Research by Sheffer, students sheds new light on ‘60s
By this time in 1964, America had come through a wrenching 10 weeks now known as Freedom Summer. The nation’s attention was focused on Mississippi, where volunteers from around the country worked alongside local organizers to register African American voters in a state where they had long been disenfranchised. The effort, while successful, left many dead and starkly revealed the depth of racism that existed.
The 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement and Freedom Summer is important for Ohio, said Dr. Jolie Sheffer, English and American culture studies, because it was here that the training sessions for volunteers took place, at Western College for Women, in Oxford (now part of Miami of Ohio). “The work was built upon years of concerted, strategic effort and the understanding of the movement that getting media on its side through recruitment of white Northerners was key to getting change from the top,” she said.
With the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, anti-establishment sentiment, the rise of the Black Power and feminism, the late 1950s and 1960s were undeniably a transformative time in American history. Those who lived through those years might have viewed them either as a moment of incredible opportunity and conviction, or, alternatively, as a time of chaos and the unleashing of the American “berserk,” Sheffer observed.
Research by Sheffer and her students is resulting in a journal article by a master’s student and a digital gallery on the University Libraries site that will illuminate one of the most interesting eras in recent memory and make available to readers documents and other information. In addition, Sheffer is at work on a book about the post-1990s surge of popular culture representations of the time, from TV shows such as “Mad Men” and “Masters of Sex” to movies like “The Help” and “The Butler.”
She is taking a intense look at the period and the current fascination Americans have with that time — particularly people who did not experience it themselves or were not yet mature enough to be conscious of current events. In our trying to “recapture an essence of the ’60s,” the era has taken on a patina of nostalgia and aesthetic beauty that often reduces and represents the political and social struggles in terms of personal relationships, she said.
“Contemporary representations of the sixties function to talk about our dissatisfaction and our hopes for contemporary politics,” she said. “That was a time when people felt they had the power to make change. We’re talking about these things because we feel helpless and dissatisfied. Although we’ve become more politically correct, we haven’t addressed the cultural issues underlying the problems or made sufficient gains institutionally or politically.”
Her students in classes such as “The 1960s in Contemporary Culture” have also been drawn into the topic and some are pursuing their own related strands of research. Joshua Catalano, a graduate student in American culture studies from St. Marys, Pa., has written a paper on BGSU’s response to the killings at Kent State University that has been conditionally accepted for publication by the journal Ohio History. BGSU was in the unusual position of being the only public university in Ohio that did not cancel classes during that time, as well as one of the first state universities, in 1963, to have a campus uprising, over local issues such as dress codes, residence hall visitation and alcohol policies and the demands of the Black Student Union, in addition to protests about the Vietnam War.
“I’ve been reading President (William) Jerome’s personal letters and passionate letters from students, parents, the community. I think what made BGSU different was his democratic style of leadership that defused the situation. He actually had support from the student body. They trusted him and his decisions because he was not authoritarian and sought compromise. The police came in, not to harass the protesters but to protect them from outside agitators.
“It’s been a great experience to work with primary source documents in history,” Catalano said. “They provide a much fuller picture and there’s so much emotion that comes through in them. I’ve used government documents from the University Archives, underground magazines, popular songs. In the 1960s, so many stories were happening simultaneously that there are multiple histories — like the youth/adult, soldier/citizen. There’s so much anxiety; people were really feeling like things would fall apart.”
Sheffer is interested in the deep background of social movements, particularly race relations and civil rights, the focus of much of her scholarship and teaching. She was selected as a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Scholar this year to participate in a three-week institute at Jackson State University titled “Finding Mississippi in the National Civil Rights Narrative: Struggle, Institution Building, and Power at the Local Level.”
Iconic leaders of social movements hold a great place in history, but the reality is that achieving social change requires a large cast of dedicated workers over many years doing mainly unglamorous work, she said. For every Martin Luther King there were hundreds of people toiling, generally without recognition, in their neighborhoods and communities, willing to expose themselves to violence or losing their jobs, she said, doing the “slow, incremental work in local politics and in the churches.
“We like our ‘great men’ stories of history,” Sheffer said, “but it’s important to remember that even people like Rosa Parks didn’t act alone but were deeply connected to the movement.”
“Behind all the court cases like Brown vs. the Board of Education and legislation like the Voting Rights Act, what were local communities doing in the years and decades leading up to that time?” Sheffer asked. “Being aware of all that went before moves back the start date of the Civil Rights movement.”
It is important to recognize, too, Sheffer said, that “seeing history as inevitable ignores the role of chance.” Woodstock could have been just another music festival, civil rights could have been squelched as they were after the Civil War, had events not happened as they did.