All is not awful in the sense that he will be in residence at Harvard next year, but the weight of “Ole Miss” the sobriquet for the slaveowner’s wife reminds us of the institution’s place in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s with the enrollment of James Meredith.
Schools and colleges can be their own localized carceral states, what with the penal term “lock-down” now even more widely applied. Intersections have never been so challenged by the contradictions revealed in the abuses of power and the resistance to them.
In academic news, hundreds of professors have signed an open letter criticizing the University of Mississippi for firing historian and antiracist scholar Garrett Felber after he spoke out against the school’s relationship with what he described as “racist donors.” In October, the university refused to allow Felber to receive a grant for a prison education program called “Study and Struggle.” Felber then criticized the University of Mississippi’s relationship with powerful donors, saying, “this antiracist program threatens racist donor money. And racism is the brand. It’s in the name.” Felber is the author of the new book, “Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State.”
More than 4,000 academics made the same pledge in an open letter to Wilson and the university’s chancellor, Glenn Boyce. Felber’s termination, they wrote, “has every appearance of being both politically motivated and retaliatory.” The reasons the university had provided for his firing look “arbitrary and nonsensical,” according to the letter, whose signatories include the philosopher Cornel West, the critical-race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, and the American-studies scholar Hazel V. Carby.
Walter Johnson, a professor of history and African American studies at Harvard who was among the letter’s drafters, first worked with Felber when Felber was a faculty fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center. He thinks highly of Felber as a scholar and organizer.
“He is a very eloquent and forthright political activist. I think that he is threatening to some of the standing order in Mississippi and in the nation more generally,” Johnson said. “The point of the letter is to say, ‘There’s really an appearance of malfeasance here.’ Because the action is so extraordinary, there are a lot of us who are concerned, not just for him, but for his colleagues at the University of Mississippi.”
Johnson sees Felber’s predicament as indicative of a larger movement at Mississippi, which has endured a tumultuous year. James M. Thomas, a sociologist, was ordered by the state auditor to pay nearly $2,000 for participating in a nationwide Scholar Strike to protest racial inequity. Administrators backed away from plans to install headstones at a Confederate cemetery on campus. This week, the university placed its ombudsman on administrative leave after he sued to stop the university from forcing him to share confidential information about people who have privately communicated with his office. Two years ago, Mississippi’s appointment of Boyce drew widespread criticism, including from Felber, who told The Chronicle at the time that he’d been forcibly removed from a news conference announcing Boyce’s appointment.
Garrett Felber was the lead organizer of the Making and Unmaking Mass Incarceration conference and is the Project Director of the Parchman Oral History Project, a collaborative oral history, archival, and documentary storytelling project on incarceration in Mississippi. To give you a flavor of professor Felber’s research this recent article touches on many of his research areas.
While studies of federal policy have demonstrated the convergence of liberals and conservatives in constructing the carceral state, other scholars have pointed toward the grassroots organizing of prisoners against penal regimes. They focus on prisoners' demands, placing “the prisoners and their grassroots social movement at the center of the struggle for prisoners' rights” by chronicling labor struggles, rebellions and revolutionary organizing, intellectual production, subversive dress, self-mutilation, and other forms of formal and informal politics. Histories of the Nation of Islam in prisons, more specifically, have come from a variety of perspectives. Gottschalk, Berger, and Zoe Colley have all gestured toward the foundational role of the NOI as the first organized prison litigation effort while citing its role in politicizing prisoners but have confined their studies of the NOI to the national level. The work of Eric Cummins, Toussaint Losier, and Malachi Crawford has focused more specifically on legal cases arising out of activism in California, Illinois, and New York, respectively. Crawford and Sarah Barringer Gordon have also used the tools of legal history to study the significance of legislation resulting from Muslim prison litigation. But just as most policy histories do not account for the ways prisoners resisted state repression, many social movement histories do not adequately explain the interrelationship of the prisoners' rights movement and the rise of the carceral state. This essay uses a variety of sources, including courtroom testimonies, letters from prisoners, and state police surveillance records and correspondence to document the mechanisms of prison activism and prison discipline uncaptured by legal decisions or federal policy alone.6
This essay makes several interrelated claims about the periodization and role of prison organizing and black nationalism in the black freedom movement, about how we theorize the relationship between activism and the rise of the carceral state, and about the methodological and political significance of foregrounding prisoners' voices in narratives of state formation. First, the Nation of Islam's prison organizing—and black nationalism more broadly (exemplified most prominently during these years by the NOI)—should be seen as a central current of the postwar struggle for black freedom. Its political strategies and conceptual legacies expand our understandings of the midcentury black freedom struggle, the prisoners' rights movement, and the development of the punitive state. Secondly, prison organizing should not be narrated as a post–civil rights struggle but rather as one born out of, and alongside, the movement. Lastly, the carceral state was not simply a counterrevolutionary reaction to the gains of social movements through top-down policy changes and electoral shifts but was produced through daily, on-the-ground interplay with prisoners' activism.
