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Randall Kennedy on Racial Discrimination Against Blacks in Law Enforcement

The Harvard Law School professor's new book examines race and the criminal justice system, "Race, Crime, and the Law." In his research, Kennedy, finds that African-Americans have suffered more from being "left unprotected by law enforcement authorities than from being mistreated as suspects or defendants."


Other segments from the episode on May 15, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 15, 1997: Interview with Randall Kennedy; Interview with James McPherson; Review of Yo La Tengo's album "I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One."


Date: MAY 15, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051501np.217
Head: Race, Crime, and the Law
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Randall Kennedy's writings on African-American issues often become the subject of debate because his conclusions don't fit into predictable liberal or conservative patterns.

In his cover story for the May edition of The Atlantic, he wrote about why he rejects the ideas of racial pride and racial kinship.

Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School. His new book is called "Race, Crime, and the Law." In it, he explains the history that has caused many African-Americans to view the American criminal justice system with suspicion, or even antagonism. But, he also focuses on how America's legal institutions have been improved by the struggle against racial injustice.

One theme of his book is that although many African-Americans focus on how they've been mistreated by law enforcement authorities, the larger problem is under-enforcement of the law in African-American communities, which leaves people more vulnerable to crime.

RANDALL KENNEDY, PROFESSOR OF LAW, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL, AND AUTHOR, "RACE, CRIME, AND THE LAW": By under-enforcement, I mean the fact that for a long time, and still today in some instances, black Americans have not received the equal protection -- and I underline the word "protection" -- of the law.

Classic instances in our history would be, for instance, during slavery. For a long time, it was the case that the murder, the killing of a slave was not viewed as a crime. The killing of a slave would be the -- would give rise to a fine, it would be a tort, but for a long time it was not viewed as a criminal violation.

Rape. Slave women could not be raped. That was not a crime.

After the abolition of slavery, I think the clearest example of what I'm talking about was lynching. Between 1890 and the mid-1930s, thousands of blacks, largely in the South, were lynched, and nothing was done about it by the states. And, again, blacks were the victims of criminality, and they were not protected by the state.

Just a few years ago, there was a case that came up in the state of Georgia, a capital punishment case by the name of McClesky (ph) vs. Kemp (ph).

And one of the things that came to light in McClesky vs. Kemp was that in the state of Georgia, people who killed white people were four times more likely to be sentenced to death than people who killed black people, which suggests in the eyes of some -- and I'm one -- that this is a reflection that black life is cheaper than white life, not valued as highly.

GROSS: What do you think is the best evidence today that African-Americans are still under-protected by the law?

KENNEDY: Well, the statistic that I just gave with respect to the administration of capital punishment. But, even more, just day by day, what gets attention in the news media. This is an issue that's come up.

A white person'll be killed or raped or assaulted, and it's front page news. There's a lot of controversy about it. It's a big deal. There's a mobilization, a political mobilization around that sort of victimization.

Whereas black people will be the victims of criminality and that's viewed often as just a part of the state of nature, that's just what happens. Not as big a deal is made of it.

So, in that way, day by day, I think that you can still see this problem of under-protection.

GROSS: A very common frustration among African-Americans is that it's really hard to get a cab. A cabbie sees an African-American, even an obviously middle-class professional African-American, and I guess makes the assumption that this person might be going to a high-crime neighborhood, and so the cabbie just keeps going and passes them by.

What's your reading of the predicament of the African-American looking for the cab, and the predicament of the cabbie?

KENNEDY: Well, the sort of racial discrimination that you just mentioned is very widespread. The example of the cab driver is probably the -- it's the 1990s version of the back of the bus. And many black people feel intensely insulted by that sort of treatment.

Now, I think here, as in many areas, it's a complicated story. Sometimes the cab driver is engaging in just out and out bigotry, he's trying to express maybe contempt in passing up, let's say, the African-American man.

