Dissent in U.S. History: Interview with Ralph Young

The recent events that occurred in the United States show that history is not just a matter of the past. Racism, white supremacy, gender discrimination, unlawful employment, and unjust immigration policies have shaped the history of the United States since its founding. In this context of turmoil and protests, dissent had become a powerful means to achieve America’s broken promise that “all men are created equal.”

Dissent is the defining character of the history of the United States.

It became the engine of many movements that made the history of this nation: American Indians, women, immigrants, students, the working class, African-American, LGBTQ community, and many others.

It is impossible to conceive American history without acknowledging the vital importance of dissent.

The question that America has to face immediately is what kind of nation it wants to be. Is the United States finally ready to end the unresolved issues of its past?

Professor of History at Temple University Ralph Young, author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation (2006) and Dissent: The History of an American Idea (2015), states in the introduction to his 2015 book:

Dissent created this nation, and it played, indeed still plays, a fundamental role in fomenting change and pushing the nation in sometimes-unexpected directions.

I found his words extremely inspiring.

The more I read them the more something I had buried a long time ago in myself resurfaced. It was the power of dissent in people’s life and history. Astonishing.

I had the privilege of interviewing Ralph Young some days ago. I had an Epiphany.

Here you find an abridged version in English of the full interview available in Italian in InStoria.

Credit: Fibonacci Blue, “Inauguration day protest against Donald Trump, Minneapolis, Minnesota,” taken on January 20, 2017. CC BY 2.0.
Credit: Fibonacci Blue, “Inauguration day protest against Donald Trump, Minneapolis, Minnesota,” taken on January 20, 2017. CC BY 2.0.
What does dissent represent in your perspective, and how does it relate to American values, identity, and imagination as a united nation?

The United States is a product of dissent. Even before the United States was formed the first English colonies were founded by religious dissenters—Puritans, Quakers—and by the end of the seventeenth century significant political dissent arose that eventually led to the American Revolution […] Dissent was so central to the American character that the right to dissent was put into the First Amendment to the Constitution and Americans have dissented ever since […] It is clear that dissent is one of the defining characteristics of what it is to be an American. It is central to our beliefs. It is in our DNA.

How did dissent evolve over the centuries by affecting activism and grassroots movements? Is there a correlation with the notion of injustice in American history?

Credit: Mobilus In Mobili, “Women’s March 2020,” taken on January 18, 2020. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Credit: Mobilus In Mobili, “Women’s March 2020,” taken on January 18, 2020. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Dissenters have learned from each other. Each movement has looked at earlier movements and learned what tactics work, what strategy to take to approach the authorities to get their message across. For example, the Civil Rights Movement was influenced by the tactics of the women’s suffrage movement when suffragists picketed the White House during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. Dissenters have also learned not to repeat mistakes that previous unsuccessful dissent movements made […] Most dissent is grassroots. It starts from a simple act. Like Rosa Parks. And then it builds a momentum […] Most dissenters are trying to overcome injustice. They are trying to create a more egalitarian society. They view the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as a contract between the government and the people […] But when America is not living up to its part of the bargain, people speak out, they protest, they hold demonstrations and marches […] The civil rights movement inspired so many other “rights” movements: women, LGBTQ, American Indians, Chicanos, undocumented immigrants.

What is the relation between dissent and American culture? Can you provide some anecdotes relating to Pete Seeger and Allen Ginsberg, specifically how they changed your life (if it is possible to know) and why the contemporary generation should take inspiration from them?

Photo courtesy of Ralph Young.
Photo courtesy of Ralph Young.
I first listened to a Pete Seeger album in 1966 and was blown away by his humanity and his message […] I saw him on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968. When I bought that album, I wrote him a letter thanking him for his message and his example. And he wrote back! […] Subsequently, I saw him at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and the Clearwater Revival. And each time he was approachable. We’d chat about whatever cause it was that he was most wrapped up in at the time […] When I wrote my book Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, we sent a copy to him. He wrote back thanking us for the book and commenting that it was a wonderful book and should be read in every classroom. Later when a concise edition of the book was published, the publisher put a blurb from Seeger on the front cover. I regret that he died before I finished Dissent: The History of an American Idea. That is one reason I dedicated the book to him.

