Thomas Sugrue

Thomas Sugrue is a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race.

On 22 November 1963, just over two hours after an assassin’s bullet killed President Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, the vice president, took the oath of office in a hastily improvised ceremony aboard Air Force One. The jowly LBJ stood side by side with the grieving widow, her jacket and blouse stained with Kennedy’s blood and brain matter. An official photographer, armed with two...

In the United States the flag has the status of a religious icon, a totem. It cannot be carried horizontally or flat, but must always be ‘aloft and free’. There is a protocol for folding it, it can’t touch the ground, it can’t be burned except when it is worn out or irreparably damaged and then only as part of a special ritual. Military men and women salute it, civilians hold their right hands over their left breasts when singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and schoolchildren pledge allegiance to it. It is also a ubiquitous presence in the American landscape. The Red, White and Blue waves from people’s porches, flies over car dealerships and gas stations and adorns flower-pots; cars are festooned with it in the form of bumper stickers, window decals and antenna pennants. The flag decorates the altars of churches of every denomination except those of a few dissenting sects. And it has become a necessary accessory for political candidates. Early in his campaign, Barack Obama was criticised for his unpatriotic failure to display a flag lapel pin: as president-elect he now regularly wears one.

In 2004, with the re-election of George W. Bush, the Republicans seemed invincible. Bush’s consigliere, Karl Rove, interpreted the election as the sign of a realignment and pushed for a hyperconservative politics which would create a ‘permanent Republican majority’. Now, only three years later, in the midst of America’s absurdly long presidential election cycle, the...

AmeriKKKa: Civil Rights v. Black Power

Thomas Sugrue, 5 October 2006

It is canonical in the American classroom, on television and in popular culture to celebrate the black civil rights movement as the triumph of American universalism, the vindication of the ‘American creed’ of egalitarianism, colour blindness and individual liberty against the forces of oppression that long held blacks in a subservient status. Americans remember the struggle for...

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