History Colloquium with University of Iowa's John McKerley


The Kinder Institute’s 2015-16 Friday History Colloquium Series kicked off on October 2, 2015, with University of Iowa’s John McKerley giving a talk entitled, “The Long Road to Ferguson: Race & Party Politics in the Urban Border South, 1865-1925.”

In prefacing his talk, Prof. McKerley pointed out how, as historians attempt to locate the origins of recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore, much emphasis is rightfully placed on twentieth-century discriminatory housing policies, while comparatively little attention is devoted to understanding these events in terms of electoral politics and politicking in the border south in the decades after the Civil War and before World War I. Using Missouri as a case study, though, he argued that much can be gained by examining state and municipal politics during this era, as many of the problems that plague contemporary American political society, and that came to bear in Ferguson and Baltimore, had become institutionalized as early as the 1880s.

In developing this argument, Prof. McKerley focused on a number of forms of disenfranchisement that emerged as an increasing number of black citizens migrated from rural areas to politically contentious urban centers in Missouri (and the border south in general) during the nineteenth century. On one hand, he noted, we see deliberate attempts to circumvent the Reconstruction amendments and deny black citizens the right to vote. On the other hand, we see politicians from both major parties opportunistically appealing to black voters when it served their interests, making promises of patronage and legislation that would serve African-American communities that they neither planned, nor felt pressure, to deliver on.

Both forms, Prof. McKerley explained, were on full display during the 1908 Kansas City mayoral election, when democratic candidate Thomas Crittenden ran (and won) on a platform that called for disenfranchisement on the grounds that recent crime waves as well as political corruption in the Republican Party were the result of black voters determining the power balance in the city. Attempts to extend this policy of calculated disenfranchisement statewide failed, however, out of fear not only of federal intervention but also of endangering party members’ ability to make limited appeals to black voters when expedient. Far from a progressive victory, Prof. McKerley stressed, this example only reinforces the narrative of oppressive politics in Missouri during the time period being examined. Even when disenfranchisement efforts failed, forms of disenfranchisement persisted, as black voters, citizens, and legislators continued to be exploited by the white supremacist majority and remained without “actionable political power.” It is, Prof. McKerley concluded, precisely this systematic denial of access to actionable political power that is at the root of today’s crisis of representation.

John McKerley received his Ph.D. in social and labor history from the University of Iowa in 2008, and recently returned to Iowa City to serve as Adjunct Assistant Professor in the IU History Department and as an Oral Historian at the University of Iowa Labor Center. Prof. McKerley also serves as Co-director of the Huntsville (AL) African American History Project. He co-edited the 2009 volume of oral histories, Foot Soldiers for Democracy: The Men, Women, and Children of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement (University of Illinois Press), with Dr. Horace Huntley, and his chapter “‘We promise to use the ballot as we did the bayonet’: Black Politics and the Limits of Loyalty in Reconstruction Missouri” appeared in Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border (University of Kansas Press, 2013). At present, Prof. McKerley is completing a manuscript on black politics in post-emancipation Missouri and co-editing a collection of essays on the challenges of activist teaching and scholarship as well as a forthcoming volume in the award-winning Documentary History of Emancipation series. He returned to Iowa after teaching in the History Departments at Indiana University, University of Maryland-College Park, and University of Missouri, among other institutions. While in Columbia, he also served as Assistant Editor of the Missouri Historical Review.