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Duke Flags Lowered: Historian Lawrence Goodwyn Dies

Lawrence Goodwyn, a professor of history at Duke from 1971 until his retirement in 2003 died in Durham on Sept. 29.

Passionate about social democracy and racial justice, Goodwyn helped change the history of America's past and the political environment of every place he lived and worked.

As a writer for the Texas Observer in the 1960s, he worked with Ronnie Dugger and others to carve out a new niche for independent, progressive politics in Texas. Never afraid to take on the titans of Democratic conservatism, he helped create the space that permitted Ralph Yarborough to be elected U.S. Senator from Texas. As one of the key leaders of the civil rights coalition in Texas, Larry worked closely with Latino, white and African American activists to help make possible the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Returning to graduate school at the University of Texas, Larry pursued research that merged his passion for social justice with his love of grass roots political insurgency. He helped pioneer a new interpretation of the Populist movement in America, and especially the critical role that blacks played in the movement. His pathbreaking book, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America, set a new standard for those seeking to understand the local origins of the populist revolt. More than any other scholar, he conveyed the ways that the values of a democratic culture informed the nation's most powerful grass roots democratic rebellion prior to the civil rights movement. Goodwyn brought those same insights to his widely praised study of the Solidarity Movement in Poland.

Upon learning of his death, Wesley Hogan, historian, author, former Goodwyn  graduate student  and current director of  The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, said, "Larry's work brought us face to face with a raw truth: Everyday people do not rebel instinctively to hard times and exploitation. Most of us have been culturally organized by society not to rebel -- farmers, steel workers, day laborers, and sharecroppers -- found stunning new ways to act democratically. He made this history vivid and touchable. He encouraged us to dream democracy anew through their actions."

The son of a career army officer, Goodwyn was born in Ft. Huachuca, Ariz., in 1928. An unlikely English major at Texas A&M (his father, the Colonel, forced him to become an Aggie after Goodwyn's older brother flunked out of The University of Texas), he survived his 4 years by playing a great deal of poker. He served as an Army captain during the Korean War and returned to Texas to work in the oil business.

When he moved to Austin in the late 1950's, his life's work began to take shape. He served as U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough's advance man during Yarborough's campaigns for Texas governor and the Senate.  As a writer and editor for the muckraking periodical, The Texas Observer, Goodwyn laid bare the corrupt workings of a Texas legislature soaked in oil money during the era that preceded the iconic Observer editor Molly Ivins.  During the 1960's, at Schultz's Beer Garden in Austin, he joined a roundtable of influential Texas writers that included Ronnie Dugger, Willie Morris, Larry L. King and Larry McMurtry.

It was the arrival of civil rights movement, which forged Goodwyn's insights into the nature of democratic movements.  Covering desegregation and voter registration campaigns initiated by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, Goodwyn soon became a participant.  He founded the Texas Coalition, a political alliance of African American, Hispanic, and labor groups that battled conservatives and registered Texas minorities to vote. In 1968, Goodwyn joined and helped organize a group of Texas liberals that campaigned against Lyndon Johnson running for reelection. Billboards around Austin begged the president from Texas, "Lyndon come home.”

After earning his Ph.D. at the University of Texas, Goodwyn founded the Oral History Program at Duke with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Goodwyn's  Democratic Promise was praised in both the popular press and academic journals.  "Lawrence Goodwyn has given us a potential boost toward collective self-examination," Robert Coles wrote in The New Yorker, "at a time when we need just that."

Terry Sanford recruited Goodwyn to Duke in the fall of 1971 to start the oral history program. He partnered with Bill Chafe, another new history professor. With the support of senior colleagues, they launched a graduate program that over the next 15 years raised nearly $2 million in outside grants and helped to recruit more than two dozen students. The graduates of the Duke Oral History program helped rewrite the history of the civil rights movement, focusing on the role of black activists in local communities who created the infrastructure of the civil rights revolution.

A majority of the students who came to Duke as part of the oral history program were African American. They published nearly 20 books, and won numerous national history prizes. Their work helped transform the way civil rights history is written in America, and the way history is taught in universities across the country.   

Always provocative and challenging, Goodwyn challenged, inspired and transformed the lives of three generations of Duke students, graduates and undergraduates. His legacy lives on with those students and their commitment to the ideals he served so well.

Pugnacious by nature, Goodwyn helped lead the successful campaign to keep the Nixon Presidential Library out of Duke University.   A lifetime bridge player, authority on World War II, and impassioned fan of the Dallas Cowboys, the Atlanta Braves, and, especially, the Duke Blue Devils basketball team, he is survived by his wife and editor of 55 years Nell, his daughter Lauren, professor of biology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and son Wade, correspondent for National Public Radio.