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James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.

Social Change

While I attended Carleton College (1960-64), I gradually became a citizen: someone interested not just in residing in a country but helping to define and improve it. My winter term, 1963, in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement played a key role.

Trying to End the Vietnam War

During my years at Harvard, 1964-68, our war policy in Vietnam grew ever less humane and less in our national interest, while the lies supporting it grew ever more bald-faced. From then on, I tried to make America a wiser and more humane society.

  • ”Politics Proves a Dead End.”
  • “Tax Protesting on the Cheap”
  • “Graduate Student Organization” at Harvard 
  • Many Harvard undergrads had come to similar conclusions. Since they had the means, they took out ads in the New York Times and the Harvard Crimson proclaiming “Hell No! We Won’t Go!”
  • Protesting at home in Decatur, IL.

Testifying in Voting Rights Cases Brought Change

In the period 1970 – 2001, Loewen testified in dozens of voting rights cases, from AK to CA to FL to ME. Called to testify before a Congressional Committee hearing witnesses speaking for (or against) the Extension of the Voting Rights Act, on May 19, 1981, Loewen explained why the VRA remained important. It still does.

Here’s an example of the difference one case made, and I did not even have to testify. In 1983 Harold Washington became the first Black mayor of Chicago. However, he was unable to get anything done, because the all-White Vrdolyak faction controlled 29 members of the 50-person city council. Washington could not even appoint his own personal secretary because the board would not approve!

The same White faction had previously redistricted Chicago and had gerrymandered the maps to guarantee themselves more seats than they should have won, at the expense of Black and Latinx voters.

Through his lawyer, Washington hired me as the expert witness for “City of Chicago: Mayor’s Office” in the complex four-sided resulting case, Ketchum v. Chicago. I showed that the districts had been gerrymandered and that people in Chicago bloc voted by race. Then,  working with the other three experts in a witness room during the morning as the court delayed convening, hoping we could reach settlement, I managed to win their approval for new districts that were toss-ups. Moreover, I knew that the lawsuit and new districts would spark more turnout in the Black community, making tossup districts winnable by the mayor’s faction. In the resulting election, the mayor’s allies won exactly 25 seats, giving him the deciding vote.

Tragically, Mayor Washington died before he was able to do much with his new-found power.

Social Change in Mississippi and After

Loewen involved students at Tougaloo and some at Millsaps in projects that tried to bring about social change in Mississippi. See the Mississippi section of this website for details:

  • Under Loewen’s direction, students at Tougaloo and Millsaps surveyed municipal services across Jackson.
  • Students also studied  residential assessments in Edwards, MS, race. I had students take pictures of 30 homes, paired by equal assessments, one in each pair owned by a white family, one by a Black family. Then I had judges list all 30 homes in order of increasing wealth. If assessments were unbiased, then Black homes and white homes would be sprinkled up and down that list randomly. Instead, white-owned homes clustered at the top. That did not prove that whites live in nicer homes, although they do. No, it proved that white-owned homes were favored by lower tax assessments, compared to Black-owned homes.
  • First-year students at Tougaloo participated in the School Involvement Project, placing them in about 20 high schools across MS, causing change every January.
  • Loewen served as expert witness in 50-100 cases involving voting rights, employment discrimination, etc.; mostly in the South.

Loewen tried to improve race relations and increase the presence of African Americans on the faculty and in the student body at UVM, the University of Vermont