Sometimes, however, it's not just pure bigotry. Sometimes it is strategic thinking, what the cab driver -- and by the way, I've talked with a good many people of color who are cab drivers who engage in racial discrimination of this sort against other people of color.

Part of it is strategic thinking. The cab driver will say, perhaps, I read the newspaper, I look at news shows, I talk with other cab drivers, it's the statistics, and lots of other indications suggest that black men are more likely to engage in criminal, violent criminal conduct than whites, so why should I pick up this black man when it makes me marginally more vulnerable?

Now, my response to that cab driver goes something like this.

First, the cab driver is engaging in racial discrimination. Even if it is strategic self-protective conduct, it's still racial discrimination.

Second, in many places the law prohibits that, and for good reason.

And, third, therefore I -- although I have some degree of sympathy for the cab driver, I understand the cab driver's feeling of vulnerability, but ultimately our law should not allow people to engage in racial discrimination of that sort.

GROSS: You've given a really complicated analysis of the dilemma of the African-American who keeps getting passed up by the cabs, and you've been understanding of some of the reasons that a cabbie might be motivated to pass up the African-American passenger.

Now, how do you feel when you are trying to hail a cab and you're not getting one? Does this very intellectual analysis go through your head or does something much more visceral occur to you?

KENNEDY: Well, both. I understand the feeling of insult.

One of the difficulties with racial discrimination, of course, is that somebody discriminates or engages in discriminatory conduct, and all you see is the conduct. You don't see the various calculations.

You don't know if the person is passing you by essentially to try to give you the finger and to put you down because of the color of your skin. You don't know whether that's going on. You don't know whether there is this sort of strategic discrimination that I described. Or you don't know if it's a combination of the two.

And so, oftentimes people will, people of color will feel insulted, and I understand that. And that is itself a terrible, terrible burden. It's a burden and it's a cost that we all feel.

I mean, the fact of the matter is we all, all members of society suffer when there are sectors of American society that feel tremendous amounts of resentment and skepticism and distrust.

The most famous trial in probably all of American criminal law history is the O.J. Simpson case. The O.J. Simpson case gave us a taste of the tremendous feeling of distrust that many African-Americans feel towards the criminal justice system. And that distrust has ramifications, it has consequences that we will all have to feel.

And so, everybody has a very practical stake in changing society in such a way as to drain the tremendous feeling of distrust that many African-Americans feel.

GROSS: What are the consequences that society as a whole pays for this distrust of the criminal justice?

KENNEDY: Well, when you, for instance, have jurors who are so distrustful of police officers that they don't believe them. When you have jurors that come into a trial maybe being overly cynical towards the guardians of law and order.

When that happens we are all in jeopardy, because after all one of the purposes of the state is to protect people against criminal malefactors. And if there are people, if there are potential jurors who, because of their distrust of the state, maybe let people loose who ought to be in prison, then that puts all of us in jeopardy.

That's one of the ways in which this problem of distrust is something that we should all be concerned about.

GROSS: Randall Kennedy is my guest. He's a professor of law at Harvard Law School and author of the new book "Race, Crime, and the Law."

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Back with Randall Kennedy, professor at Harvard Law School and author of the new book "Race, Crime, and the Law."

You wrote the cover story in the May edition of The Atlantic magazine. And in that you wrote that you're not motivated by racial pride or racial kinship.

Why do you reject that?

KENNEDY: Well, with respect to racial pride, I reject racial pride because your race is accidental. I mean, I didn't choose my parents. I love my parents, by the way, they're great people, but I didn't choose them. And nobody chooses their parents.

You inherit a skin color. And therefore I don't see why anybody should take pride in it. People should take pride in what they, themselves, accomplish.

And so -- for the same reason that people should never be ashamed of their skin color, you know. Why should anybody be ashamed of their skin color, it's nothing -- they didn't put their skin color on themselves.

For the same reason that you shouldn't -- nobody should be ashamed of their skin color, for the same reason no one should be proud of their skin color. It's totally accidental.

