Top Young Historians: 27 – Kevin M. Kruse


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

27: Kevin M. Kruse, 8-7-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor of History, Princeton University
Area of Research: political, social, and urban/suburban history of 20th-century America, with particular interest in the making of modern conservatism. Focused on conflicts over race, rights, and religion, he also studies the postwar South and modern suburbia.
Education: 2000 Ph.D., History, Cornell University
Major Publications: Kruse is the author of White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 2005), a recent selection for the Holiday Book List of The New Republic. Kevin Kruse JPGHe is also co-editor of The New Suburban History (University of Chicago Press, 2006) with Thomas J. Sugrue. He is currently co-editing two additional collections now under review — one on global urban history and another on the impact of the Second World War on the civil rights movement. He is also working on a new research project, titled One Nation Under God: Cold War Christianity and the Origins of the Religious Right.
Awards: Kruse is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including:
2006-2008, Behrman Fellowship in the Humanities, Princeton University;
2003-2006, David L. Rike University Preceptorship in History, Princeton University ;
2002, Spencer Foundation, Research Grant;
1999-2000, Andrew Mellon Dissertation Fellowship;
1998, Ihlder Fellowship, Cornell University;
1998, Hughes-Gossett Prize, Supreme Court Historical Society;
1998, John S. Knight Prize for Freshman Writing Seminars, Cornell University;
1998, Industrial and Labor Relations Fellowship, Cornell University;
1997, Andrew Mellon Fellowship;
1994-1995, Henry Sage Fellowship, Cornell University;
1993, Phi Beta Kappa.
Additional Info:
Kruse is affiliated with Princeton University’s Program in Law and Public Affairs, a joint venture of the Politics Department, the University Center for Human Values, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Manuscript Referee for Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, University of Chicago Press.
Articles Referee for Journal of American History Book Reviewer for “American Historical Review,” “Journal of American History,” “Reviews in American History,” “Journal of Southern History,” “Social History,” “American Journal of Legal History.”

Personal Anecdote

As two years of dissertation research in Atlanta came to a close, I realized that I still hadn’t conducted a single interview. Oral histories were all the rage at the time, and as a result, no matter how much great material I found in manuscript collections and government archives, I still felt I hadn’t done enough.

Now, in my defense, I had always wanted to interview the segregationists at the heart of my story. But they apparently had other plans. A few refused to return my letters and calls, while a disturbingly large number chose death before the dishonor of meeting me. The Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, most notably, passed away weeks before I moved to Atlanta. In my early research, I’d discovered that, when he wasn’t moonlighting as a racist terrorist, the Grand Dragon ran a dry cleaners. I found the gap between the two identities striking. (There was, I suppose, a perverse sense in a man wearing sheets at night and cleaning them by day.) I’d wanted to see for myself what kind of man could walk that line, but I’d never get the chance.

With my subjects passing away as I reached out to them, I nearly gave up on interviews altogether. I had unearthed an incredible wealth of material in the archives and drawn on transcripts of interviews conducted by other scholars – ones who apparently had the ability to approach their subjects without causing death. I felt I had more than enough material to craft a decent history and an engaging story. So why bother?

But late in my research, I stumbled across a recent newspaper interview with the most significant segregationist in my story – Lester Maddox. Maddox had gained notoriety for chasing civil rights activists away from his fried chicken restaurant with a pistol; his son, meanwhile, was armed with what would become Maddox’s trademark ax-handle. Soon thereafter, Maddox became a martyr for segregationists by closing his business down rather than have it “ruined” by integration. Ultimately, his fierce resistance to integration landed him in the governor’s mansion.

Because of Maddox’s centrality to my story, I knew I had to interview him. Over the telephone, he kindly agreed and arranged for me to drive out to his home in the suburbs. The day before our meeting, however, the 85-year-old called to say his health had taken a turn for the worse and he’d be coming into the city for an emergency visit with his doctor. Here we go again, I thought.

Maddox offered to meet me in my neighborhood to conduct the interview. Trying to find an appropriate place to meet, I suggested a coffee shop around the corner. The last time I’d been there, it was empty, with just a middle-aged couple working the counter and playing soft classical music. It seemed like the perfect place for an interview.

Walking in a few minutes before our meeting, however, I found a somewhat different scene. Behind the register stood a teenager with multiple piercings and bright purple hair pulled up in dreadlocks. And instead of classical music, the speakers were now blaring disco hits from the `70s. Trying to make the best of the situation, I nervously grabbed a coffee and found a table in the corner.

I had barely taken my seat when Maddox walked in. He was wearing a seersucker suit, horn-rimmed glasses, and a lapel pin of the Confederate battle flag. He even wore a wristwatch he once manufactured and sold, with his caricature in the center and a chicken drumstick and ax-handle marking the minute and hour. An editorial cartoonist couldn’t have drawn a more classic image of a Southern segregationist. For a second I sat there, soaking in the sight.

Suddenly, I realized what song was blaring from the coffee shop’s speakers: “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.”

Once I controlled my laughter, the interview was no problem at all.


