A Roadmap from Racist Legacies to Social Justice

On November 6th, Louisiana voted on an amendment that would bring an end to a law that allowed criminal convictions to be brought in by non-unanimous juries. As I wrote the first draft of this blog post, I didn’t yet know what the outcome of that vote was going to be. As I finalize it, non-unanimous jury verdicts were banned by an overwhelming margin of voters.

In an era of partisan hostility, criminal justice reform seems like the one area where Republicans and Democrats can find (some) common ground. Louisiana recently passed a sweeping slate of reform measures designed to decrease the number of incarcerated people in the state. The effort to eliminate non-unanimous criminal jury verdicts received support from both sides of the aisle. I write this in late October, when the state seems poised to eliminate this remnant of Jim Crow legislation, and my hopes are high that Louisiana voters will do the right thing.

When my editor-in-chief proposed creating a social justice list for LSU Press, I knew that a major goal of the list would have to be drawing connections between past and present. I wanted to follow the example of our 2015 book Jim Crow’s Last Stand, which represented the first I had ever heard of Louisiana’s non-unanimous criminal jury verdict law, despite having lived in this state for two-thirds of my life. The book begins where the law begins, in the Jim Crow South—a place and time in history that LSU Press books have explored extensively over the years.

Like Jim Crow’s Last Stand, I want my social justice list to follow the lines of historical decisions, prejudices, and legal struggles through to where they leave us today. How have centuries of government racism affected the likelihood that a family or individual will seek or receive government aid after the increasingly violent hurricanes that strike our country? As the racial achievement gap in education narrows, what can we learn about the array of efforts states and parishes have used to eliminate it, and which children do those efforts forget? What does black feminist activism look like in the South today?

On a more personal level, I feel passionately that my small southern press should be among the publishers doing this work. When I came home to Louisiana in 2013, it was because I believe in the vibrancy of my state and its potential for positive change. Activists and politicians and scholars and students and families are here fighting to help my state and my region be the best that it can be—and we fight for that both despite and because of Louisiana’s history of prejudice and inequality. Racism is not an inevitability. Unjust school systems can be changed. Laws rooted in Jim Crow racism can be overturned. The South—which has been a home for racism, yes, but is also a home to the majority of black Americans—offers so much scope for political and social reform, and I hope that my press and this list can play a small role in that. By shining a light on inequality—its origins and its trajectory through the present day—we can offer a roadmap to change.

I deeply believe in the power of university presses to amplify and preserve the invaluable research performed by scholars all over the country. LSU Press has published books that consider slavery, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement for almost as long as scholarship on those topics has existed; it stands to reason that we now explore the legacies of those tragedies for the modern day.

Jenny Keegan is an assistant acquisitions editor at LSU Press, acquiring in the areas of social justice, fan studies, Caribbean history, and Native history in the US South. She can be found on Twitter at @jennyckeegan     .