GROSS: But, don't you think that a lot of the emphasis on racial pride is an antidote to the racial self-loathing that so many people were brought up with?

KENNEDY: I do think it often has been an antidote, it has been to some degree reactive amongst people of color. It has been a sort of protective armament that is a reaction to the anti-black sentiment that is so pervasive -- that has been so pervasive in American society. So, I understand it.

And it has certainly been helpful to many people. And there is a logic to it, I understand that.

But, it also is limiting. And ultimately I think it's bad for our society. Historically, I understand the reason for it, but I want people to transcend it.

And by the way, it's not that I'm speaking solely to black people and urging black people to get rid of their racial pride. I'm saying it to all people.

In particular I'm saying it to white people. After all, it's feeling of white racial pride and white racial kinship and white racial mobilization that has been the central problem in terms of race relations in American life. So, my argument goes to all, all members of American society, whatever their hue.

GROSS: Yeah, but I think some commonly held wisdom is that it's bad for the racial majority to be proud of their race 'cause that's chauvinism or racism, but it's good for a racial minority to be proud of their race because they're often persecuted and the victim of racism and therefore that pride is really an important thing and that feeling of a special connection to other people of the same race or ethnic group is an important thing to feel.

KENNEDY: Well, again, it can serve the antidote function that you're talking about.

But, you know, there are a lot of folks who have been subject to tremendous amounts of racial oppression who believe like me -- who sort of took -- who have taken my line. I mean, I'm not the first person who voiced this.

One of the people who I admire most was Frederick Douglass. I mean, Frederick Douglass, who was a slave, who bore the stigmata of racial oppression on his back, said once that he eschewed racial pride. He said, "Why should I be proud about the curliness of my hair or the tan of my skin? With respect to the tan of my skin, let the sun be proud of what it has done."

I don't think it's necessary for people to resort to racial kinship. I think that we can do what we will -- what we want to do. And my article in The Atlantic Monthly was a plea that we should forsake some of the comfortable inherited notions that people are so familiar with.

I mean, we live -- we've inherited a "pigmentocracy," that's what the United States has been for many centuries. And to undo that pigmentocracy, we're gonna have to develop some unfamiliar new ways of thinking about things.

And one unfamiliar new way of thinking is to just get rid of race as a signal and instead try to appreciate people on their individual merits and look -- and try and appreciate the individual humanity of each and every person.

GROSS: Easier said than done, huh?

KENNEDY: Indeed, it is. Of course it's very difficult in our society.

GROSS: One can see the legal system as the glass as half empty or half full when it comes to its treatment of African-Americans. You can focus on the legal system and see all the discrimination against African-Americans or you could focus on the legal system and see how it has improved over the years, how certain discriminatory practices have been ended, how certain civil rights bills have passed and improved the treatment of African-Americans.

You tend to focus on the half-full approach, on the improvements over the years.


I recognize that we still have many, many problems. Racial discrimination is still a very large and baleful presence in the administration of criminal justice.

At the same time, when trying to figure out what's going on, it seems to me one always has to ask, well, compared to what?

It's true that we have a lot of problems, but if one considers the situation today in comparison to the situation in 1940 or 1950 or 1960 or 1970, the fact of the matter is that things are considerably better today. And I think that that is something that is important to recognize.

It's terrible when people whitewash the terrible history of racial oppression in the United States, and it's a bad thing when people minimize the continuing presence of racial oppression in the United States.

But it's also a bad thing when people exaggerate our difficulties and sort of inculcate a sense of helplessness, inculcate a sense of just pure negative feeling.

The fact of the matter is that through intelligent, concerted effort we have been able to change things for the better and we will be able to change things for the better even more if we vigorously put our minds to it.

GROSS: You clerked with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

KENNEDY: That's right.

GROSS: And I'm wondering what you picked up from his attitude toward the ability of the criminal justice system to change and to become less racist.

KENNEDY: Well, I think that Justice Marshall had a large influence on me. He was one of my heroes as I grew up, and it was a great privilege to be able to work for Justice Marshall.

