This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Louis Austin and the Carolina Times: A Life in the Long Black Freedom Struggle was recently published by The University of North Carolina Press.
The author of Louis Austin and the Carolina Times is Jerry Gershenhorn, the Julius L. Chambers Professor of History at North Carolina Central University, specializing in twentieth century United States history, African American history, and North Carolina history. He has taught at NCCU for twenty-five years. He earned graduate degrees in history, an M.A. from North Carolina Central University and a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2004, the University of Nebraska Press published Dr. Gershenhorn’s first book, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge. His second book is Louis Austin and the Carolina Times: A Life in the Long Black Freedom Struggle (University of North Carolina Press, 2018). He has also published articles in the Journal of African American History, the North Carolina Historical Review, Journalism History, and Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society. He serves on the Executive Committee of the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association and on the Board of Directors of the Museum of Durham History. He is vice president of the Historical Society of North Carolina. In 2010, he was awarded the R.D.W Connor Award from the Historical Society of North Carolina for the outstanding article in the 2009-10 North Carolina Historical Review. In 2009, he was Scholar-In-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. Follow him on Twitter @JerryGersh1.
Louis Austin (1898–1971) came of age at the nadir of the Jim Crow era and became a transformative leader of the long Black freedom struggle in North Carolina. From 1927 to 1971, he published and edited the Carolina Times, the preeminent Black newspaper in the state. He used the power of the press to voice the anger of Black Carolinians, and to turn that anger into action in a forty-year crusade for freedom.
In this biography, Jerry Gershenhorn chronicles Austin’s career as a journalist and activist, highlighting his work during the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar civil rights movement. Austin helped pioneer radical tactics during the Depression, including antisegregation lawsuits, boycotts of segregated movie theaters and white-owned stores that refused to hire Black workers, and African American voting rights campaigns based on political participation in the Democratic Party. In examining Austin’s life, Gershenhorn narrates the story of the long Black freedom struggle in North Carolina from a new vantage point, shedding new light on the vitality of Black protest and the Black press in the twentieth century.
Fearless newspaper editor and freedom fighter Louis Austin worked for decades to lay the foundation for the civil rights movement that matured in the 1950s. Austin’s grasp of legal strategy and publicity campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s molded a generation of activists who followed his lead. Gershenhorn does justice to this virtually unknown hero, and the book will become a classroom favorite in classes on African American freedom struggles in the twentieth century.”—Glenda Gilmore, Peter V. and C. Van Woodward Professor of History, Yale University
Keisha N. Blain: Please share with us the creation story of your book–those experiences, those factors, those revelations that caused you to research this specific area and produce this unique book.
Jerry Gershenhorn: I first learned about Louis Austin and The Carolina Times (Durham, NC) when I was in graduate school at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) during the 1990s working on my master’s thesis on the historian Earlie E. Thorpe. When Thorpe was serving in the U.S. Army in Italy during World War II, he wrote a letter to the editor of The Carolina Times, Thorpe’s letter criticized Black leaders in Durham for failing to “stand . . . firmly” for equal opportunity and equal justice. As I began to read The Carolina Times, I saw that Austin’s editorials matched and often went beyond Thorpe’s forthright message in support of racial justice. Following an interval of about a decade, in which I completed my thesis, and then a dissertation and a book on another topic, I returned to my earlier interest in Austin and The Carolina Times.The more I read The Carolina Times, I became transfixed by Louis Austin’s passionate and forceful editorials. He did not pull his punches. When white employers refused to hire Black workers during World War II, Austin called them “contemptible jackasses” who were “throttling this nation’s efforts to save our shores.” When U.S. Senator from North Carolina Clyde Hoey spoke out against civil rights in 1949, Austin denounced his “long asinine diatribe against Negroes.” And Austin’s activism was not limited to the printed word. In the 1930s, Austin helped initiate the first lawsuit to challenge racial segregation in higher education in the South. In the same decade, he also promoted boycotts of stores that refused to hire African Americans and movie theaters that conspired to censor movies in which Black and white actors appeared in scenes on an “equal basis.”
I looked for references to Austin or the Times in historical writings. I found a few, some of which highlighted the editor’s courage and forthrightness in the struggle against white supremacy. But there was no article, thesis, dissertation, or book on this important leader in the Black freedom struggle in North Carolina. As I dug deeper, I found that little had been published on the role of the southern Black press in the civil rights movement. I wanted to know more about the role of the southern Black press in the long Black struggle, and so I began to research and write about Austin’s advocacy journalism and civil rights leadership in North Carolina during the Depression and World War II eras. Since Austin’s activism continued into the early 1970s, and the Times regularly published stories of brave Black Carolinians who risked their lives in the fight for racial justice, a book on Austin could also provide a window into the larger story of the long Black freedom struggle in North Carolina. My hope is that this work brings attention to the movement in North Carolina, the critical role of the southern Black press, and the incredibly courageous advocacy and life of Louis Austin.