Mourning in America: Fighting for Justice in the Age of Reagan

Endorsed by HES

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 2:45 PM - 4:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Crime and Violence; Immigration and Internal Migration; Social Welfare and Public Health


During his re-election campaign in 1984, President Ronald Reagan released an advertisement in which the narrator proclaimed, “It’s morning again in America.” Set to calming music, the commercial presented an image reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s mid-century portraits of American life as it showed a newspaper delivery boy, a family entering their home, a small-town church wedding, and campers raising an American flag. Absent from this idyllic portrait of a resurgent America was the unemployed, the homeless, the sick, the imprisoned, the refugee, and the drug addict. In other words, the forgotten Americans of the Reagan era. Following his landslide re-election, the idea of a “Reagan Revolution,” originally touted by the president’s supporters, gained traction as conservative ideals took hold in the United States. Yet, pockets of resistance remained, as evidenced by the stories of the activists explored in our panel, which aims to challenge prevailing narratives that gloss over radical activism in the age of Reagan. For the most vulnerable, Reagan’s foreign, immigration, health, criminal justice, and drug policies brought additional suffering. Nonetheless, even as they mourned the onset of the “Reagan Revolution,” these forgotten Americans kept fighting for justice. When Central Americans fled war-torn Central America, the Sanctuary movement offered them refuge in churches and spoke out against U.S. intervention in the region. As the Reagan administration detained migrants, the number of incarcerated Americans also doubled. Despite their circumstances, many prisoners fought to bring greater attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic facing prisoner and non-prisoner alike. As the War on Crime entered the nation’s classrooms through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Program, parents and academics questioned its purpose and effectiveness. The “Reagan Revolution” transformed the United States government and American politics as conservatism reigned supreme in the final decades of the twentieth century. Regardless, in churches, prisons, and classrooms, grassroots activists remained committed to reversing the “Reagan Revolution” throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Brian Mueller’s paper details the emergence of the Sanctuary movement, which combined humanitarian concerns for refugees facing the threat of deportation with a desire to end U.S. intervention in Central America. Besides providing shelter for refugees, sanctuary activists amplified their voices, which ensured that their stories reached Americans, many of whom were unaware of Reagan’s secret wars in Central America. The incarcerated also found their voices, as Emily Hobson shows in her paper on prisons as an unlikely site of AIDS activism. Concerned with how the public health crisis affected those in society as well as those behind bars, political prisoners brought together a diverse coalition of activists and empowered them to confront the AIDS crisis and related issues brought on by the “Reagan Revolution.” As prisoners built a network beyond their jail cells, Max Felker-Kantor shows in his paper how the Reagan administration sent police officers into elementary schools as part of its drug education program. Myriad controversies led to growing opposition to the DARE program, but these critics struggled to invalidate widely held views on policing, drugs, and personal responsibility.

Papers Presented

“Aiding the Victims of Reagan’s Anti-Communist Crusade: The Sanctuary Movement & Salvadoran Refugees in the Late Cold War”

In March 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Refugee Act of 1980, which promised, among other things, protection through asylum to refugees facing “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution” in their home country. Yet, the election of Ronald Reagan eight months later shattered the hopes of the thousands of Central American refugees seeking safe haven in the United States. Through January 1982, out of 8,900 asylum applications from Salvadorans under review, the U.S. government denied 165 and approved just seven. The Reagan administration argued that refugees from El Salvador did not face political persecution or the fear of death but rather sought entrance into the United States for access to better jobs. Denied asylum, Central American refugees turned to U.S.-based activists in the sanctuary movement. In addition to helping them find safe havens in churches across the country, the sanctuary movement provided refugees with a forum to talk about their experiences publicly and help expose Reagan’s nefarious policies in Central America. Thus, rather than evade Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials, activists publicly declared their intention to provide sanctuary to so-called “illegal” migrants. Public sanctuary ensured that Reagan’s covert war in El Salvador and the INS’s mistreatment of fleeing Salvadoran migrants did not escape public scrutiny. Sanctuary activists viewed silence as complicity. Therefore, these primarily white, middle-class Americans put their own freedom on the line to demand justice for the victims of Reagan’s hidden wars in Central America, even if it meant constant harassment and surveillance by their own government.

Presented By
Brian Scott Mueller, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

“‘We are not the same as when we arrived’: Political Prisoners and AIDS Prison Activism”

This paper explores the place of AIDS activism in the history of political prisoners in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. HIV/AIDS organizing by, for, and with people in prisons formed a dynamic part of the AIDS movement, just as the growth of mass incarceration, intertwined with broader social abandonment, fueled the epidemic. Incarcerated people organized AIDS peer education projects, advocated for medical care for those who were ill, and collaborated with outside allies to pressure correctional agencies on HIV/AIDS policy and to win compassionate release. A small network of political prisoners played important roles in this work, bringing community health experience from the Black Panther Party, Young Lords, and white anti-imperialist groups to bear on a public health crisis that was shaped simultaneously by homophobia, racialized poverty, the dismantling of social benefits, and the war on drugs. AIDS work proved powerful for political prisoners as they navigated long-term sentences and political isolation. As evident in their own words from the time and since, political prisoners’ AIDS activism became key in changing their relationships to the wider left during a time of intensified state repression and heightened radical critiques of the armed underground. HIV/AIDS work offered political prisoners a way out politically if not physically, enabling them to reconnect with broader social movements and to redefine their personal histories. This paper explores this complex history across the Reagan-Bush years, arguing that AIDS prison activism offered pathways not only to more fully address the epidemic but also to regenerate prison solidarity.