And Justice Marshall -- I once asked Justice Marshall did he feel discouraged, especially since he was a dissenter on the court and towards the end of his career a rather marginal figure on the court.

And he told me, no, he didn't feel discouraged. He reminded me that for much of his life as a lawyer "separate but equal" was the ascendant norm. I mean here was a person who, maybe more than anyone else, typifies the degree to which we live in a society that is susceptible to change.

And in Marshall's career as a justice -- I clerked for Justice Marshall in 1982, and I saw the way in which Justice Marshall, as a justice, was able to nudge the society forward.

Justice Marshall, more than anyone else on the Supreme Court, was responsible for the Supreme Court changing the law with respect to peremptory challenges. It was Justice Marshall's constant dissents which made the Supreme Court review its earlier precedent which had allowed lawyers to take race into account in using peremptory challenges. Justice Marshall pushed the court to review its earlier decisions and to change its mind.

So, I think that sort of the philosophy that I'm articulating, that is to say recognizing the problems but recognizing as well the capacity of our nation to change for the better, I think that's fully in accord with Justice Marshall's philosophy.

GROSS: Randall Kennedy is the author of the new book "Race, Crime, and the Law." He'll be back with us in the second part of our show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy, author of the new book "Race, Crime, and the Law."

In your acknowledgements, you thank a Judge Kennedy. Was that your father?

KENNEDY: No, that's my brother.


KENNEDY: Judge Henry Kennedy, Jr. is my brother, and he's the person who introduced me to the law and to many other things that I value.

GROSS: Was your father -- did your father work in the criminal justice system, too?

KENNEDY: No, not at all. My father worked in the post office. My mom was a school teacher.

The criminal justice system does figure in a sort of a personal way. I'm from Columbia, South Carolina. I would have grown up in Columbia, South Carolina were it not for the fact that my father moved us because of the specter of racially motivated violence. We were essentially refugees from the Jim Crow South.

My parents moved when I was about four years old. But, the circumstances of the move are part of the lore of my family.

My father was working for the post office and was in a little town in South Carolina. He was carrying a gun. At that time, people who transported the mail on trucks would carry guns.

And a sheriff in a little town pulled him over and said, "We don't allow Negroes to carry guns around here. I'm gonna put you in jail."

And the sheriff tried to board my father's truck, and my father pulled his gun, wouldn't allow him, said, "You'll have to call up my bosses in the post office department."

And my father roared off and didn't stop until he got way north, and then he sent for us.

GROSS: So, oh, wow. He never went back after that.

KENNEDY: No. He was afraid.

We went back to visit with my older relatives, and those trips made a very strong impact on me. And in my book, I spend a lot of time talking about the specter of racially motivated violence, the importance that it's had in our history, in our legal institutions, and in the consciousness of Black America.

GROSS: It's interesting to me, though, that you should choose to enter law after it was a law enforcement officer who basically drove your father out of town. And also that you should be optimistic about the ability of the legal system to improve and to reverse discrimination.

KENNEDY: Well, you know, I've been with my father on many occasions when my father has said something like the following: "I never thought that I would live to see the day" -- and then he's put it in.

I mean when Wilder became the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I mean the Commonwealth of Virginia, African-American becomes governor, I was with my father. My father, "I never thought I'd live to see the day."

Colin Powell becomes elevated to the upper echelons of American power through conservative politicians. Ronald Reagan. George Bush. Now, I don't want to make too much of that, but it seems to me that that is an important thing that has happened.

I mean, American life, the America that I'm growing up in is very different than the America that my father grew up in. And it seems to me that that's important to keep in mind.

It's important to keep in mind that we still have massive problems, still have massive inequities, and not enough is being done about those inequities. All of that is true. It is also true that the United States of America is a really rather remarkable society.

Now, I say that, again, as a refugee from, you know, racially motivated violence in the South. But, that's simply true. And I think that both of these ideas we have to keep in our minds at the same time.

