Re-evaluating the Albany Civil Rights Movement – Interview with Lee Formwalt

LF photo by AEJenkins
Lee Formwalt (photo by A.E. Jenkins)

Lee Formwalt has recently written a book entitled Looking Back, Moving Forward: The Southwest Georgia Freedom Struggle – 1814-2014.  It explores the long fight for basic civil rights in Albany, Georgia.  Even though local leaders had been pushing for civil rights for years, in 1961-62 the eyes of the nation focused on Albany, Georgia.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference descended on the small city in an effort to end segregation at the local Trailways bus depot. Unlike other battles of the civil rights movement, this one was notable because it was initially unsuccessful and forced leaders within the civil rights movement to reevaluate their strategies.  Formwalt’s book takes a much longer look at the civil rights movement than just this one year period in Albany and tries to understand the long struggle for civil rights.  The book is being co-published by the Georgia Humanities Council and Albany Civil Rights Institute.

 Lee W. Formwalt was a professor of history at Albany (GA) State University for 22 years (1977-1999) and served his last 2 years there as Dean of the Graduate School. Founder and editor of The Journal of Southwest Georgia History, he has written numerous scholarly articles and essays, and a book on southwest Georgia history, focusing largely on the African American experience. From 1999 to 2009, he was executive director of the Organization of American Historians, the world’s largest professional association and learned society devoted to the study of United States history. In 2009, he returned to Albany, GA, to become executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute.  He retired in 2011 and lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where he is currently working on a memoir and a collection of his essays and articles on southwest Georgia history.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

What was the genesis of this book?

I have been researching and writing about various aspects of southwest Georgia history for the last 35 years, ever since I moved to that region in the late 1970s to teach at Albany State College. In 1985-1986, I received an NEH fellowship to write a book on the socioeconomic history of 19th-century Dougherty County, the buckle of the southwest Georgia Black Belt.  A heavy teaching load made me realize that the book would be a long time coming, so I cranked out a series of articles for a number of scholarly journals instead. In addition, I wrote occasional columns on my research for a wider audience in the local press. Beginning in the late 1990s, administrative appointments, including Executive Director of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), significantly reduced my historical writing on southwest Georgia.  In addition, in the 1990s I was a founder and heavily involved in the establishment of the Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum at Old Mt. Zion Church (ACRMM), thus beginning my foray into the 20th-century history of the region. 

While I was at OAH, the ACRMM built a $4 million expansion that opened in 2008.  Upon retiring from OAH in 2009 I accepted an invitation to serve as executive director of the rechristened Albany Civil Rights Institute (ACRI). One of the first things I did in my new leadership position was to walk around with visitors as docents led them through the new museum. I heard a number of factual errors and I realized that I needed to write a docent’s script and train the tour guides to deliver an accurate account of the events leading up to the Albany Movement as well as the movement itself.  That script later served as the outline for Looking Back, Moving Forward

I retired after serving two years at ACRI.  Last fall the Institute came calling with another invitation—this time to write a souvenir book on the history of the Albany Movement to be published by ACRI and then sold in its gift shop to visitors.  I agreed to write the 30,000-word book in four months as it was already outlined in the docent’s script I had compiled earlier.  That, plus the fact I had been researching and writing about southwest Georgia African American history for 35 years, made the writing go pretty quickly. In a sense, it seemed like the book practically wrote itself. The book grew to almost 40,000 words and the Georgia Humanities Council signed on as a copublisher.

  Why did you want to tell this story?

I had been telling bits and pieces of the story in my earlier writing in the 1980s and 1990s.  Composing the docent’s script allowed me to put the whole story together from the acquisition of Creek Indian lands in 1814 through the Albany Movement of 1961-1962.  Writing the book allowed me to tell the rest of the story from SNCC’s activities in 1963-1966 on up to the present—a full two centuries from 1814.  This story of African American resistance to white oppression in one of the darkest corners of the Deep South is not well-known.  So, in a sense, I felt compelled to tell it, especially what happened before 1961 and after 1962.