The dialectical relationship between prisoners' radicalism and prison repression—what I term the “dialectics of discipline”—paradoxically helped develop the protest strategies and legal framework for the prisoners' rights movement while fortifying and accelerating the expansion of the carceral state through new modes of punishment and surveillance. These dialectics took two major forms during this period in New York prisons. The first was the relationship between state methods of control such as prison transfers, confiscation of religious literature, solitary confinement, and loss of “good time” (sentence time reduction for good conduct) and the responses by Muslim prisoners through hunger strikes, writ writing, and take-overs of solitary confinement. The second was the interaction between Muslim religious practices and prison surveillance. An emerging web of state surveillance monitored Muslim rituals and attempted to construct a religioracial formation to justify the suppression of Islam in prisons. Because grassroots organizing by prisoners and the production of state knowledge and discipline grew alongside one another, historians of the carceral state cannot supply one-sided histories relying on state-produced narratives while burying the physical and theoretical labor of those who opposed such systems. Rather than seeing the development of mass incarceration and carceral apparatuses in the tectonic shifts of electoral realignment and other federal policy measures, this essay points to the local and daily exchanges between prisoners and prison officials as ground zero for the rise of the prisoners' rights movement and the extension of the carceral state.4
A recent flurry of literature on the rise of the carceral state is quickly remaking our understandings of the braided histories of the struggles inside and outside prisons. Earlier writings on the prisoners' rights movement reproduced broader declension narratives of a moralistic civil rights movement that gave way to nihilistic black power. According to these narratives, a backlash of white conservative “law-and-order” politics responded to the excesses of the movement. Race eclipsed class as the primary marker of political order and allowed for the ascendency of the Right. The war on drugs and “get-tough-on-crime” rhetoric thus created a new system of racial segregation in the form of the prison-industrial complex. However, recent scholarship has pushed against this backlash thesis. Rather than seeing the carceral state as the singular result of the rise of the Right, scholars have pointed to a consensus between liberals and conservatives around a shared “tough-on-crime” political discourse through which they waged war on the poor and on communities of color. As Marie Gottschalk argues, just as often, “liberal Republicans and Democrats have been key architects of the penal state.” President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs were inextricably tangled with his war on crime. “Far from being ambivalent about crime control as a major aim of domestic policy,” Elizabeth Hinton writes, “Johnson and his radical domestic programs laid the foundation of the carceral state.” The Rockefeller Drug Laws (1973) were also among the most draconian in the nation, marking a turn toward a punitive war on drugs rather than a community model emphasizing rehabilitation. Naomi Murakawa suggests that histories of conservative backlash are not wrong but that they “eclipse the specificity of racial liberalism against which they respond.” Indeed, the New York State commissioner of correction Paul McGinnis, named as the defendant in SaMarion v. McGinnis, was appointed by the liberal Republican Rockefeller. These northern liberals were decried by the Nation of Islam and other northern black activists as nothing more than “shades of Mississippi.”5
Garrett Felber, “Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam's Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle, Journal of American History, Volume 105, Issue 1, June 2018, Pages 71–95, https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jay008
“Everybody knows who he is, but they don't know what to do with him”
James Howard Meredith (born June 25, 1933) is an American civil rights movement figure, writer, political adviser, and Air Force veteran. In 1962, he became the first African-American student admitted to the theretofore segregated University of Mississippi, after the intervention of the federal government, an event that was a flashpoint in the civil rights movement.
James Meredith '68 is likely the only entering Columbia Law School student to have held a press conference on the day he registered for classes. www.law.columbia.edu/…