And the reason why I feel that so strongly is that particularly at this moment there is a sort of apocalyptic imagination that's growing in popularity, this notion that there has been no change over the last 30 to 40 years. That's just very wrongheaded.

GROSS: After your father's victimization by a law enforcement officer, how did he react to having two sons going into law, one becoming a judge and you becoming a professor?

KENNEDY: Oh, I think he's been very happy. If we're happy, he's happy.

GROSS: Did he say about that, I never thought I'd see the day my son would be a judge?

KENNEDY: Actually he -- no, I don't -- that's not, that hasn't been one of the occasions on which he has made the statement. He does emphasize to us, he's emphasized to us on a number of occasions how different our lives have been than his.

Let me give you another example, an interesting anecdote.

My father -- on the last day that I clerked for Thurgood Marshall, I had my -- I invited my father in to meet the justice. And my father, who was then in his late sixties, shook Thurgood Marshall's hand and told him how much of an inspiration he had been.

And he told Thurgood Marshall about the one time that he actually saw Marshall argue a case. It was in Columbia, South Carolina. It was in one of the so-called "white primary" cases.

And my father was so concerned about being viewed as a troublemaker in that community that pretended that he was at the courthouse to watch Thurgood Marshall, he pretended that he was a janitor in order to, in a sense, make it seem as though he belonged in the courthouse. And he told Thurgood Marshall about this story and talked about just how inspirational Marshall had been.

GROSS: What was your reaction when you found out that your father felt that he had to pose as a janitor in order to watch Thurgood Marshall?

KENNEDY: Well, frankly, it came as news to me on that occasion. But, I wasn't that surprised. I mean, when I was a kid, when we would go to visit South Carolina, harrowing things -- now that I look back I see them as being harrowing things, but at the time they were things that just occurred.

I mean my father was stopped on many occasions, white police officer would pull over the car and say to my father, "Boy, I see you got those Washington, D.C. plates on. What you doin' down here?"

Police officers thought nothing of referring to my father, a grown man, as boy. Nor did they think anything of pulling him over and just asking him a whole series of questions.

And my father, with his two boys in the back and with my mom, of course had to act in a very deferential way towards the police officer. This was the way things -- this was just the way it was.

And, again, there's still a lot of things that need to be changed, but a trip from Washington, D.C. to Columbia, South Carolina is very different now than it was when I was a younger kid.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

GROSS: Randall Kennedy's new book is called "Race, Crime, and the Law." He's a professor at Harvard Law School.

Coming up, why men fought in the Civil War when they knew how high the casualty rate was. This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Randall Kennedy
High: Havard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy. His new book examines race and the criminal justice system, "Race, Crime, and the Law." In his research, Kennedy finds that African-Americans have suffered more from being "left unprotected by law enforcement authorities than from being mistreated as suspects or defendants."
Spec: Crime; Race Relations; Law Enforcement; Courts; Society; Minorities; Discrimination; Thurgood Marshall; Supreme Court; ViolenceCopy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Race, Crime, and the Law
Date: MAY 15, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051502NP.217
Head: James McPherson
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The Civil War killed almost as many soldiers as the combined total of all the other wars this country has fought. The odds of dying in battle were pretty high, and the soldiers knew it. So what enabled them to fight and overcome the instinct of self-preservation?

James McPherson tries to answer that question in his new book "For Cause and Comrades." He's the author of 11 books on the Civil War, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Battle Cry of Freedom."

McPherson's new book about why men fought in the Civil War is based on letters written by soldiers. He learned that many men didn't fight. They hid out during battles. But he also learned that many of the men who did fight were deeply motivated by their cause and their sense of honor.

I asked McPherson to read one of the letters in his book.

