Rebellion in Black and White: Southern Student Activism in the 1960s ed. by Robert Cohen, David J. Snyder (review)
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Rebellion in Black and White: Southern Student Activism in the 1960s. Edited by Robert Cohen and David J. Snyder. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Pp. 368. $60.00 cloth; $29.95 paper; $29.95 ebook)

In 2010, scholars convened a conference on “Student Activism, Southern Style” at the University of South Carolina to mark the fortieth anniversary of the occupation of the Russell House, the major antiwar protest of the long 1960s in Columbia, South Carolina. The conference focused on campus activism across the South—though Kentucky garnered little attention—and inspired the essays collected in Rebellion in Black and White. This important volume deepens the historiography of 1960s activism, which has unduly ignored black and white rebellion on southern campuses. Furthermore, scholars will prize Robert Cohen’s lucid introduction as a narrative framework for incorporating regional variations into our national narrative of student activism in the 1960s.

Southern African-American students have long appeared in the histories of the 1960s, but Cohen is correct to point out that the off-campus success of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) “has obscured consideration of its impact on southern [End Page 149] campuses, especially the HBCUs” [historically black colleges and universities] (p. 6). To help redress that flaw, Cleveland L. Sellers argues that historians of student civil rights activism must expand the classic movement narrative: “We have to start decades earlier and end decades later” (p. 284). Sellers stretches the impact of black student activism to the present by emphasizing black studies, black arts, and black politics as civil rights legacies. Meanwhile, essays on “human relations” by Erica L. Whittington and Marcia G. Synnott suggest an entire new language for tracing student activism backward into the 1940s and 1950s. This chronological revision reflects historical reality and the recent historiographical shift toward studying the long civil rights movement. But it remains true that student organizing on campus and on the town square were two facets of the same fight.

Whereas the historiography of the civil rights student element in the South requires maturation, the historiography of the white student movement requires creation. The book approaches white student activism from numerous angles, all elaborating the agenda of what Cohen—channeling Jack Newfield—describes as the “prophetic minority” of the South (p. 11). Gary S. Sprayberry provides a detailed account of student radicalism at the University of Alabama, where police violence galvanized liberal and conservative students to form a united campus front. Running counter to the tendency to view the Southern New Left as derivative, Kelly Morrow’s treatment of the sexual liberation movement in Chapel Hill illustrates that Southern students could lead campuses in surprising new directions, including attacking in loco parentis. Meanwhile, Nicholas G. Meriwether’s analysis of The Joyful Alternative, a Columbia counterculture boutique, beautifully foregrounds an emergent trend in counterculture historiography by illuminating the creation of local countercultures informed by regional vernacular cultures. Of course, a different brand of Southern tradition informed conservative organizing, a point aptly explored in Christopher A. Huff’s treatment of student conservatives at the University of Georgia.

Doug Rossinow’s “Historiographical Reflections” provides honest [End Page 150] assessments of the scholarship of the volume. Clearly, black and white student activists in the South require more attention from historians. But Rossinow rightly indicates that “the lines of political identity separating white radicals from activists of color were quite real and important during the 1960s” (p. 310). Cohen’s introduction to Rebellion makes that separation clear but nevertheless justifies the racially integrated volume by indicating that SNCC activism was “New Left-ish” (p. 7). That contention is unnecessary and vague. More concrete interracial analyses are evident elsewhere in Rebellion. Joy Ann Williamson-Lott’s comparative analysis of the fight for First Amendment freedoms in Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and Jeffrey A. Turner’s entwined treatment of student activism at Fisk and Vanderbilt are fine models for integrating black and white campus activism. Indeed, the coexistence of such rich student movements on both sides of the color line is precisely what makes the South a distinctive region of study for a new generation of scholars of the 1960s.