Credit: Fresh On The Net, uploaded on November 26, 2019. CC BY 2.0.
Credit: Fresh On The Net, uploaded on November 26, 2019. CC BY 2.0.
I met Allen Ginsberg in 1980. On February 1st. He was arriving in Philadelphia for a gig at The Main Point (a folk club in Bryn Mawr). A friend of mine was the booking agent and he had me pick up Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky at Philadelphia Airport. I wound up spending the whole day with him […] At the time I worked in a second-hand bookstore and Ginsberg asked if I could find him a copy of Saintsbury’s History or English Prosody and also the Childe Ballads. A few weeks later I did indeed find the books for him and this started a correspondence with Ginsberg, mostly about books and writing, that lasted for the next five or six years. I still have the letters he sent me. He encouraged me in my own writing. When I first wrote him about sending him the two books he requested I asked him when the poems he had read that night at The Main Point would be published. The poems were about the death of his father and I told him they touched me because they reminded me of my own father’s death. Ginsberg wrote back telling me when they’d be published, but then, along with the letter he included the poems. And each one was inscribed by him to me. A document I cherish.

So whenever I’ve been in despair about the state of the world, or my own life, I often harken back to those times when I met these two creative, inspiring men. Both, though so different from each other, were totally approachable and not at all full of the ego that usually dominates celebrities’ personalities. In talking with Seeger and Ginsberg I felt I was talking with an old friend.

In your opinion, how do dissent and technological progress relate to each other? How are the new media affecting the original notion of dissent and activism?

Dissenters have always used the latest technology to get out their dissenting message more broadly. The latest technology at the time of the Protestant Reformation was the Gutenberg Press. This enabled pamphlets and translations of the Bible to be distributed throughout Europe. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s became more widespread because of television coverage of the demonstrations. Civil Rights and antiwar songs got a wide audience because of improvements in high fidelity, stereo, recordings of albums, and proliferation of radio stations. So dissenters have always found use for the latest technology. Today, with the Internet and social media, Facebook and YouTube, smartphones, video recorders…. dissenters can get word out of when and where the next demonstration is going to be. They also post videos of police brutality against unarmed black men, which of course has really fueled the Black Lives Matter movement into a worldwide phenomenon. There is a drawback, because technology also can be used to spread false information and undermine a dissent movement.

Credit: Elvert Barnes, “Gathering20.NDOP.BaltimoreMD.30May2020: National Day of Protests Against Racism & Political Repression Gathering along North Charles Street between North Avenue and 20th Street in Baltimore, Maryland on Saturday afternoon, 30 May 2020,” taken on May 30, 2020. CC BY-SA 2.0.Credit: R4vi, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit,” taken on January 21, 2017. CC BY-SA 2.0.

They say that history does not repeat itself. However, the recent developments in the United States after the death of George Floyd have revealed that racism and white supremacy is still a disease that affects America as a nation and society at its core. Do you think that the contemporary dissent and dissenters may effectively push America toward an unexpected direction to eradicate white supremacy and racial discrimination?

Credit: Christopher Michel, “Black Lives Matter Mural San Francisco,” taken on June 13, 2020. CC BY 2.0.
Credit: Christopher Michel, “Black Lives Matter Mural San Francisco,” taken on June 13, 2020. CC BY 2.0.
What’s heartening in the present moment is that so many whites are getting involved. White America has to realize, and I think it’s beginning to, that racism is not a black problem, it’s a white problem. When whites are just as outraged as blacks are at police violence against African Americans, then there’s hope and the political will to get something done. It also will depend on dissenters not just protesting, but voting in November.

In 1967, when I was in university, I saw Stokely Carmichael give a speech. One of the white students asked him, after his talk on Black Power, what role there was for whites in the Black Power Movement. I loved Carmichael’s response. He said:

Don’t come into our neighborhoods to try to help us. That’s patronizing. Instead, what you can do is go into white neighborhoods and civilize the whites!

Is there any advice do you feel you can give to students and future historians who, like me, are trying to find their way in today’s world?

Don’t try to relive or emulate past movements and victories. Just be a part of your own time. And be a part of the solution, not part of the problem.

 Roberta Meloni