The first freedom fighters in southwest Georgia were those enslaved African Americans who ran away from their owners before emancipation in 1865. During Reconstruction, African Americans organized politically, voted, and were elected to the state legislature.  In the 75 years of Jim Crow when more than 120 African Americans were lynched in southwest Georgia, other citizens of color organized NAACP chapters in several towns and UNIA (Marcus Garvey’s back to Africa movement) divisions in rural counties. Few people are aware that after 1962, SNCC continued its efforts to organize and desegregate communities throughout southwest Georgia.  Even the cause célèbre cases of the Americus Four, the Albany Nine, and the Dawson Five have largely been forgotten.  The classic phase of the Albany Movement (fall 1961-summer 1962) is better understood when told in the context of the century and a half of resistance that preceded it and the half-century of struggle that followed it right up to today.

What is the Albany Movement and how did it start?

The first thing we need to do is clarify the difference between the Albany Movement as the civil rights movement in Albany and the Albany Movement as an official organization founded on November 17, 1961.  In both cases we’re talking about the classic stage of the Albany Movement characterized by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s involvement.  Historian Michael Chalfen traces the movement’s beginnings to the founding of Albany’s NAACP chapter in the wake of World War I.  In Looking Back, Moving Forward, I trace the movement’s origins back through Reconstruction to the resistance of enslaved African Americans in the antebellum era.  Similarly, Chalfen extends the movement in Albany into the 1970s and I bring it into the 21st century.  Thus, depending on your interpretation, the Albany Movement or southwest Georgia freedom struggle began before the Civil War, in 1918, or in 1961, and ended in 1962, the 1970s, or continues right up to today.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1961-1962, the Albany Movement had among its goals increased voter registration and unprecedented communitywide desegregation.  Most accounts of the classic stage of the Albany Movement begin with the arrival of SNCC field secretaries Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon in October 1961 to begin a southwest Georgia voter registration campaign. The young SNCC leaders met with college, high school, and junior high students teaching them freedom songs and nonviolent tactics.  African American adults in Albany recognized the need to organize themselves if they—and not these outsiders from SNCC—were going to lead the growing student movement.

On November 17, 1961 the leaders of SNCC, the NAACP Youth Council, the NAACP, the Criterion Club, the Voters League, the Federated Women’s Club, and the Ministerial Alliance established a formal organization, The Albany Movement, and elected black osteopath William G. Anderson president. This version of events suggests that SNCC came and started a student movement that within weeks led the adults to create the Albany Movement. Historian Racquel Henry and former Albany State College students Annette Jones White and Bernice Johnson Reagon, however, have more recently shown that ASC student activism had begun years before Sherrod and Reagon showed up in Albany which made it easier for them to organize the students.

Students were the first to be arrested for trying to integrate the Trailways Bus Station in November 1961.  When SNCC Freedom Riders were arrested in December, mass protests by students and adults resulted in over 750 arrests, including that of Martin Luther King, Jr. Another 750 arrests were made in the next 18 months for a total of 1500 in 20 months.  King’s involvement in Albany accelerated the national press coverage the movement began to experience.

Why has the Albany Movement been overshadowed by other civil rights actions?  Why have we forgotten about this important piece of the civil rights movement?

When King left Albany in the waning days of summer 1962 after having been jailed three times, the city was as segregated as it ever had been.  King admitted that he had failed in Albany, but that he learned some important lessons there that he applied in Birmingham in 1963.  In many accounts of the civil rights movement, the victories in Montgomery (1955-1956), Birmingham (1963), and the March from Selma to Montgomery (1965) get most of the attention and Albany is noted as the place where King made mistakes and failed.  The problem with this perspective is that it is King-centric, implying that Albany was significant only when King was involved.  It sees Albany as a part of the national civil rights movement sandwiched between the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the Birmingham protests and March on Washington of 1963 and fails to take it on its own terms as a local movement.

The Albany Movement began before King arrived and persisted long after King’s departure in defeat. Its history is not one of failure simply because King failed in southwest Georgia, but one of persistence and ultimately some success.  Often forgotten is that the Albany Movement was the first mass movement of the modern civil rights era to have as its goal the desegregation of an entire community.  Mass meetings, protest marches and arrests continued in Albany in 1963.  Sherrod and his integrated teams of SNCC workers expanded their efforts beyond Albany into the rural counties of Terrell, Lee, Sumter, Baker, and the rest of southwest Georgia, where they faced some of the worst white racist terrorism in the South.  SNCC workers were beaten by law officers, shot at and wounded by night riders, and churches associated with their voter registration efforts were firebombed.  What I have tried to do in this book, for the first time, is to tell the whole story of the movement—the southwest Georgia freedom struggle—in one place, and not just that part of the story that got national and international attention when King was involved.