By Kevin M. Kruse

  • If we truly seek to understand segregationists – not to excuse or absolve them, but understand them – then we must first understand how they understood themselves. Until now, because of the tendency to focus on the reactionary leaders of massive resistance, segregationists have largely been understood as simply the opposition to the civil rights movement. They have been framed as a group focused solely on suppressing the rights of others, whether that be the larger cause of “civil rights” or any number of individual entitlements, such as the rights of blacks to vote, assemble, speak, protest, or own property. Segregationists, of course, did stand against those things, and often with bloody and brutal consequences. But like all people, they did not think of themselves in terms of what they opposed, but rather in terms of what they supported. White Flight JPGThe conventional wisdom has held that they were only fighting against the rights of others. But in their own minds, segregationists were instead fighting for rights of their own – such as the “right” to select their neighbors, their employees, and their children’s classmates, the “right” to do as they pleased with their private property and personal businesses, and, perhaps most importantly, the “right” to remain free from what they saw as dangerous encroachments by the federal government. To be sure, all of these positive “rights” were grounded in a negative system of discrimination and racism. In the minds of segregationists, however, such rights existed all the same. Indeed, from their perspective, it was clearly they who defended individual freedom, and not the “‘so-called’ civil rights activists” who aligned themselves with a powerful central state, demanded increased governmental regulation of local affairs, and waged a sustained assault on the individual economic, social and political prerogatives of others. The true goal of desegregation, these white Southerners insisted, was not to end the system of racial oppression in the South, but to install a new system that oppressed them instead. As this study demonstrates, Southern whites fundamentally understood their support of segregation as a defense of their own liberties, rather than a denial of others’.” — Kevin M. Kruse in “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism”
  • New Suburban History JPG “Postwar suburbanization was fundamentally intertwined with the processes that reshaped postwar urban America, including capital flight, the concentration of African Americans in central cities, the hardening of racial divisions in housing markets, and the large-scale shift of governmental resources away from urban centers. Suburbs played a distinct role in the redrawing of racial and ethnic boundaries, in the reconfiguration of the role of the federal government, in the remapping of capital in America’s geography, and in the rise of some of the most important postwar social movements, ranging from the New Right to modern environmentalism. For all these reasons and more, suburbanization has come to affect all aspects of postwar life. Any effort to understand modern America must put suburbs at the center. The two are inseparable.” — Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue in “New Suburban History”

About Kevin M. Kruse

  • “In White Flight, a study of white resistance to desegregation in Atlanta, Kruse produces a panoramic and engaging portrayal of the struggle over desegregation.” — Ronald Brownstein, American Prospect reviewing “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism”
  • “Kruse presents a nuanced portrayal of the trends that fostered the growth of the suburbs and the casting aside of racist demagoguery.” — Jonathan Tilove, Times-Picayune reviewing “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism”
  • “White Flight is a myth-shattering book. Focusing on the city that prided itself as ‘too busy to hate,’ Kevin Kruse reveals the everyday ways that middle-class whites in Atlanta resisted civil rights, withdrew from the public sphere, and in the process fashioned a new, grassroots, suburban-based conservatism. This important book has national implications for our thinking about the links between race, suburbanization, and the rise of the New Right.” — Thomas J. Sugrue, Kahn Professor of History and Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, author of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis” reviewing “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism”
  • “This is an imaginative work that ably treats an important subject. Kruse gets beyond and beneath Atlanta’s image as a place of racial moderation, the national center of the civil rights movement, and a seedbed of black political power to reveal other simultaneous, important currents at work.” — Clifford Kuhn, Georgia State University reviewing “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism”
  • “In his study of Atlanta over the last 60 years, Kevin Kruse convincingly describes the critical connections between race, Sun Belt suburbanization, the rise of the new Republican majority. White Flight is a powerful and compelling book that should be read by anyone interested in modern American politics and post-World War II urban history.” — Dan Carter, University of South Carolina reviewing “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism”
  • “Kevin Kruse recasts our understanding of the conservative resistance to the civil rights movement. Shifting the spotlight from racial extremists to ordinary white urban dwellers, he shows that “white flight” to the suburbs was among the most powerful social movements of our time. That movement not only reconfigured the urban landscape, it also transformed political ideology, laying the groundwork for the rise of the New Right and undermining the commitment of white Americans to the common good. No one can read this book and come away believing that the politics of suburbia are colorblind.” — Jacquelyn Hall, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill reviewing “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism”
  • “He just stood out from the crowd. From the first time we read the dissertation, we knew we were dealing with an exceptional historian. And he’s turned into exactly what we hoped: a bold and pioneering emerging star in his field.” — Jeremy Adelman, chair of Princeton’s history department on Kevin M. Kruse in “Princeton Weekly Bulletin”
  • “Professor Kruse was an incredible lecturer. His lectures were always perfectly timed, engaging, informative, and interesting.”…
    “Kruse is by far the best lecturer I’ve had at Princeton.”…
    “This is the best class I’ve taken at Princeton and maybe ever. The lectures were stimulating, honest, and overall incredible – I was moved to tears once.”…
    “Kruse’s lectures are not to be missed. His organization is impeccable, he speaks clearly, and he’s funny too.”…
    “Prof. Kruse genuinely cares about his students–he wants them to do well. He makes his lectures engaging, adding variety with different forms of media. I never got bored during his lectures as he has a great presence even in a large lecture hall like McCosh 10. He is extremely well organized and makes his expectations clear to his students from the very beginning of the semester. Nothing comes out of left field. In precept, he encourages debate and makes his precepts about the students, jumping in to clarify difficult concepts. Taking ANY of his courses will greatly add to your academic experience at Princeton!”…
    “Prof. Kruse is an excellent and outstanding professor. He is very engaging, a good lecturer, and picks excellent readings. He is also very thoughtful and goes the extra mile in giving feedback and in being responsive to student needs. I would strongly recommend him, even to those who are not inclined to take history classes. He makes the material rich and engaging.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, August 6, 2006 at 7:21 PM

%d bloggers like this: