-part series produced by Blackside, Inc. for public television in 1993. Working with Hampton and his talented young producers on a full time basis, I enjoyed the chance to write film treatments and segments of narration, particularly for the program on the Depression-era labor movement, Mean Things Happening.
I learned much from the film makers at Blackside about what makes a story work as human drama, and these lessons have been extremely important in my subsequent writing. (See Seeing the Past with Movement Eyes in Taking History to Heart.)
During the 1990s my scholarship broadened in scope and reached audiences beyond the community groups I had engaged during the seventies and eighties. Two special projects provided new experience with visual and artistic ways of presenting scholarship to the public.
The artistic dimension of documentary production was also a prominent feature of the most important public history project of my career– one that initiated a lasting collaboration with Robert Hayden, an African-American historian and community leader in Boston. The project involved the design as well as the composition of a permanent exhibit devoted to the lives of Bostons African-American railroad workers.
Based on oral histories collected by Hayden, I selected quotes and then wrote supportive narrative for six porcelain panels mounted in the Back Bay Station near a statue of A. Philip Randolph in the main waiting room. The African-American railroad workers exhibit at Back Bay Station, dedicated in 1993, has offered many people a way of seeing and reading the past in a public place. It has been a stop on several walking tours in which Boston residents can visualize and contemplate the words and images of working people whose lives once seemed lost in the past.
In 1998 I was selected as a Fulbright Senior Scholar and invited to teach at the University of Genoa in Italy. This award afforded me an opportunity to lecture abroad on movement history and contemporary affairs, to think back on three decades of my own historical work, and to begin writing again. The result was Taking History to Heart, published in 2000 as a personal and political reflection on making movement history as well as a collection of historical narratives aimed at a public audience. These narratives allowed me to experiment further with the techniques of dramatic writing and visual story telling I learned while working with documentary film makers.
In the six months following the books publication, I participated in two dozen radio and television interviews focused on how protest movements changed history in the past, and how they might do so in the future. The response of readers, reviewers and the media to Taking History to Heart was gratifying, especially the positive reaction to my autobiographical approach to movement history; this response gave me more confidence than ever that there is a wide audience inside and outside the academy for compelling narratives about social protest movements and the people who make them. What is more these experiments in narrative writing and these studies of historical memory prepared me for my next project, a retelling of an epic old story, the Haymarket Tragedy, for a new time. (See Remembering Haymarket in Taking History to Heart.)
In the book that resulted, Death in the Haymarket, I sought to capture the drama of exciting and terrifying events that took place Chicago during the birth of the first labor movement, and, at the same time, to paint a vivid picture of the urban, immigrant working-class life in the Gilded Age–one complete with portraits of the evangelical labor radicals who sought the transform that world by creating a more perfect democracy and a classless society. The Haymarket book provided an exciting opportunity to draw upon most of what I have learned in three decades of work as a historian in an effort to write a compelling narrative, imbued with scholarly insights; to engage in dramatic story telling on a grand scale; and to draw a public audience into the nearly lost world of working class immigrants caught in the throes of our nations industrial and urban revolutions and in the tides of a great trans-Atlantic movement of people and ideas.
The 00’s ‘aughts’
While I was writing the book I became President of the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA)-the professional association in my field. At the beginning of my term, I negotiated an agreement that allowed our association to sponsor our own quarterly journal. I serve as an associate editor of that publication, Labor: Studies of Working Class History in the Americas, available to all LAWCHA members four times a year. (To join and become a member for $50 a year, go to lawcha.org) In 2005 Labor was chosen the best new scholarly journal to appear during the previous three-year period by the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. The last issue of Labor published in 2005 contains an essay based on my research into the enduring transnational memory of the Haymarket affair, one which includes a good deal of material I was unable to include in my book. The article is entitled Globalization of Memory: The Enduring Remembrance of the Haymarket Martyrs Around the World.
With the publication of the Haymarket book in March of 2006 I began a series of travels and talks in Boston, Chicago, New York and other cities where I hope to engage a wider public in conversations about the power of movement history in the past and about its meaning for the present.
I was invited to speak about the Haymarket book on NPS “Morning Edition,” and on other NPR programs, as well as on the “Voice of America” and “Democracy Now”, at the Printers’ Ink book fair in Chicago (broadcast on “CSpan,”) as well as at Northwestern University, Yale University and at the Minnesota History Center in Minneapolis. One reviewer felt “a shock of recognition” when he realized that the events I described before and after Haymarket seemed so much like the events in our post-9/11, although I did not attempt to make this point explicit.
For the next few years, I thought a good deal about how to tell other movement stories in public; this while I was developing an MA program in public history for the University of Massachusetts and working with agencies like the Boston National Parks. I developed the core course in the program, “War and Remembrance,” in which I asked students to read, for an example, the work of Edward T. Linenthal on American battlefields and on the memory of the Oklahoma city bombing.
2010 to Present
At the same time I was writing an ambitious book on the West Virginia mine wars of 1912-22 for Grove Press(2015). It was an exciting story to tell and readers seem to find it quite engaging, and even “astonishing” as one reviewer noted. The book, entitled “The Devil is Here in these Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and their Battle for Freedom”, was the basis of an “American Experience” PBS program ‘The Mine Wars’ broadcast on January 26, 2016. Four million viewers tuned in; the book and the film were the culmination of forty years work in American Working Class History. I retired from the University of Massachusetts Boston in May 2014, but I have not retired from the profession of history.
~James Green April 25, 2016