Photographs are an important part of this book.  Where did you find these photos and what do they add to this story?

From the beginning we planned on making photographs a key part of the book.  The opening chapter is illustrated with newspaper ads for runaway slaves and slave sales.  I have seen the shock on the faces of nonhistorian friends who saw for the first time an advertisement for “150 Negroes for Sale at public out-cry in the City of Albany.” Such images can really drive home what slavery was all about.  In the chapter on the origins of Jim Crow, I used photographs made by A. Radclyffe Dugmore for W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1901 World’s Work article, “The Negro As He Really Is.”  Dugmore, a 30-year old Englishman on the verge of a career as a well-known photographer and filmmaker, met Du Bois in Albany in March 1901 for the photo shoot. Nineteen of Dugmore’s photographs of African Americans and their homes, stores, and work illustrate Du Bois’s article which the author later revised into two chapters in his The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

Most of the photographs from the heyday of the movement were taken by Benjamin F. Cochran, the official Albany Movement photographer, and by SNCC photographer Danny Lyon.  When Cochran retired he sold his studio and movement photographs to Albany cameraman Adrian Jenkins.  Lyon started his career making photographs of the movement in Cairo, IL, and Albany, GA, and became SNCC’s official photographer.  One of his most iconic pictures, among the first he took in Albany—the white and “colored” water fountains in the Dougherty County Courthouse—dominates the cover of Looking Back, Moving Forward.  Words cannot capture the essence of Jim Crow the way that one photograph does.  Lyon went on to become a renowned photographer and published a number of his civil rights photographs in his book, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (1992/2010).  Contemporary photography of ACRI, Old Mt. Zion and Shiloh Baptist churches was shot by Todd Stone in 2010 and 2014.

How does the story of the Albany Movement add to our understanding of the broader civil rights movement?

The Albany Movement illustrates how the national civil rights movement was much more complicated than it is often portrayed.  It’s easier to tell a linear story beginning with the 1954 Brown decision followed by the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King’s emergence as a national civil rights leader.  Then comes the 1957 Little Rock crisis, the 1961 Freedom Rides, the Albany Movement, Birmingham, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Selma and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the emergence of Black Power and the end of the movement with King’s assassination in 1968.  But the story of the movement is not a linear tale.  It was a hodgepodge of many local movements, each with its own beginning and its moment in the sun of national media attention.  There are many threads connecting these movements besides the involvement of Martin Luther King.

For example, SNCC leaders who came to work in Albany brought with them their movement experiences in southwest Mississippi, South Carolina, and on the Freedom Rides.  SNCC workers in southwest Georgia moved on to other places, including Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Music was another connection linking the movements all over the South.  One of the first things SNCC workers did when they arrived in a community was to teach freedom songs to local folk.  Albany became famous for its freedom songs many of which came out of the a capella rural southwest Georgia black Baptist church tradition.  The original SNCC Freedom Singers group originated in Albany and went on a fundraising tour spreading the movement music nationwide.  Like Albany, each community movement in the South made its unique contribution to the broader civil rights movement shaped by its particular history. 

Who is your intended audience for this book?  Who do you hope finds this book?

This book was written for a broad general audience, initially for visitors to the Albany Civil Rights Institute, who wanted to take away with them a history of the movement that they just experienced in the ACRI permanent exhibit.  The Georgia Humanities Council recognized that Looking Back, Moving Forward was more than just a souvenir book—that it was an important contribution to civil rights scholarship. The Council began promoting the book, became copublisher with ACRI, and Council President Jamil Zainaldin wrote the foreword. Considering the broad general audience we made the decision to include many illustrations and no footnotes.  At the end of the book is a list of more than two dozen books and articles for further reading, all of which I used in writing the book.  Because this is the first book devoted solely to the Albany Movement and southwest Georgia freedom struggle from the time of white settlement to the present, I realized that some of my scholarly colleagues might also be interested in this work.  So I kept a footnoted version of the book and I am currently exploring ways to make the documented manuscript available online. 


How can our readers get a copy of this book?

Books are currently on sale at the Albany Civil Rights Institute, 326 Whitney Ave., Albany, GA 31701 and at the Georgia Humanities Council, 50 Hurt Plaza, S.E., Suite 595, Atlanta, GA 30303.  The easiest way to order the book is to send a check for $22 (includes postage and handling) to ACRI, P.O. Box 6036, Albany, GA 31706-6036.  The entire cost of publishing the book was raised from four sponsors, so all proceeds from sales go directly to ACRI to help the Institute continue to tell the story of the southwest Georgia freedom struggle.

