Brett Gadsden

Associate Professor of African American Studies and History (on leave 2017 - 2018)

Director of Undergraduate Studies

Biography

Brett Gadsden, Associate Professor (B.S., James Madison University, 1991; M.A. University of Massachusetts, 1996; M.A., Northwestern University, 1998; Ph.D. Northwestern University, 2006.) Research and teaching interests: twentieth century African American history, African American freedom struggles and politics, post-World War II America, race and American political development, and law and education.

I am currently working on a book project, tentatively titled From Protest to Politics: The Making of the “Second Black Cabinet,” JFK to Nixon. I am interested in the set of historical circumstances, such as rising black electoral power, direct action campaigns in the south, urban uprisings, and growing popular support for civil rights advances that brought African Americans—often framed as “racial advisors”—into consultative relationships with presidential candidates and later into key cabinet, sub-cabinet, and other important positions in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations that opened to them unprecedented access to centers of power in the federal government. This project offers an alternative to the standard political narratives of American politics that are largely told through the lens of American presidents in studies of their encounters with civil rights movements. In foregrounding the rise of these black executives as historical agents in the history of the American presidency and detailing the thinking and actions of these figures in the governing process, my project thus indentifies an important transition in African Americans’ positions in the American polity from consummate political outsiders, charges of the state, and protestors to civic insiders, policy makers, and architects of democratic structures that governed all citizens.

My first book is titled Between North and South: Delaware, Desegregation, and the Myth of American Sectionalism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). The central focus of this project is the three decades long effort to desegregate the state’s system of public education. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, school desegregation proponents won a series of victories in suits against Jim Crow schools that, in part, provided the evidentiary basis for the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This campaign continued through the 1970s, as the problem of school segregation emerged most pronouncedly as a function of racially segregated housing patterns. After exposing a record of state-sponsored discrimination in education and housing policy, they secured a ruling demanding the nation’s first interdistrict, metropolitan desegregation plan.

More broadly, Between North and South explores how historical actors understood the significance of geographic sectionalism and the ways in which they practiced their politics either contributed or undermined sectional frameworks. The NAACP’s strategy targeting school segregation in Delaware, as deployed in the organization’s direct attack strategy and affirmed by the Supreme Court in Brown, helped to craft and popularize a very particular meaning of de jure school segregation—defined as Jim Crow decrees that were inscribed in the states’ highest laws—as a distinctly southern phenomenon in a manner that advanced racial reforms. In the 1970s however, school desegregation proponents challenged the sectionally inflected definitions of constitutionally suspect forms of segregation that had animated previous litigation campaigns. The sum total of the work of activists in Delaware reveals the dynamism inherent of black challenges to the varied structures of segregation. This work also demonstrated the extent to which activists artfully manipulated—alternately embracing and rejecting—the discursive frameworks that so inform historians’ characterizations of American political culture and race relations across time and space.

Education

  • BS, James Madison University, 1991
  • MA, University of Massachusetts, 1996
  • MA, Northwestern University, 1998
  • PhD, Northwestern University, 2006

Courses Taught

  • AAS 345: The Black Freedom Struggle
  • AAS 381: Race and the American Presidency
  • AAS 382: Race and American Political Development
  • AAS 485: The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Case Project at Emory University
  • AAS 490: AAS Senior Seminar

Research and Teaching Interests

  • Twentieth century African American history
  • African American freedom struggles and politics
  • Post-World War II America
  • Race and American political development
  • Law and education