Legal Landscapes, Migrant Labor, and Rural Social Safety Nets: A World of Neighbors and Strangers in Michigan before State v. Shack, 1942-1965
Law & Social Inquiry, 2021, 1-40. In the 1960s, farmers pressed trespass charges against aid workers providing assistance to agricultural laborers living on the farmers’ private property. Some of the first court decisions to address these types of trespass, such as the well-known and frequently taught State v. Shack (1971), limited the property rights of farmers and enabled aid workers to enter camps where migrants lived. Yet there was a world before Shack, a world in which farmers welcomed onto their land rural religious groups, staffed largely by women from the local community, who provided services to migrant workers. This article uses Michigan as a case study to examine the informal safety net those rural women created and how it ultimately strengthened the very economic and legal structures that left agricultural workers vulnerable. From the 1940s through the 1960s, federal, state, and local law left large gaps in labor protections and government services for migrant agricultural laborers in Michigan. In response, church women created rural safety nets that mobilized local generosity and provided aid. These informal safety nets also policed migrant morality, maintained rural segregation, and performed surveillance of community outsiders, thereby serving the farmers’ goals of having a reliable and cheap labor force.
Winks, Whispers, and Prosecutorial Discretion in Rural Iowa, 1925-1928
Annals of Iowa, 79:3 (Summer 2020), 247-83. Through the eyes of Charles Pendleton’s memoirs, this article explores the use of prosecutorial discretion in one rural county in 1920s Iowa. Rural communities like those in Buena Vista County, Iowa, experienced “the law” through distinctly isolated geographies and social networks that lacked anonymity and thus shaped available methods of conflict resolution. Colin Johnson has called this lack of anonymity, “onymousness—their named-ness and known-ness,” and it altered patterns of dispute and dispute resolution in small communities. But onymity did not mean homogeneity. Ethnic, racial, and religious diversity created divisions within a community where social distance between individuals was small. Both onymity and diversity shaped who should have access to which type of sanctions and remedies. Some transgressions of the law did not always align with transgressions of social norms. In those cases, illustrated most clearly in bootlegging, Pendleton’s exercise of prosecutorial discretion adhered closely to the letter of the law. In other cases, social transgressions did align with legal transgressions, but often formal legal processes were not triggered in response. Sorting out some of the ways rural social networks informed these discretionary decisions is the aim of this article.
Law & Laundry: White Laundresses, Chinese Laundrymen, and the Origins of Muller v. Oregon
Studies in Law, Politics, & Society, Vol. 83, (2020) p. 23-56. (Contact me if you have trouble accessing this article.) This article uses the historian’s method of micro-history to rethink the significance of the Supreme Court decision Muller v. Oregon (1908). Typically considered a labor law decision permitting the regulation of women’s work hours, the article argues that through particular attention to the specific context in which the labor dispute took place—the laundry industry in Portland, Oregon—the Muller decision and underlying conflict should be understood as not only about sex-based labor rights but also about how the labor of laundry specifically involved race-based discrimination. The article investigates the most important conflicts behind the Muller decision, namely the entangled histories of white laundresses’ labor and labor activism in Portland, as well as the labor of their competitors—Chinese laundrymen. In so doing, the article offers an intersectional reading of Muller that incorporates regulations on Chinese laundries and places the decision in conversation with a long line of anti-Chinese laundry legislation on the West Coast, including that at issue in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886).
Law and Local Activism: Uncovering the Civil Rights History of Chambers v. Mississippi
California Law Review, Vol. 101, p. 445, 2013 Countless academics have examined and discussed the importance of Chambers v. Mississippi in a multitude of areas including compulsory due process, admission of hearsay, third party guilt evidence, false confessions, racial evaluations of hearsay and witnesses, and morally reasonable verdicts. In contrast, this article attempts to excavate the account of a rural Mississippi community’s struggle for rights that underlies the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Chambers. On its face, the case has no link or reference to the civil rights movement. However, this paper reveals that local civil rights activists took armed, direct economic action for equal rights Woodville, Mississippi, and that activism characterized the events that precipitated the June 14, 1969 killing of Officer Aaron Liberty-Woodville’s black police officer. The article concludes by developing two interrelated claims that are supported by the recovered narrative: in the narrative-which takes place in the gap between secured rights and on the ground realities-law is both everywhere and nowhere. National litigation influences the terms of exchange between the local movement and white opposition, while micro-mobilizations of the law through local law enforcement continually operate to suppress civil rights activity. At the same time, there is an absence of legal protections for the black community, who in response mobilizes an extra-legal self-defense group to bolster the power of boycotts and protect black neighborhoods.