Voodoo, Kidnapping and Race in New Orleans during Reconstruction: Interview with Michael A. Ross

Michael A. Ross
Michael A. Ross

In October, the Oxford University Press will be publishing The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law, and Justice in the Reconstruction Era by Michael A. Ross, an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland.  Ross’s first book, Justice of Shattered Dreams: Samuel Freeman Miller and the Supreme Court During the Civil War Era,  examined Justice Miller’s career on the Supreme Court.  Ross has changed pace and his next book follows the 1870 kidnapping of a white seventeen month old girl, Mollie Digby, by two African American women in New Orleans. While virtually unknown today, the case was a national sensation at the time. Everyday, newspapers around the country were publishing reports of the kidnapping and subsequent trial. Unsurprisingly, the story became intertwined with the racial politics of Reconstruction.  Here’s my interview with Michael Ross about his new book.

NOLA kidnapping jacket photo (2)
Your previous book, Justice of Shattered Dreams: Samuel Freeman Miller and the Supreme Court During the Civil War Era, focused on the impact of Justice Samuel Freeman Miller on the Supreme Court. How did you shift from looking at the Supreme Court to examining Reconstruction in New Orleans?

For my first book, I did a lot of research on New Orleans during Reconstruction because Justice Miller authored the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in a case, the famous Slaughter-House Cases, that emerged from the fearsome political and legal struggles that took place in New Orleans during that era. I stumbled across the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case while doing that research. Every historian has had a moment like this. You are immersed in old letters or newspapers when a different story from the one you are working on catches your eye. In the documents you find an account of something no one has written about before, an untold story begging to be told. Usually when this happens, you pause, shake your head, think “wow, that would be great to tackle someday,” and then return to the task at hand. Seldom do you go back to it. The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case is an example, for better or worse, of what happens when you actually take the bait and decide that the event you stumbled across is too rich, too full of historical implications, to pass up.

When I first found the Digby case, I was reading all of the 1870 New Orleans newspapers, looking for references to the Slaughter-House Cases and the efforts by ex-Confederates to obstruct Reconstruction in the state and local courts. When I reached the June 1870 editions, the story of an alleged Voodoo abduction demanded a quick read. ‘That can’t possibly have happened,’ I thought to myself. The press had to have been spreading unfounded rumors. The New Orleans papers, after all, also reported ghost sightings. But to my amazement, each day’s paper contained new articles about the Digby kidnapping—including reports of the police arresting and interrogating Voodoo practitioners. And by the time it was clear that the human sacrifice rumors were exaggerations, the story had taken other compelling turns. (Editor’s note: Ross has more about the human sacrifice allegations at his Tumblr blog – michaelaross.tumblr.com.)

I was hooked, and just like the readers in 1870, I looked to each day’s newspapers for the latest revelations in the Digby investigation. I also checked to see if anyone had ever written about the case before. I had never heard of the Digby case, but surely someone had already authored an article or book about it. I was surprised to find the story was almost untouched by historians despite the fact that the case made headlines across the country in 1870.

So what was it about the case that you found so compelling?

One of the things that I found so compelling about the case was how quickly it became intertwined with the momentous events of Reconstruction. New Orleans was a city on edge in June 1870 when the papers reported that two African American women abducted 17-month-old Mollie Digby from in front of her family’s home in the working-class “back of town.” It was the height of Radical Reconstruction. African American men could now vote, serve on juries, and hold public office, and black men and women now demanded service in formerly whites-only restaurants and saloons. Reconstruction Governor Henry Clay Warmoth had also just integrated the New Orleans police force and black officers now patrolled the streets. Many white residents, still emotionally wounded by Confederate defeat, seethed as the new order emerged.

African American detectives
African American Detectives

After the Voodoo abduction rumors began, the white press seized on the Digby case as an example of a world turned dangerously upside down, and they predicted that the integrated police force would let the crime go unsolved and unpunished. Governor Warmoth responded by getting personally involved the case, offering a state reward of $1,000 for recovery of the child or the arrest and conviction of the abductors, and he ordered New Orleans’s chief of police to put his best African American detectives in charge of the investigation. If black detectives could solve a high-profile, racially explosive case, it could build public confidence in all of the new African American public servants.