This is the last letter I quote in the book, so it's the concluding letter. And this comes from a carpenter from Ohio who had risen from the ranks to become a captain by 1864 in the 47th Ohio. He had a lot of combat experience, and on the third anniversary of his initial enlistment, and he had reenlisted, fought through the rest of the war, he wrote to his young son -- his 10-year-old son -- congratulating him on a neatly written letter that he had gotten from his son. And here's what he said to his son:

"He tells me that while I'm absent from home, fighting the battles of our country, trying to restore law and order to our once peaceful and prosperous nation, and endeavoring to secure for each and every American citizen of every race the rights guaranteed to us in the Declaration of Independence, I have children growing up that will be worthy of the rights that, I trust, will be left for them."

GROSS: One of the questions you had while writing this book is: why did men volunteer to go into battle when the battles in the Civil War were just insane -- it was just a rain of bullets? I mean, you were just so likely to get killed, and the mortality rate was, what, higher in the Civil War than all the other wars combined that America fought in?

MCPHERSON: Well, nearly as many.

GROSS: For American casualties, anyway.

MCPHERSON: Well, nearly as many...

GROSS: Yeah.

MCPHERSON: ... soldiers died in the Civil Wars as American soldiers who have died in all of the rest of the wars this country has fought combined.

GROSS: So, when men were signing up, were they talking mostly about duty and honor, or about ending slavery or preserving slavery or reuniting the country or separating from the country -- the more specific goals of the war?

MCPHERSON: Most soldiers on either side, at first, made very little reference to the slavery question. Most of them focused on the issue of patriotism, of fighting for what they defined as their country. In the case of Confederate soldiers, they were fighting for a nation that had been newly created by the establishment of the Confederate States of America.

Yet, I think when it was established, it came in with as much reservoir of patriotic feeling on the part of the Southern people as a more long-established country like the United States. So, they were fighting for the independence of the Confederate nation, so they said they were fighting for their country.

Northerners said they were fighting to preserve their country from the ruin that secession would accomplish. That is, the United States would no longer be the United States. It would be the Disunited States. There would no longer be one nation indivisible. If secession were to be successfully established, it would constitute a fatal precedent because other states or regions would call upon that precedent to secede in the future.

GROSS: Not all the men who fought in the Civil War actually showed up for the battles that they were supposed to. You write about how some of the men would skulk, in the language of the day.


GROSS: What would they do to avoid being in the battle?

MCPHERSON: Well, there were a variety of things that men would do to avoid going into the battle. One of the most common was to pretend to be sick; to go to the regimental surgeon and to make some kind of a complaint.

Or, as they were approaching the battlefield, to fall out of line and pretend to have a cramp in the stomach or to be deathly sick. And in fact, that happened so often that it became a -- that when men were genuinely sick, they sometimes -- if they did not want to suffer shame and dishonor in the eyes of their fellows -- they would actually go into a battle when they were genuinely sick.

Another way of getting out of it was to seek some kind of a rear-area job; to become a quartermaster sergeant; to become a teamster; to try to get a job as a headquarters clerk -- any number of rear-area jobs which in the Civil War were called "bomb-proof" jobs.

GROSS: What about discipline? I mean, it's hard to imagine that, like, half -- half the men weren't really doing -- doing their best to actually fight the battle?

MCPHERSON: Well, part of the problem in Civil War regiments was that discipline was quite lax.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MCPHERSON: These were mostly volunteer regiments. They were citizen soldiers who had gone into the army early in the war for whatever reasons. Some of it may have been peer pressure. Some of it may have been sort of a naive, youthful quest for glory and adventure. Or it may have been a serious commitment and belief in the cause for which they were fighting.

The officers, too, were for the most part non-professionals. They were lawyers, businessmen, farmers -- men from civilian life. They didn't have much military experience or, indeed, in many cases, any military experience at all before.

This was the most individualistic and democratic society in the world in the 19th century. The sense of discipline, obedience, subordination to superiors -- it just didn't exist in American society.

And so, it was very difficult to create in the American armies, Union or Confederate, of the Civil War the kind of discipline -- the savage discipline -- that existed in the British Regulars, for example, or in the Prussian army of Frederick the Great or in the French or German armies of the 19th century.

