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Student Radicalism in Tennessee, 1954-1970



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Ballantyne, Katherine Jernigan 


This dissertation examines student radicalism in Tennessee between Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and the national backlash against the Kent State University shootings in Kent, Ohio in May 1970. As the first statewide study of student activism, and one of the few examinations of southern student activism, it broadens the understanding of New Left student radicalism from its traditionally defined hotbeds in the Northeast and the West Coast. It also argues for a consideration of student radicalism that incorporates white and black accounts, assessing issues surrounding civil rights, labour, the renegotiation of student roles on campus, and Vietnam on black and formerly all-white campuses.
Three main arguments drive this dissertation. First, the notion of the New Left inhabiting only a brief moment in time, rising and falling in the 1960s—years of hope, days of rage, in Todd Gitlin’s influential telling—is problematic in the context of Tennessee. The location of Highlander Folk School in Tennessee created a strong connection to Old Left labour activism for the state’s New Left. Student movements both developed more slowly in Tennessee and fractured more slowly. My second argument is that forms of radicalism in Tennessee were distinctly southern. The region’s political order was more stifling than its counterpart in the North, and could easily turn more deadly. Students radicals in the South grasped this difference. Any left in the South had to address issues of race, but, in light of the danger, had to do so gingerly. Thirdly, race mattered a great deal to southern leftists, black and white, at first bringing them together and later driving them apart. Both black and white students viewed attempts to establish personal autonomy within campus and community organising as centrally important to their activities. Black and white students understood personal autonomy in a broad sense, conceptualised of as ‘student power’: it covered immediate concerns over universities’ assumption of parental power over students, as well as apparent infringements of civil rights and civil liberties. This dissertation reconstructs this pursuit of student power, both within campuses and beyond, and details the growing rift between black and white student interests.




Gerstle, Gary


Tennessee, civil rights, student activism, New Left, US South, Vietnam


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
This degree was funded by the Cambridge Trust.