Louisiana Governor Henry Clay Warmoth
Louisiana Governor Henry Clay Warmoth

In the Digby case, lead Detective John Baptiste Jourdain became the first African American detective ever to make national news. Right there I knew I had a story worth telling, but there was even more to come. When private citizens supplemented Warmoth’s reward and the promised amounts reached $5,000, the case became the “Powerball” of 1870. Everyone who saw an African American woman walking with a white baby wondered if the child was Mollie Digby. Leads poured in from across the South and the detectives even consulted clairvoyants. Eventually, the police arrested and put on trial two strikingly beautiful and stylish Afro-Creole women and a sensational, headline grabbing trial followed.

Did Reconstruction in New Orleans differ from Reconstruction in the rest of the South? Was there anything unique about the New Orleans experience?

I have always argued that if there was any hope Reconstruction could have succeeded, the best chance was in New Orleans where Governor Warmoth hoped to build a coalition with Whiggish businessmen that could broaden the base of the Republican party so that it might survive the eventual removal of federal troops. Unlike many areas of the South, antebellum New Orleans had been a Unionist stronghold, and in the election of 1860, New Orleans voters overwhelmingly supported Unionists John Bell and Stephen Douglas. Businessmen had correctly feared that a civil war would bring economic catastrophe. The city’s population also included thousands of transplanted northerners who ran the public schools, Protestant churches, several newspapers, and significant portions of the commercial community. These same men, Warmoth hoped, might now accept biracial Republican rule if he could follow through on his promises to professionalize the police force, to rebuild the levees, clean the streets, move the disease-ridden slaughterhouses away from the city’s water supply, and to complete railroads linking New Orleans to Houston, Illinois, and the Northeast.

New Orleans’s population also included the Afro-Creoles, former free persons of color who had flourished in the city before the Civil War under Spanish, French, and even American rule. Many Afro-Creoles—a class that included doctors, lawyers, newspaper editors, poets, and merchants—had long sent their children to the best schools in the North and Paris, and their sophistication allowed Warmoth and the Republicans to counter reactionary whites’ favorite argument—that African Americans, recently freed from slavery, were allegedly too ignorant to serve as jurors, policemen, and government officials. Although many New Orleans whites viewed all black people with disdain, some accepted the Creoles as commercial partners, a reality that fueled Republicans’ hopes for an urban coalition between erudite black leaders and white businessmen who cared more about economic development than racial dogma. The lead detective in the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case, John Baptiste Jourdain, was an Afro-Creole.

What does this case teach us about Reconstruction?

I think The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case is a story filled with small moments that had larger implications. I don’t want to give away too much, as the book is, in part, a “whodunit.” But I can say that I tried to tell the story from the perspective of those who lived it. It is important to remember that in 1870 no one knew whether Reconstruction was going to succeed or fail. One reason reactionaries fought so violently against the biracial Republican governments was their fear that Reconstruction might actually work.

Too often, I think, we read history backwards from the Plessy v. Ferguson case. We simply assume that Reconstruction was doomed and that the South’s descent into Jim Crow was inevitable. The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case depicts 1870 as one of those rare moments in American History where real change was possible. One place this can be seen is in the trial of the accused women. The evidence against the defendants was mixed. Some facts suggested guilt, others innocence. Had the Digby case occurred in the early twentieth century South, the result would have been foreordained. Black defendants charged with committing sensational crimes against whites had little hope for acquittal.

Yet in 1870 in New Orleans no one could be sure of the outcome. Because 1870 was the height of Radical Reconstruction, the state government that prosecuted the defendants was not dominated by white supremacists bent on keeping African Americans in line. Blacks and whites served together on the jury. While at the same time, much of the evidence against the accused was the result of the work of African American detectives who now testified against members of their own race. Unlike the trials of the Jim Crow era, the outcome was in doubt even as the jury’s foreman stood in a jammed courtroom to announce the verdict.

How would you recommend using this book in a class? How can your book help students better understand the issues surrounding Reconstruction?

I am always looking for books to assign in class that tell a story that is compelling enough to pull student readers in, but that also illuminate the main themes of my course. I often assign books like Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age and Jill Lepore’s New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan that use a single trial or event to reveal a larger world. I hope The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case will be assigned (and read) for the same reasons.

