Looking at Racial Progress—and Setbacks

Probing civil rights through African American lives and the carceral state
(L to R) Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, and Carol J. Oja at "Writing the History of Civil Rights for a New Era." Photo by Adam Paul Verity(L to R) Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, and Carol J. Oja at "Writing the History of Civil Rights for a New Era." Photo by Adam Paul Verity
By Ivelisse Estrada

On April 18, in a large ballroom in a Manhattan hotel overlooking Union Square, nearly 200 affiliates from across the University gathered to mingle and to listen to a trio of scholars of civil rights, broadly defined. In her opening remarks, Dean Lizabeth Cohen explained the title of the program, “Writing the History of Civil Rights for a New Era”: “‘New era’ in the early days of our planning this program spoke to the powerful paradox of racial progress in traditional politics, new kinds of grassroots protests as reflected by the Black Lives Matter movement, and a growing threatening backlash,” she said. “Now, after the bitterly fought presidential election of 2016, we are confronted with an even more complicated meaning of a new era in our complicated racial history.” The speakers who followed—all Radcliffe fellows and Harvard professors—presented the work they had pursued at the Institute.

For two of the speakers, the history of civil rights may be told through biography. Carol J. Oja, the 2016–2017 Frieda L. Miller Fellow and the William Powell Mason Professor of Music at Harvard, is considering a life that exemplifies the segregation and desegregation of classical music. Oja spoke about Marian Anderson, a black contralto once famous for her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, a performance staged because she’d been barred from performing in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Two other significant accomplishments bookended this defining moment in her career, however: In 1925, Anderson won a contest for the New York Philharmonic—300 singers entered, and she was the only African American. She became the first person of color to ever perform with that orchestra. Later, in 1955, she premiered at the Metropolitan Opera, the first African American to sing on that stage.

As Oja pointed out during her presentation, the Metropolitan Opera had essentially operated as a whites-only institution since its founding, in 1880. Anderson secured access to that stage. “Within the world of classical music, there’s been very little discussion of figures who crossed race lines,” said Oja. “It’s really important to reconstruct that multiracial history and find out some of the ways in which the borders were transgressed and reveal the systemic racism that was behind all of it.”

Tomiko Brown-Nagin—the 2016–2017 Joy Foundation Fellow, the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, and a professor of history on Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences—is writing a biography of Constance Baker Motley, hailed during her time as “the civil rights queen.” Motley was the first woman lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and worked on some of the most important cases of the era, including Brown v. Board of Education. Her contributions would have been substantial had she only helped create the field of civil rights law, but Motley didn’t stop there: she went on to become the first woman ever elected Manhattan borough president, in 1955. Eleven years later, in 1966, she was the first African American woman (and only the fifth woman) appointed to the federal bench.

“She had this remarkable career, and yet it’s a puzzle as to why she is not as wellknown today as one might expect,” said Brown-Nagin. The scholar is also considering the issue of gender from an intersectional perspective: Motley symbolized the opening up of the workplace to both women and people of color. But, Brown-Nagin pointed out, “she was actually boxed in by her identity: from the moment she was nominated to the bench, and throughout her career, questions were raised about whether she could be fair because she had worked as a civil rights lawyer.”

Alicia W. Stewart, a former editor at CNN.com and a 2015 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, asks a question during the April event in New York City. Photo by Adam Paul VerityAlicia W. Stewart, a former editor at CNN.com and a 2015 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, asks a question during the April event in New York City. Photo by Adam Paul VeritySharing the oft-cited statistics that the United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners, Khalil Gibran Muhammad—the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at Radcliffe and a professor of history, race, and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School—referenced Brown-Nagin’s presentation, saying, “The very struggles that Judge Motley fought and sacrificed for led to what many scholars, activists, and reformers call the crisis of mass incarceration.”

The historian reviewed the arguments of his previous book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2010), which won the 2011 John Hope Franklin Publication Prize. “There’s a pretty good trail of evidence from the Progressive Era to the present essentially saying that the criminal justice system functions systemically as a tool of discrimination,” he said.

In his next book, Muhammad will further illuminate the inherent racism in the American criminal justice system by focusing on the treatment of white criminality in the 20th century. Looking at post–World War II white American communities—both suburban and rural, but also such historically white inner-city communities as South Boston—he plans to describe experiences with the law from the 1940s to the present that help explain what a criminal justice system looks like when it’s more humane, has second and third chances built into it, and is less discriminatory.

“We in our political culture assume that at some point after Prohibition, most white people became law-abiding, respectable, hardworking Americans,” said Muhammad. “We want to understand what a system that can see the clients of the system as human beings first and potential offenders second looks like.”

Can We Hope for Justice?

Human rights expert examines the present and future of her field

APRIL 2017

Chicago affiliates participate in an important conversation

The Radcliffe Institute, the Harvard Alumni Association, and the Harvard Club of Chicago joined forces to offer a Radcliffe on the Road program titled “Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century.” Kathryn Sikkink RI ’17—the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute and the Ryan Family Professor at Harvard Kennedy School—talked about the counterintuitively optimistic future of human rights around the world at a gathering of nearly 60 guests.

Sikkink offered as evidence statistics that show a general worldwide improvement in the human condition, such as widespread abolishment of the death penalty, dropping genocide rates, and fewer famines. Alongside these hopeful signs, she presented modern phenomena that contribute to misperceptions of human rights crises.

Inside an Artistic Mind

Meeting an award-winning sculptor in an intimate setting


An art-filled home sets the tone for an art-filled conversation

Dean Cohen with the artist Sarah Sze and Miyoung Lee, who hosted the February event in New York City. Photo by Adam Paul VerityDean Cohen with the artist Sarah Sze and Miyoung Lee, who hosted the February event in New York City. Photo by Adam Paul VerityKnown for installations and sculptures made from domestic detritus and office supplies, the MacArthur-winning artist Sarah Sze RI ’06 appeared in New York to spread word about the importance of the visual arts to Radcliffe’s Fellowship Program.

Miyoung Lee ’87, MBA ’92 and Neil Simpkins MBA ’92 hosted the reception in their home, bringing together Radcliffe alumnae, former Radcliffe fellows, and alumnae/i from Harvard College and other Harvard schools.

Sze—whose installations and sculptures have been shown at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art; the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis; and the Venice Biennale—presented her work to the nearly 40 guests. Lee and Simpkins themselves own a sculpture by Sze, which was on display during the event.

Search Year: