Distinguished Lecturers
William Sturkey

William Sturkey

William Sturkey is an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches courses in modern American history with a focus on race in the South and the 1960s. Sturkey is the author of Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White (2019) and the co-editor of To Write in the Light of Freedom: The Newspapers of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools (2015). His most recent book is The Ballad of Roy Benavidez: The Life and Times of America’s Most Famous Hispanic War Hero (2024). Sturkey's work has appeared in a variety of venues including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Atlantic. 

NEW IN 2024: The Ballad of Roy Benavidez: The Life and Times of America’s Most Famous Hispanic War Hero (Basic Books)

OAH Lectures by William Sturkey

In this lecture based on his book, Sturkey tells of the dramatic life of Vietnam War hero Roy Benavidez, a Mexican American Green Beret from a working-class family with deep roots in Texas. Growing up in Jim Crow–era Texas, Benavidez was scorned as “Mexican” despite his family’s deep roots in the state. He escaped poverty by enlisting in a desegregating military and was first deployed amid the global upheavals of the 1950s. In May 1968, while serving in Vietnam, Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez led the rescue of a reconnaissance team surrounded by hundreds of enemy soldiers. He saved the lives of at least eight of his comrades that day in a remarkable act of valor that left him permanently disabled. Awarded the Medal of Honor after a yearslong campaign, Benavidez became a highly sought-after public speaker, a living symbol of military heroism, and one of the country’s most prominent Latinos. Yet after receiving the Medal of Honor, Benavidez was forced to fight for disability benefits amid Reagan-era cutbacks. An unwavering patriot alternately celebrated and snubbed by the country he loved, Benavidez embodied many of the contradictions inherent in twentieth-century Latino life.

On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther Jr. delivered his most searing critique to date of America's war in Vietnam. He lived precisely one more year before his assassination in Memphis. This lecture takes audiences through that tumultuous and somewhat mythical final year to lay bare the challenges King faced and leave listeners with an appreciation of his final and enduring message.

Many are familiar with the case of Emmett Till, but few understand the historical importance of the town that helped make the case famous. It wasn’t a given that the murder of a Black boy in Mississippi would become national news. In fact, it usually didn’t. Through the history of the all-Black town of Mound Bayou, this lecture reveals how the murder of Emmett Till became such a national phenomenon.

The 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer was one of the most famous demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement. Sturkey takes us inside the Freedom Schools where Black youths as young as five years old transformed into civil rights leaders. He shares their voices and vision as part of perhaps the most inspirational episode of the entire Movement.

In many tellings of the American War in Vietnam, Cambodia only arises when the Nixon Administration announced its invasion in the Spring of 1970. But Cambodia was essential to the entirety of the Vietnam War. This lecture lays out that history, revealing America’s “secret war” in Cambodia and explaining why the United States felt so compelled to invade in 1970 and how the conflict in Vietnam ultimately led to the emergence of the Khmer Rouge.

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