Organizing and Activism in the Modern Midwest

Solicited by the Midwestern History Association

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 12:45 PM - 1:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Labor and Working-Class; Midwest


The panel, as we currently envision it, contributes to the growing conversations and scholarship about the Midwest revealing a region of the nation that is not neatly defined nor easily generalized. Composed of emerging scholars in the field of Midwestern History, the papers within this panel highlight the diversity of the region. This panel seeks to answer how distinct communities across the Midwest have organized and advocated for their place within the region. Through organizing across and along the lines of race, gender, and class, the communities represented in this panel articulated grievances at the city, state, and national levels, pushing back against contemporary conceptions of the Midwest as a relatively homogenous region.

Papers Presented

From Chicago to Cow Town, USA: Radical Transgender Regional Networks in the Midwest

The unique history the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) freedom struggle in the Midwest is still under-researched. Transgender life and politics in the Midwest are particularly missing from this historiographic record, even though the Midwest has been the location of many events significant to transgender history. I argue that in the Midwest coalitions between transgender and queer communities endured longer than in New York City and California and involved a more regional approach to organizing. One of these important regional networks was the Transvestite/Transsexual Legal Committee (TLC). Founded in Chicago in 1971 after the police murder of Black transvestite James Clay Jr., TLC became a regional network with chapters in Champaign Urbana and Columbus, Ohio, known in queer and trans circles as “Cow Town USA.” TLC’s membership included transgender women as well as lesbians and gay men. TLC advocated a trans-feminine feminist of color politic that addressed state and interpersonal violence faced by transgender women and transvestites. Through an alliance with local lesbian organizations, TLC’s activism helped to foster a local and regional movement on behalf of both queer and transgender gender non-normative people. The history of TLC and their allied organizations has the potential to shift historical understandings of the relationship between lesbian and transgender organizing and the development of transgender feminism.

Presented By
Joy Michael Ellison, Ohio State University

Carceral Populism vs. Rehabilitation: The Making of the Carceral State in Wisconsin, 1950–1955

This paper analyzes how Wisconsinites in metropolitan Green Bay and Milwaukee through competing solutions to juvenile delinquency and crime laid the political and racial foundations for carceral state. In the 1950s, Wisconsinitesblack and white, working-class and middle-classdebated the proper response to rising incidences of crime and juvenile delinquency. This resulted in the emergence of two political movements. One movement, of rehabilitationists, advocated spending state money to build new prisons, institutionalize individual treatment programs for prisoners, and expand parole and probation services. The other movement, of carceral populists, supported punitive measures including expanding the criminal code, mandatory minimums, and lengthier prison sentences. By the mid-1950s, rehabilitaionists, due in part to a postwar political culture that favored racial liberalism and fiscal citizenship, had won the debate. Policymakers pursued the construction of new prisons. Yet, middle-class suburbanites, who generally supported prisoner rehabilitation, opposed the construction of new prisons in their communities. Instead, they convinced policymakers to build prisons in rural spaces. This opposition existed, in part, because rehabilitationists and carceral populists, while articulating different crime prevention strategies, agreed that crime and juvenile delinquency were most prevalent in communities of color, particularly in Milwaukee’s, predominantly black, “inner-core.” This consensus between racial liberals and “law and order” conservatives simultaneously criminalized the state’s burgeoning black population while racializing prisoners and prisons. As a consequence, rehabilitationists embedded racial and social inequalities into the nascent carceral state. Ultimately, this paper encourages scholars to center Midwesterners in the development of modern U.S. politics and the carceral state.

Presented By
Ian Thomas Toller-Clark, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

A Family Affair: The Figueroa Family, The Latin Times, and the Vehicle for Organizing the Community,

The publication of the weekly, bilingual newspaper, Latin Times, served as an important institution within the ethnic Mexican and Puerto Rican communities of Northwest Indiana. For newcomers to the region, ethnic Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were deprived of historical institutions and support granted to counterparts in the Southwest and New York. The newspaper became a vehicle of forming a “Latin” community in Northwest Indiana, advertising businesses owned, or catering, to the community and advertising social gatherings and community news. This paper will cover a brief history of the Figueroa family, who were responsible for the paper’s publication, its initial efforts in formulating community, and its transition to coordinate activism against local cases of discrimination. The inclusion of reporter-activist, Victor Manuel Martinez to staff of the newspaper increased the commitment to social justice in the region and the organization of protests against various slights, such as discriminatory remarks, disparities in municipal resources, and unfulfilled campaign promises. I argue that the inclusion of Martinez on the paper’s staff amplified its commitment to direct action against discrimination and the community’s pursuit for equitable integration into Northwest Indiana. Notably, the paper served as a prime vehicle for organizing the community in the aftermath of an incident where Mitchell Baran, a school administrator, allegedly referred to Mexicans as “ignorant and lazy.”