The Cold War, Sexuality, and American Medicine: Interview with Carolyn Herbst Lewis

Carolyn Herbst Lewis
Carolyn Herbst Lewis

Recently, DailyHistory.org published a Top Ten History of Sex Booklist.  Carolyn Herbst Lewis’s outstanding book Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) was on the list.  Not only was her book on the list, it received by far the most interest from our readers.  Recently, her book was reissued as a trade paperback by UNC Press and we wanted to talk to her about it.  Carolyn Herbst Lewis is currently a Assistant Professor of History at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.  Her current research focuses on Dr. Joseph Bolivar DeLee and the Chicago Maternity Center.

Lewis’s profile from Grinnell provides an excellent summary of her book: “Prescription for Heterosexuality considered the definitions of sexual health crafted by the American medical profession in the postwar decades. By examining the material published in the profession’s journals and other venues, Lewis revealed the connections that physicians made between individual sexual adjustment, family stability, and national security during the Cold War. Her book addressed not only the historical construction of heteronormativity in the mid-twentieth century United States, but also the forces shaping professional shifts in American medicine in this same period, as well as the overlap between the two.”

Here’s our interview:

Your book tells a fascinating story about the role family physicians tried to play in their patients’ sex lives.  What first attracted you this story?

This book actually has its origins in my MA thesis at Ohio University. I had been drawn to the history of sex since  I was an undergrad.  I also was working in the Contemporary History Institute, which has a post-1945 focus. At some point, I was at a garage sale and found a book from the 1970s about how psychoanalysts were adapting their practices to accommodate the women’s liberation movement. It was a sort of  an “A-ha!” moment, when my interests in sexuality, medicine, and culture converged in a meaningful way. From there, the question that emerged as I proposed my thesis topic was “How did the American medical profession respond to the Kinsey Report in 1953?” This led me to medical journals as my source base, and eventually the larger project grew from there. By the time I was working on my dissertation at UCSB, I could see how this was a story not just about sex, but also about authority, citizenship, and defining gender normativity.

Before I start writing a research project, I find that I’m never quite sure what my research is telling me.  At some point when I am writing a light bulb clicks on and I go, “oh, that’s what this is all about.”  Did that happen to you when you were writing this book or did your original conception of this project survive the writing process?

You know, when you’re in the dissertation zone, which is where the first full draft of this book was written, it can be very difficult to acknowledge what is significant about your work. In many ways, as I indicated earlier, there is a clear path from the MA thesis to the book. It’s remarkable how much is unchanged. At the same time, there were all sorts of moments along the way when things clicked. I really have to thank my cohort at UCSB in History and Feminist Studies for this. I remember once I was in a research seminar, and April Haynes was practically pulling words from my mouth, trying to coax me into articulating how the premarital pelvic exam was related to citizenship. I also tried to go down different paths with this project that had to be abandoned. They were sort of the opposite of click moments – moments when I realized what I was trying to do made no sense at all, or that it was too much of a stretch. I think in some ways, those moments are even more significant. It’s hard to abandon work, but sometimes it’s necessary. For example, I spent a lot of time trying to work in a chapter about rape kits. I’m not sure I even remember what I was trying to do, but at the time, it seemed really important to the performance of heterosexuality. Now, I cannot even imagine how I would make that work.

The creation of family medicine occurred contemporaneously to physicians’ efforts to treat, regulate and guide their patients’ sex lives.  Why did the family physicians specialize in sex instead of another field?  Were family physicians motivated more by money or a deep seated desire to guide their patients’ morality?   

Well, I don’t think they were trying to specialize in sex. They were specializing in the family unit, and the family unit is created through reproduction (assisted or unassisted), and that is one way the sex comes in. Sex also was essential to individual character and emotional/mental health, and family units were best created by healthy individuals. That is another way sex comes into it. Their concern was with gender more broadly, and sexual desires and acts were linked to gender performance. I’m looking at the ways that plays out. As for their motivation, I think it’s important to remember that these doctors were not bad people. They did not wake up in the morning and set out to harm people in any way. They wanted what was best for their patients; we just disagree with how they defined what was best. But that is always tangled up with the desire for professional success and prestige. This was their profession, maybe even their vocation, and they wanted to be successful. Success was defined not just by helping their patients be healthy, but also by the usual measures of professional success – some recognition by their peers and a comfortable lifestyle. 

