This year’s Dana Greene Distinguished Scholar Kevin Kruse spoke about the Civil Rights Movement as part of the Dana Greene Distinguished Scholar Lecture Series on March 20. The Pierce Program in Religion at Oxford College presented the series. 

The event, titled “Seeking Justice: The Civil Rights Movement and the Federal Government,” was an Oxford Studies (OxStudies) event and had about 40 attendees. OxStudies is a multidisciplinary one-credit elective course that stimulates involvement in Oxford’s artistic, cultural and intellectual activities. 

Audience members listen to Dana Greene Distinguished Scholar and Princeton University (N.J.) History Professor Kevin Kruse. (Alyza Marie Harris/Oxford Events Desk)

Kruse, who is the director of the Center for Collaborative History at Princeton University (N.J.), studies the political and social history of 20th-century America, focusing on the increase in religious nationalism, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement and the creation of modern conservatism. 

Charles Howard Candler Professor of History Susan Ashmore introduced Kruse at the beginning of the event. Kruse’s talk focused on the Civil Rights Movement and civil rights activist John Doar, who served as assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division during former U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson’s administrations. According to Kruse, Doar, a white man, did “vital” work during the Civil Rights Movement. Kruse articulated that there is often a misunderstanding of the relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the federal government.  

“Change came not from the top-down or bottom-up, but rather the point where those two forces came together with the vital and vast unappreciated work of middlemen like the Civil Rights Division leaders like John Doar,” Kruse said.

Ashmore said society takes the Civil Rights Movement for granted today. She said that more needs to be done to achieve social justice and that Doar and Kruse’s work highlights that even when laws change, “white people react” by being “racist” and fleeing cities such as Atlanta.

Grace Chou (24Ox) attended the event as a part of her OxStudies class, but said she also decided to go because the subject matter is relevant to her interest in racial disparities in the South, specifically in rural Georgia. 

“That’s one of the cool things about a lot of OxStudies events is that we get to hear so much about particular people that you don’t usually hear when it comes to mainstream, just media in general but history in this case,” Chou said.

Attendees received a free, signed copy of Kruse’s first book, “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.” In the book, Kruse writes about how civil rights activism in Atlanta contributed to the rise of conservatism as a reaction against federal support for racial integration. According to Ashmore, his second book, “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,”  examines the rise of American religious nationalism in the mid-20th century and its legacies on America. 

Ashmore required students to read Kruse’s first book in her course, “The United States in the 1960s,” in anticipation of the event. A student in the course, Bruno Stratmann (25Ox), noted that Kruse visited his class earlier in the day and answered student questions about his work. 

“He really clearly … appreciates the questions asked to him,” Stratmann said. “He makes you feel the question that you asked is a good question.”

Kruse said he tries to be careful when teaching subjects that include sensitive words and topics but also does not want to neglect the true history.

“You can’t sugarcoat this, right?” Kruse said. “If I’m shaving the rough edges off what the Klan did or what segregationists were saying, I’m doing a disservice to the historical record. I’m covering for them in a lot of ways by dialing it down and worrying about what the reaction will be.”

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