  • Loewen arrived in the fall of 1975 when some fraternities still dreamt of reviving Kakewalk, a racist tradition that had been the centerpiece of the social calendar until its demise five years earlier. Loewen was quickly mobilized by the Dean of Students office to meet with fraternities to explain how it was racist and why it could not return.
  • Loewen developed a new course, “Introduction to Race Relations.” Quickly it grew large, as various programs such as nursing came to be require it, to help students in monochromatic Vermont prepare themselves for our diverse world. Included was one unit showing the old Kakewalk film, with discussion.  He always recruited undergraduate teaching assistants so it could meet as small discussion sections weekly and always took one discussion section himself. Whenever he could, he chose nonwhite TAs, to benefit students, and he also required that students spend ten hours “Breaking Out of the White Cocoon,” attending and writing up events featuring presenters of racial backgrounds other than their own.
  • A year after his arrival, the sociology department engaged in hiring for an extra opening its chair had negotiated with then Vice-President Larry McCrorey with the understanding that the department would hire an African American. At the time, the entire College of Arts and Sciences had just one Black professor. To Loewen’s and the chair’s surprise, a white Chilean Marxist was the front-runner until Loewen made an impassioned plea for racial diversity within the department, noting that Black students and also white students needed to encounter Black professors for several educational reasons.
  • Richard Steele had been Director of Admissions at UVM, leaving in 1975. During his several years, the Black student population had grown from 6 to 76 (among 11,000). His successor didn’t care; as a result, it started falling. He was followed by Linda Kramer, who had no interest at all in recruiting African Americans. She did hire a Black recruiter, but as she told Loewen, “I only hired him because they made me,” referring to administrators. She then sent him to overwhelmingly white high schools like Bethesda-Chevy Chase outside Washington, D.C., with the justification that the only Black students who might succeed at UVM would be those used to a white environment. This was not true; Steele had recruited from a Black Catholic high school in Newark with fine results. UVM’s Black student population fell to 28. At that point, four were Loewen’s advisees, because I was the closest thing Arts & Sciences had to a Black professor!
  •  In 1986, undergraduates, alarmed at these developments, protested to the president and occupied his office. Loewen wrote an op-ed supporting the students in the Burlington Free Press that resulted in his removal as chair of the most important race relations committee on campus, but some positive changes did result from the occupation.
  • In response to the sit-in, Loewen later co-chaired the committee that set up a new university-wide course on race and developed much of the curriculum for that course, including “The Difference Race Makes,” later published in Howard Ball, et al., eds., Multicultural Education (Erlbaum, 1998, 35-66).

After leaving UVM, Loewen worked full time on projects to reduce racism.

Deployment of Money to Cause Change

Loewen thought that people who believe in social change should use their money as an instrument to cause it. Too many people think money is somehow tainted. (Proudhon famously said, “Property is theft.”) As a result, they don’t build up their finances. On the other hand, people who want to keep society unjust often wind up setting up rich foundations to do just that.

  • Loewen made “participation gifts” to causes he believed in but that were doing fine without him. For example, Carleton College, his alma mater, has an endowment now approaching a billion dollars, which amounts to almost half a million dollars per student. Loewen liked and valued Carleton, so he gives $10 every year. Thus Carleton can brag about its high rate of alumni giving, while Loewen can send most of his cash elsewhere, where it might cause change.
  • Loewen gave a more substantial sum every year to an organization, S.O.M.E. (So Others May Eat), that helps the homeless in his home city, Washington, D.C. He was able to visit the organization to see it work, and the gift allowed him to feel he was helping with a social problem he encountered daily.
  • He also gave at least $500 annually to an international organization, choosing Doctors Without Borders because he felt they helped in tough places and made good use of their funds.
  • Politically, Loewen gave money to very close races for the U.S. Senate. He did so primarily because he felt the Republican Party moved away from him every year, especially on race relations, beginning in 1964. He claims he elected Democratic Senator Al Franken in 2008 because Franken won Minnesota by 312 votes, while Loewen donated $2,500. That works out to slightly more than $8/voter. Since $5 would buy a good meal at McDonald’s in 2008, and such a payoff would surely influence many voters, Loewen claims to have provided Franken with his margin of victory.
  • The bulk of his money, more than $3,000,000, earned mostly from book sales and lecture fees, Loewen gave to Tougaloo College. Tougaloo was almost alone among all colleges in the South in that it actively supported the Civil Rights Movement. It has always stood for truth about the past and justice in the present. And it needs money, unlike Carleton, Harvard, or Mississippi State, which Loewen attended. Moreover, Loewen hopes that his gift will spark others to do likewise, lessening the drag on morale and ideas that can afflict a campus where money is an ongoing concern.