And so, the men who did the real fighting were those who had an internal motivation to do so, for the most part, rather than an external coercion to do so.

Good outfits, good units, good regiments learned from bitter experience on the battlefield that discipline was necessary, or they were going to get cut to pieces. They were not going to be good soldiers. So as the war went on, there was a kind of do it yourself learning process that made the soldiers -- the good soldiers, after the poor ones were in one way or another weeded out -- more -- much more amenable to discipline because they knew the importance of discipline on the battlefield; of quick obedience to an order; of not -- you know, that you can't stand around and have a debating society about whether you're going to do something or not when you're on the battlefield.

GROSS: I think one of the motivating questions behind your book is: why did men volunteer to fight in the Civil War, knowing what the odds were? Knowing that odds were pretty good they wouldn't live. And there's, I think, a story in your family tree that inspires the same question. You had a great-great-grandfather, I believe, who emigrated from England in 1857 and just five years later, at age 37, enlisted in the Civil War. He had eight children.

Do you have any clue why he enlisted -- especially being so new to the country?

MCPHERSON: Well, regrettably, I don't have any letters or diaries from him. I wish I did, and I've searched for them, but I don't think they exist. The only clue I have to that -- or I actually have two clues.

One clue is the family obituary, which said that he was grateful to his adopted country, the United States, for the opportunity and the prosperity that it had provided him and he felt a sense of duty, of reciprocal obligation to fight for that country which had provided opportunity for him and for his family.

Another clue is that he named his first child, born after he had settled in the United States, Henry Ward Beecher -- his last name was Beecher. His name was Jesse Beecher, and Henry Ward Beecher was the most famous clergyman and orator and a very prominent anti-slavery leader. And clearly, my great-great-grandfather felt that, in part at least, this was a war to end the curse, the sin of slavery.

GROSS: And you had another ancestor who was a white officer in an African-American regiment in the Civil War. What do you know about that ancestor?

MCPHERSON: Well, I know more about him because there are some diaries. He was a 19-year-old printer in upstate New York when the war broke out, and he enlisted first in the New York regiment, I think because of the motives of everybody else who was enlisting: the country was in danger; the rest of the men that he knew were going. So, he enlisted.

When the Union Army began to recruit black troops in 1863, they were searching for experienced and competent white officers to lead them, because the assumption was that the officers would have to be white.

And my great-grandfather, Luther Osborne (ph), took the exam to become an officer in what was then called a "colored" regiment -- the U.S. colored Troops. And he passed the exam and became a lieutenant, eventually a captain in the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops. And I think he did so because he believed that this war was to end slavery, and to give the United States what Lincoln called at Gettysburg, a "new birth of freedom."

And one of the best ways to ensure that the war resulted in the abolition of slavery was to get black troops fighting for their own freedom, proving their manhood. That was a very common theme in black regiments.

They needed to fight in order to prove their manhood, and if they proved their manhood, they would prove that they and their entire race deserved freedom. They had earned freedom.

And I think my great-grandfather believed in that, and that's why he volunteered to become an officer in a black regiment.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you found evidence, too, of how white Confederate troops treated black soldiers during the Civil War.

MCPHERSON: Well, yes, I have found that, and that's one of the great tragedies and I think, in some ways, disgraces of the Civil War. The Confederate Government refused to recognize black regiments that contained former slaves as -- whom they continued to regard as their slaves, as legally slaves -- as legitimate soldiers.

And when they captured them, they sometimes executed them; sometimes massacred them on the spot; refused to take black prisoners, and sometimes treated their white officers in the same way.

More often would refuse to exchange black POW's. There was an exchange cartel in place, and would return these men to slavery. And one of the reasons for the breakdown in the exchange cartel in the latter half of the war from 18 -- late 1863 onward -- was this Confederate refusal to exchange black POWs. And that led to the tragedy of overcrowded prisons in 1864 and '65, and the large number of deaths in places like Andersonville, Elmira, New York and so on.