Presented By
Emily K. Hobson, University of Nevada, Reno

“Just Say No to DARE: Police and the Politics of Drug Prevention in the Reagan Era”

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Program, which brought police officers into schools as teachers, was the nation’s preeminent drug education program during the Reagan era. By the mid-1990s, however, social scientists evaluating the program completed dozens of studies pointing to DARE’s ineffectiveness at preventing youth drug use. At the same time, a series of high-profile episodes of kids turning in their parents for drug use after attending DARE classes led some parents to organize against the program. One group, for instance, formed Parents Against DARE to advocate the removal of DARE officers from classrooms. The combination of social scientists calling for changes to DARE’s curriculum and parent activism led to public controversy and debates over the program’s role in drug prevention. Yet, criticism of DARE did little to reduce its popularity with police and policymakers. Indeed, the Clinton administration continued to promote the program as part of its law-and-order approach to crime and drugs. This paper explores the debate surrounding DARE in the 1990s, the role of police officers as experts and teachers, and the persistent political support for the program despite its failure to reduce drug use. In so doing, it reveals how the reliance on the police to deliver a just say “no” and zero tolerance message to drug use both reinforced the racially inequitable policing of the drug war and reframed the social and economic structures contributing to the drug crisis as matters of personal responsibility in the long Reagan era.

Presented By
Max Felker-Kantor, Ball State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Donna Murch, Rutgers University
Donna Murch is associate professor of history at Rutgers University. Her newest book, Assata Taught Me: State Violence, Racial Capitalism, and the Movement for Black Lives, will be released in March from Haymarket Books. In October 2010, Murch published the award-winning monograph Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California with the University of North Carolina Press, which won the Phillis Wheatley prize in December 2011. Professor Murch is currently completing a new trade press book entitled Crack in Los Angeles: Policing the Crisis and the War on Drugs. She has written for the Sunday Washington Post, Guardian, New Republic, Nation, Boston Review, Jacobin, Black Scholar, Souls, the Journal of Urban History, Journal of American History, Perspectives and New Politics and appeared on BBC, CNN, Democracy Now and in Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

Presenter: Max Felker-Kantor, Ball State University
Max Felker-Kantor is assistant professor of American history at Ball State University. His research explores the expansion of police power and authority, and resistance to it, since World War II. Dr. Felker-Kantor’s first book, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2018. His articles and book chapters have been published in the Journal of Urban History, Journal of Civil and Human Rights, Boom California, and the Pacific Historical Review. Currently, he is researching schools, policing and the D.A.R.E. program, which is under contract with UNC Press.

Presenter: Emily K. Hobson, University of Nevada, Reno
Emily K. Hobson is a historian of radical movements, LGBTQ politics, and HIV/AIDS in the United States. She serves as Chair of the Department of Gender, Race, and Identity (GRI) and as Associate Professor of History and GRI at the University of Nevada, Reno. Hobson is the author of Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (University of California Press, 2016) and co-editor, with Dan Berger, of Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States, 1973-2001 (University of Georgia Press, 2020). Lavender and Red was recognized as a runner-up for the Lambda Literary Award in LGBTQ Studies, the First Book Prize from the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and the Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction from the Publishing Triangle. Hobson’s research has won her the LGBTQ Research Fellowship from the ONE Archives Foundation, the Carel B. Germain Fellowship from Smith College, the Joan Heller-Diane Bernard Fellowship from the Center for LGBTQ Studies at the City University of New York, and the Mousel-Feltner Research Award from UNR, among other honors. She earned her PhD in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California in 2009. From 2018 through 2020 she served as the co-chair of the Committee on LGBT History, helping to inaugurate the first Queer History Conference. Her current research addresses HIV/AIDS activism by, for, and with people in prisons in the 1980s and 1990s United States.

Presenter: Brian Scott Mueller, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Brian Mueller is a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research interests include radicalism, social movements, intellectual history, and U.S. foreign policy. His first book, Democracy’s Think Tank: The Institute for Policy Studies and Progressive Foreign Policy, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2021. He has also published articles in several peer-reviewed journals, including Peace & Change (“Waging Peace in a Disarmed World: Arthur Waskow’s Vision of a Nonlethal Cold War), Diplomatic History (“Confronting America’s National Security State: The Institute for Policy Studies and the Vietnam War”), and the Journal for the Study of Radicalism (“An Alternative to Revolution: Marcus Raskin’s Theory of Social Reconstruction”). Mueller’s current project is provisionally titled Faith & Solidarity: The Central America Peace Movement in Reagan's America, which aims to illustrate the myriad ties between the faith-based movement to end U.S. intervention in Central America and the more politically-oriented solidarity activists seeking victory for the armed revolutionary forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua.