Goluboff Receives Burkhardt Fellowship, Draws Attention to Unexplored History of Vagrancy Law


The American Council for Learned Societies named Professor Risa Goluboff a Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellow and the Organization for American Historians named her a distinguished lecturer.

May 15, 2012

University of Virginia law and history professor Risa Goluboff's innovative work in legal history recently was recognized through two honors. On Thursday, the American Council for Learned Societies named Goluboff a Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellow, a $75,000 award that supports recently tenured scholars in the humanities and social sciences. The next day, the Organization of American Historians announced that she would be one of their distinguished lecturers.

The Burkhardt fellowship funds an academic-year residency while the recipient works toward a major scholarly work. Goluboff's fellowship at the Library of Congress will support her as she writes her forthcoming book, "People Out of Place: The Sixties, the Supreme Court, and Vagrancy Law."

"Vagrancy law provides a way of organizing a history of the social revolutions of the 1960s," Goluboff said. "There is no legal history of the 1960s, in part because "the Sixties" is a big and diffuse thing. Thinking about the variety of ways in which vagrancy laws were used to keep people in their places — and the multiple attacks on the whole idea of everyone having a hierarchical place in American society — helps provide an organizing principle for a legal history of the Sixties."

Goluboff said the issues raised by vagrancy laws in the 1960s still resonate.

"The questions that lawyers, judges, police officers, legislators, scholars and the victims of vagrancy laws were asking in the 1960s are deeply implicated in a plethora of debates today, including everything from order-maintenance policing to Occupy Wall Street to homeless policy."

Goluboff is working on a chapter in the book describing the long history of using vagrancy law to oppress African Americans during slavery and Jim Crow, as well as to stifle civil rights protests during the 1960s.

"All across the South, police officers arrested African Americans — especially civil rights leaders — as well as white allies (often from the North) for vagrancy, loitering and other laws," she said. "Civil rights activists began to challenge police practices themselves, and lawyers in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups brought vagrancy law challenges to the Supreme Court."

Goluboff will also address how vagrancy laws were used to harass hippies, Beats, gays, lesbians and other "nonconforming" youth, and in return how these targets challenged vagrancy laws with help from groups like the ACLU. Other chapters focus on the use of vagrancy laws to repress free speech, to regulate skid rows and the homeless, and to arrest anyone the police found suspicious but for whom they lacked probable cause for other crimes.

Apart from her book, Goluboff is working on a review essay assessing the state of the field of the new legal history of civil rights that has developed over the past decade.

"It describes how a new generation of legal historians has wed legal, social and cultural history," she said. "The resulting scholarship on the Civil Rights Movement has decentered the Supreme Court and the national NAACP, emphasized the importance of class to the modern history of civil rights and explored historical actors who thought about civil rights in ways very different from those enshrined in [the landmark school desegregation case] Brown v. Board of Education."

Goluboff said the two awards — usually given to those who work in the humanities rather than law — help draw attention to the importance of legal history as a field of study.

"It is hard to know what the law means if you don't know where it came from and how it was made," she said. "A lot of legal history today, including my own work, aims to uncover contingencies in legal history — the arguments that failed, the ways in which people used to think about particular legal claims or areas of law. Realizing that what the law is was not pre-ordained can enable today's lawyers to think outside of legal boxes. It can show them that the boxes are created, malleable and always changing. Learning about the past can open up new ways of thinking about the future."

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