So reading Dale Winling’s and Andrew Kahrl’s posts on their work has inspired me to get my blogging started by putting a dispatch out there on my own “new” research, which will be the focus of a summer trip back east when I load up my family in our minivan at the end June. First, to introduce myself, I am Michelle Nickerson, a women’s&gender/political/urban historian and recent transplant to Chicago. I grew up in New Jersey, received all of my education on the East coast, but lived and worked in Texas for ten years before moving with my family here, where we lived in an ice cave this past winter. The first part of my research career focused on conservatism among middle-class suburbanites in the Sunbelt. But for all kinds of reasons I’ve been inspired to study a very different place and different people for the next part of my career.
My second book project looks at Catholic radicals who burned draft cards to protest the Vietnam War. I am writing a monograph about the Camden 28, a group arrested and put on trial in the early 1970s for burglarizing a Federal Building in the most poverty-stricken enclave of Southern, New Jersey. The activists damaged 700 draft files and office equipment, creating what the Selective Service supervisor estimated to be $13,500 worth of property damage. This action was the final such raid perpetrated by the “Catholic Left,” a network of nuns, priests, ministers, students, lay Catholics and non-Catholics mostly who destroyed (in their estimate) over a million conscription records between 1967 and 1972. They targeted draft boards in economically distressed cities because they identified military conscription as a mitigating factor in the urban decline. As Father Michael Doyle declared in his closing remarks at the trial, “Camden is a casualty of the war.” Unanticipated, though not surprising, was the racial uprising that happened simultaneously with the raid in downtown Camden. Several of the 28 couldn’t even get into the city because buses would not get off the freeway during the so-called “Puerto Rican Riot” that erupted in response to police brutality.
One reason I am interested in the Camden 28 is because I take this history personally. I was born in Camden 6 months before the August raid. As a youth I would take the speed-line train into Philadelphia with my friends, which passed over Camden, where we never got off. It looked then like it does now–like Dresden after the war, bombed out. No one can seem to fix this problem. Camden was also the verbotten land when I was growing up–that scary place. Part of figuring out this “scary place,” I think, is figuring how how it has been forgotten…how people forget, what they forget and why. I was raised Catholic in South Jersey, less than 20 miles from the Federal Building, but nobody told me about the raid or the trial. It was never drummed into me as part of MY heritage as a Catholic. This is not surprising because I grew up in the Era of Pope John Paul II and the conservative Catholics who dominate the region took minimal interest embracing radicalism as “their” heritage. But there is more to this, which I need to figure out.
One last thing:
I was also inspired by a fantastic documentary (see http://www.pbs.org/pov/camden28/) by another local of my generation. Filmmaker Anthony Giacchino, a first-rate historian himself, left a voluminous archive of his sources, including FOIA records, behind in Swarthmore College’s Peace Collection.
So that’s where I will be in July–combing through Giacchino’s collection, doing oral histories, eating water ice, and hoping to get down the shore.