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Historian James M. McPherson Discusses the Influence of the Civil Rights Movement on his Career

Recently, noted Civil War historian James M. McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “ Battle Cry of Freedom” (1988), visited Binghamton University to deliver the ninth annual Shriber Lecture. Professor McPherson sat down with WSKG History to discuss his career, Civil War history, and his involvement as a historical consultant on PBS’s Civil War medical drama MERCY STREET. In this clip from our interview, Professor McPherson discusses the influence of the Civil Right Movement on his career. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLRMM8yDYVQ (The partial transcript below has been edited for clarity.)


On the influence of the Civil Rights Movement and his career

When I got to Baltimore, and this was at the end of the 1950s and in the early 1960s, I was surrounded by the Civil Rights Movement and by a kind of historical deja vu. Because, in the 1960s there was this confrontation between the Federal Government and southern political leaders who were vowing massive resistance to national law, talking about interposition of the state sovereignty between people of the state and the national government, violence in the South, federal troops being sent into the South...

On a different scale, a massive scale, this had happened a hundred years earlier and what was going on in the 1960s had a direct relationship to what went on in the 1860s. So I decided to do my dissertation on the civil rights activists of the 1860s, the abolitionists...From that focus on a particular reform group, in a particular issue, it widened out into the politics of the period and the politics of the period took place in a specifically military context... So it started off at a specific pointed end of the history of the 1860s and widened out to look at everything that was happening in that era.

Dr. James McPherson is the George Henry Davis ‘86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “ Battle Cry of Freedom” (1988). He taught American history at Princeton University for 42 years and served as president of the American Historical Association. McPherson’s work mainly focuses on the American Civil War and Reconstruction and he is the recipient of two separate Lincoln Prizes. His latest book is titled “ The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters” (2015).

 Want more from our interview with Professor McPherson?  Read a partial transcript of highlights from our entire interview.