GROSS: Why have you devoted your career to the Civil War?

MCPHERSON: Well, it was the single most shaping and important and defining experience in American history. The Revolution, of course, gave birth to the United States, but it was the Civil War that ensured the United States would survive as one nation and defined what kind of a nation it would be, and ended the institution slavery which had proved so divisive, so polarizing, so threatening to the existence of the United States, as well as being a violation of the principles of freedom on which the country was founded, that I think the Civil War must be understood if we are to understand what kind of a country we are today.

GROSS: James McPherson, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

MCPHERSON: Thank you.

GROSS: James McPherson's new book is called "For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought In The Civil War." He's a professor of American History at Princeton.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: James McPherson
High: Historian James McPherson is a Professor of American History at Princeton University. He's written eleven books about the Civil War, including his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "Battle Cry of Freedom." His latest book is "For Cause and; Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War." (Oxford University Press). Drawing on 25,000 letters and 250 private diaries, McPherson looks at why so many soldiers willingly risked their lives to fight in the war.
Spec: History; Military; Civil War; Politics; Government; People; Soldiers
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: James McPherson
Date: MAY 15, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051503NP.217
Head: Yo La Tengo CD
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Ten years ago, a rock critic named Ira Caplan (ph) decided he wanted to make music as well as write about it, so he formed a band, Yo La Tengo, with his partner in life Georgia Huebly (ph). Yo La Tengo has a new CD called "I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One."

Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has a review.


IRA CAPLAN, SINGER, YO LA TENGO: I heard the knock on the door
I couldn't catch my breath
Is it too late to call this off?
We could slip away, would that be better?
Me with nothing to say, and you in your autumn sweater

KEN TUCKER, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: You can tell Ira Caplan is a pop culture critic from his reference points. He steals a Pauline Kael (ph) title to one song, "Deeper Into Movies;" the name of a comic book for another, "Green Arrow;" and a grand funk railroad title for still another, "We're An American Band."

Caplan's group has been regularly compared in its energetic drone and flatly vehement lyrics to the ultimate rock critic's favorite, the "Velvet Underground," even though Caplan reportedly hates the comparison.

But unlike a lot of critics' attempts at creating the sort of work they write about, there's little of the self-consciousness that often cramps a critical style. In other words, Yo La Tengo can rock out.


CAPLAN: Try be more assured; try to be more right there
Try to be less uptight; try to be more aware
Whatever you want for me is what I want to do for you
Sweeter than a drop of blood on a sugar cube

TUCKER: On that song, called "Sugar Cube," Caplan sings a zippy version of self-help rationalization, asserting that he's trying to be less uptight; trying to be more aware. "Whatever you want from me, I'll try," he says with a generousness of spirit that's rare in rock and roll. It may also help that the woman to whom he is probably addressing these sentiments is sitting nearby playing drums.

"I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One" may at first seem dominated by Caplan's thin, murmuring voice and jangly guitar, but Georgia Huebly's drumming and the bass playing of James McNew (ph) add layers of both rhythm and emotion to this music that adds unexpected depth.

And Georgia's own occasional vocal performances have an eerie calmness that I find mesmerizing. They're like articulated dreams.

That's all you've got to say.
Coldly, hurt me and turn around
You say how (unintelligible)
(unintelligible), I head for the shadows.

Hold me ...

TUCKER: This CD is all over the place, stylistically. It takes a quick excursion into country music on "One PM Again"; does a little bossa nova on the "Center of Gravity"; includes a cover of the Beach Boys song "Little Honda"; and does a thrashing instrumental rave-up on "Speck Be-bop." (ph)

For all of that, Yo La Tengo's material remains unified by the band's quiet confidence. Not only in their music making, but in their pervasive feeling that their simply-stated musings about life and love tap into thoughts shared by everyone who hears them.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly.

Dateline: Ken Tucker; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One" the new recording by the band Yo La Tengo.
Spec: Music Industry; Yo La Tengo
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Yo La Tengo CD
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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