BOOK REVIEW: Fragments of history and the fight for human rights



By Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi

(Berkeley: Heyday, 2009, 512 pp., $24.95, paperback)

In “Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California,” authors Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi take the reader on a tour de force through the history of California’s ongoing struggle for civil liberties. In the vein of popular histories like Howard Zinn’s “A Peoples History of the United States,” Elinson and Yogi write their eminently readable history of the state not just from the vantage point of elites in power but from the bottom up, utilizing, as they write, “fragments of history, illuminating incidents, and personal stories to illustrate the impact of civil liberties — and the lack of them — on people’s lives.”

Spanning the Gold Rush years to the present day, the authors develop an impressive historical scope from which they weave their narratives and draw their lessons. The history they present is one marred with vigilante attacks on Chinese immigrants, persecution and deportation of Mexicans, and the extermination Native Americans at the hands of white nativists. Yet far from a narrative of victimization, the authors, both longtime ACLU staff, detail the struggles to counteract violence and injustice and gain equal footing for the historically oppressed peoples of the state, both in the legal system and on the street. These include efforts to gain social equality and representation for ethnic minorities, the enfranchisement movement for women and the on-going struggle for equal protection under the law for members of the LGBT community. Issues of labor and people with disabilities are given due attention, as are efforts to protect free speech and political expression.

The central role the authors afford to the World War II concentration camps is also interesting for readers following Nikkei issues. Exploring disturbing parallels between the incarceration of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor with the round-up of thousands of Muslim Americans after 9/11, Elinson and Yogi argue that anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and the breakdowns of the criminal justice system “crystallized” in the decision to incarcerate the Japanese Americans. In exploring the various linkages between our historical struggles for civil liberties, the authors show how the issue of rights cannot be reduced to a single group or interest, but rather, must be seen as a struggled shared across the diverse peoples of the state.

Finally, however bleak certain episodes of the state’s history may seem, what we see in the book is a California “transformed from a storm of vigilante injustices into a state where rights are recognized by law.” Thus, Elinson and Yogi offer a vision that is both sobering and inspiring, an index of all that has changed in the state, but also, sadly, all the remains to be done in the struggle of equality and justice in California.

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