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Posted July 24, 2008Faculty Workshops: In their own words / Kenneth S. Abraham

People out of Place: Vagrancy, the Supreme Court and the Sixties

In this workshop, I present an early draft of a book proposal and a sample chapter of the book. One of the most deeply rooted and long-standing myths about the United States is the ability of the individual to choose his or her own destiny, to move from one place to another in search of the American dream, religious freedom, a new identity, a fast buck or anything else that might tickle his or her fancy. But from the first moments colonists arrived on these shores, they brought with them a variety of legal means of keeping people in place. In particular, for hundreds of years, government officials used vague vagrancy laws to control the geographic, social and economic mobility of poor people, minorities and a variety of nonconformists. Beginning in the 1950s, however, individuals, grassroots movements and their lawyers challenged these laws. In the early 1970s, the Supreme Court found them unconstitutional.

People out of Place provides a legal history of the “long 1960s” through the lens of vagrancy laws and their demise. It explains how vagrancy laws came to be seen as constitutionally offensive to changing ideas of personhood, and how the Supreme Court ensured some continuing measure of police discretion once they denied police the use of vagrancy laws. It does so by narrating an integrated legal history of the major social movements of the era. I show how labor union members, poor people, hippies, homosexuals, Vietnam war protestors, young urban minority men, and other dissidents all claimed the right to choose their own place in American society without police suppression.

The workshop will be July 29 at noon in the Faculty Lounge.