Presented By
Emiliano Aguilar Jr., Northwestern University

The Rainbow in the Cornfields: Jesse Jackson, the Farm Crisis, and the Rebirth of Progressive Populism in the 1988 Democratic Primaries

This paper explores how Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign—particularly in Iowa and Minnesota—revealed a Midwestern style of liberalism within the Democratic Party, harnessing a vibrant network of grassroots activism amid a larger revival of progressive populist politics. Amid falling prices and widespread foreclosures during the Farm Crisis, activists—in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas—embraced progressive solutions to the problems of American agriculture. They built progressive grassroots organizations like the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition (IFUC) and North American Farm Alliance, working with multi-issue progressive organizations like Minnesota Citizens Organized Acting Together and Wisconsin Action Coalition to meet the everyday needs of farm families through assistance like counseling hotlines while mobilizing them politically at local levels. These movements recalled the region’s political culture, intentionally invoking the Populist Party in Iowa, Farmer-Labor politics in Minnesota, and the La Follette progressive tradition in Wisconsin. When Jesse Jackson announced his intention to explore a presidential campaign in 1987, he chose the Greenfield, Iowa, farm of IFUC leader Dixon Terry. The Jackson campaign in the Midwest not only benefited from these grassroots networks but portended a broader regional movement of “progressive populism” which would, over an eight-year span, elect a new generation of U.S. senators like Tom Harkin, Paul Wellstone, and Russ Feingold. This paper considers “progressive populism” as not just a rhetorical style, but a defined political movement centered on the Upper Midwest which played a fundamental role in legitimizing Jackson’s campaign and attempting to transform national Democratic politics.

Presented By
Cory Haala, St. Cloud State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Ashley M. Howard, University of Iowa
Dr. Ashley Howard is an assistant professor of History and African and African American Studies at the University of Iowa. Her research interests include the Black Midwest; social movements; and the global history of racial violence. She is finishing a manuscript which analyzes the 1960s Midwestern urban revolts grounded in the way race, class, gender, and region played critical and overlapping roles in defining resistance to racialized oppression.   
Dr. Howard's research has appeared in TIME Magazine, Al Jazeera English, BBC Mundo, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Real News Network, National Public Radio,  NoJargon podcast, and The Black Scholar

Presenter: Emiliano Aguilar Jr., Northwestern University
Emiliano Aguilar Jr. is a third-year doctoral student in History. His research interests include the Latinx Midwest and the political development of the ethnic Mexican and Puerto Rican community within Northwest Indiana, primarily his hometown of East Chicago. Emiliano’s work deals with how various Latinx communities formed home and gained representation within the municipal sphere of politics. Notably, how do these communities engage with an enduring political machine and culture of corruption in their city. Central to this research are issues of labor, municipal corruption, and interracial alliances/coalitions.

Presenter: Joy Michael Ellison, Ohio State University
Joy Michael Ellison is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. Their research covers transgender political movements in the Midwest from post-World War II to 2000. They are interested in how the regulation of gender non-normativity intersects with racism, sexism, settler-colonialism, and ableism. In their spare time, they enjoy writing for their blog “If We Knew Transgender History” and the Rainbow Rant opinion column for Columbus Alive newspaper.

Presenter: Cory Haala, St. Cloud State University
Cory Haala is a PhD candidate in History at Marquette University. His dissertation, “The Progressive Center,” details the resurgence of Democratic politics in the Upper Midwest during a supposedly conservative era in American history and explores how grassroots activists and state and national politicians explicitly tapped into a regional heritage of radical politics to rebuild progressive, populist electoral coalitions amid the Farm Crisis. He has published essays on the rebuilding of the South Dakota Democratic Party in The Plains Political Tradition, vol. 3, and New Right conservatism in the Iowa Republican Party for the forthcoming volume The Conservative Heartland.

Presenter: Ian Thomas Toller-Clark, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Ian Toller-Clark is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation, “Carceral Democracy,” examines how and why residents, politicians, and policymakers in Wisconsin crafted a new political order that derived its power from the incarceration of its fellow citizens, disproportionately young men of color. He has an essay in the volume, The Conservative Heartland: A Political History of the Postwar American Midwest, edited by Jon K. Lauck and Catherine McNicol Stock, forthcoming May 2020. He also written for the Washington Post and The Metropole, the official blog of the UHA.