Nuclear Explosion

I find that the further we get away from the Cold War the more difficult it is to explain to younger students the impact that paranoia and anxiety of the war had on American society.  This is problematic because the Cold War shaped American society and it even plays a role in your story.  What role does the Cold War play in your book?  Additionally, how do you explain to students the impact of the Cold War (an ideological and military conflict between the USSR and US) on American sex?   

When I looked at the larger discussions taking place in the medical journals, I saw a Venn diagram with three circles: one was discussions about sexuality and reproduction; one was discussions about the family medicine specialty; and one was anxiety about the Cold War. I was interested in the place where those three circles overlapped. The Cold War entered into medical journal articles in really surprising ways. I did not expect this. Yet, it was right there. An article about how to talk to your patients about their sex lives, and the author makes reference to how the Soviets were trying to undermine our values. Or how without good sexual values, our society will crumble with just a little outside pressure. In an era in which physicians were also writing articles about how to prepare for civil defense in the likely event of a nuclear attack, this was especially meaningful. The Cold War clearly drove a lot of the assumptions regarding gender and sexuality in this era, and it was no different in the medical journals than anywhere else.

As for how to explain the impact of the Cold War, whether on sex or anything else, I don’t find it that difficult. Students today have grown up in the shadow of 9/11. In the spring, I taught an introductory level course in American Cold War Culture. A lot of the material resonated with the students. This is not to say that the eras are the same; I certainly do not mean that at all. But they “get it.” And, as one student told me, now they “get” their parents and grandparents, too.

Why were American physicians so slow to reject “morality medicine”, i.e. the narrow moral views expressed by medical profession on abortion, masturbation and venereal disease?  Has this “morality medicine” persisted in medicine?

Oh, I certainly think there is morality medicine today. Homophobia is not gone. The belief that children are best cared for full-time by their mothers is not gone. One of the bloggers for Nursing Clio recently wrote about how a Canadian fertility clinic refused to inseminate a woman with sperm from a donor of a different racial background than hers. Infertility, pregnancy loss, abortion, STIs, multiple partners… I probably have enough anecdotes of comments made by health care professionals to patients during pelvic exams and other visits to fill another book. And how about obesity, cholesterol, diets, exercise? All of those discussions are loaded with moral assumptions. And those assumptions are further coded by class, race, and other stereotypes.

In Vitro Fertilization
In Vitro Fertilization

Do the debates about artificial insemination described in your book mirror some of the debates about in vitro fertilization (IVF) from the 1970s and 1980s?  Today, both artificial insemination and IVF are relatively non-controversial.  Was it the changing views of American sexuality or the increasingly commonplace nature of these procedures that killed opposition?   

Hmm. I’m not sure that they are non-controversial. I mean, how many people broadcast the fact that their children were conceived with donor sperm – especially if it is a married, heterosexual couple? Why is that if not because it is controversial in some way? IVF is definitely more common, but I suspect that people who experience the world of assisted reproduction would say that there are all sorts of assumptions, insults, and fears that they hear from others. Assisted reproduction is non-controversial in the sense that most of us accept that it occurs (and probably all know someone who has used some form of it), but that doesn’t mean that we don’t imbue it with all sorts of moral judgments. And the fact that assisted reproduction is expensive, and not always fully covered by medical plans, means that we are gate-keeping who can and cannot reproduce. 

How would you recommend using this book in a class?  What can students find in your book that they can’t find anywhere else?

There is excellent literature on the history of sexuality, the history of sexual citizenship, the history of postwar family life,  and the history of medicine. What do I bring to the table? I tie it together. This is not a comprehensive narrative by any means. But this story about how the American medical profession defined healthy sexuality in the postwar decades is one thread of it that needs to be understood. Moreover, I think it is important to examine the deliberate construction of heterosexuality. If we don’t put the medical construction of heterosexuality under the same microscope that we put the medical construction of homosexuality, then we are suggesting that heterosexuality was not constructed by medical processes. This is a mistake that helps perpetuate heteronormative privilege. And I think it’s the same with male sexuality and masculinity in comparison with female sexuality and femininity. If we don’t interrogate male sexual and gender performances to the same degree that we interrogate female sexual and gender performances, then we help perpetuate male privilege.

I’m not sure that really answered your question, though, and perhaps this won’t either, but two things that I think people overlook about my book is a) that it offers a history of medical professionalization and specialization in the mid-twentieth century, and b) that it offers a history of artificial insemination and social fatherhood in the 1950s and 1960s.