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Goluboff

Prof. Goluboff: “We’ve lost the ability to address the labor and economic claims that the Department of Justice was trying to address in the 1940s.”

Posted April 21, 2004
Goluboff Wins Law and Society Award for Scholarship on Civil Rights in the 1940s

When looking at the history of civil rights, scholars tend to zero in on one significant moment—Brown v. Board of Education (1954)—but the 1940s offer a rich foundation as well, as law professor Risa Goluboff discovered while writing her doctoral dissertation in history, “The Work of Civil Rights in the 1940s: The Department of Justice, the NAACP, and African-American Agricultural Labor.” Goluboff’s scholarship was recently awarded the Law and Society Association’s annual Dissertation Prize.

Prior to Brown, civil rights leaders “didn’t know what civil rights was going to look like,” Goluboff explained. By focusing on the 1940s, Goluboff examines what lawyers and claimants thought civil rights should do to redress injustice, before Brown declared segregated schools unconstitutional and became the basis for future civil rights claims.

She studied African-American workers in particular, since “they don’t show up much in most of our histories of civil rights.” Goluboff wanted to uncover why labor—central to rights in the 1930s and 1940s—came to play so little a role in Brown and civil rights today.

Goluboff specifically highlights the differing strategies used by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Section and the NAACP. Formed in 1939, the Civil Rights Section took complaints from agricultural workers concerning involuntary servitude and peonage seriously. “They pushed [claims] quite far,” Goluboff said. “In doing so, their civil rights cases combined labor issues and race issues together.

“On the other hand, the NAACP increasingly pursued cases that didn’t come from laborers and raised questions only on race, and not on labor or economic inequality. In the end the NAACP cases were the ones that became the basis for the current civil rights doctrine.”

The NAACP’s alternate perspective may have emerged in part from the particular perspective of their lawyers, who inhabited a distinctive middle-class black world, and the civil rights they pursued spoke to that world.

Goluboff said the current civil rights doctrine’s focus on colorblindness and racial classification is an unintended consequence of the successful NAACP cases. “We’ve lost the ability to address the labor and economic claims that the Department of Justice was trying to address in the 1940s,” she said. “We don’t have constitutional ways of talking about that problem.”

A New York native, Goluboff has been interested in questions of social justice since high school. “My family always emphasized such issues,” she said. Her interest in law and race grew while taking courses on the 1920s and 1930s at Harvard. She took a semester off from college to work on her undergraduate thesis on the Sea Islands in South Carolina, an isolated black community where residents are descended from slaves and speak Gullah, a Creole blend of Elizabethan English and African languages. While African Americans from the mainland thought the Sea Island residents were backwards, they in fact developed a strong sense of political independence. Their voter-registration drive in 1948 became the basis for the southwide voter registration program of the 1960s. Goluboff’s thesis on the subject was published in shortened form in the Journal of Southern Legal History.

During her summers at Yale Law School, Goluboff worked for a migrant farm worker advocacy group in southern Florida; at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, focusing on prisoners’ rights litigation and capital punishment appeals; and at the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, on civil rights litigation, a split summer she shared with law firm Jenner & Block. After law school Goluboff clerked for the Hon. Guido Calabresi of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and for Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Prior to law school, she taught at the University of Cape Town as a Fulbright Scholar in South Africa.

Goluboff has also written on the changing tone of letters written to President and Eleanor Roosevelt in a Law and Social Inquiry article. The letters, in the National Archive, were from farm workers claiming they were in peonage. Through the 1930s, the letter writers complained of their helplessness and looked to the President as a paternal figure. By the 1940s a sense of entitlement had developed, as service in World War II gave African Americans a sense of citizenship and belief in their rights.

Goluboff’s research into these letters led her to her dissertation topic. One sugar company in Florida had lured African-American teenagers under false pretenses and essentially enslaved them. The teenagers’ mothers had complained to the FBI, which after more research led Goluboff to the broader topic of the Civil Rights Section’s role.

“It’s still the case that people of color are more likely to be poor,” she said—and there’s no system to address the problems that they face.

Goluboff is currently considering presses to publish her dissertation as a book, and she thinks she may revise the title to The Lost Origins of Modern Civil Rights.
• Reported by M. Wood

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