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Historian Leon Litwack Retires with Golden Apple

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday April 20, 2007

Images of a young Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar ablaze flickered across the screen at the UC Berkeley Wheeler Auditorium on Wednesday. The film Berkeley in the ’60s was not just entertainment for the some hundred students from History 7B (American History since 1865)—it was classwork. 

“When I sat on the advisory committee for this movie in 1990, it was History 7B who viewed it for the first time,” said Leon Litwack, the professor who, after teaching the class for decades is teaching it for the last time.  

He told the class Wednesday that he had asked those students to help him edit the movie by suggesting cuts. “But they said, ‘Don’t touch it,’” he said with a laugh. “Fortunately for you, we did touch it, or else you would have had to be here for three hours tonight.” 

Litwack, 77, retires from UC Berkeley this month, and students, faculty and alumni celebrated him Tuesday for his distinguished career as an award-winning scholar and much loved teacher of social history, specializing in African-American history and the history of civil rights, by honoring him with the Golden Apple. 

The award, in its third year, goes to a faculty member for outstanding teaching. Although Litwak is no stranger to awards, having won the Pulitzer Prize and Newsweek’s “Giving Back” awards among others, he calls winning the Golden Apple the finest moment in his career. 

“It’s special, you know,” he said, sitting in his office at 3317 Dwinelle Hall Wednesday. “Because it came from the students.” 

Litwack’s finest moment as a student, he said, came when he was asked to introduce Henry Wallace, who had run for president on the Progressive Party ticket the year before, at a campus event in 1949. 

“I had long admired him as a personal challenge to conventional wisdom, and I finally got to meet him,” he said. 

Portraits of free-speech advocate Mario Savio and American civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois hang behind Litwack in his office, as do rows and rows of books on the civil rights movement and African-American history. 

“I grew up on the east side of Santa Barbara, in a primarily Hispanic neighborhood. My parents were immigrants from Ukraine and my neighbors were immigrants from Mexico,” he reminisced. 

“I was a first-generation American and most of my friends were first-generation Americans,” he said. “I went to history class in school looking for the stories of these people. Instead I got the Pilgrims, the Puritans and the Founding Fathers. It made me realize that it had nothing to do with my history.” 

Litwack said that he challenged the notion of slavery and black reconstruction as early as eleventh grade, after reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction. 

“I had read Howard Fast and he talked about a part of the past that no one was interested in. I learned that the whole notion that slaves were happy and contented under slavery was incorrect. People thought they were serving a humane purpose in civilizing them, as if they had been uncivilized before. No one talked to the slaves or took their stories into account. My high school teacher found my point valid enough to grant me 50 minutes of class time.” 

Litwack said that since historians often relied on the records of privileged people who had time to write journals and diaries, they assumed that the history of working class people could not be reclaimed. 

“But that is not true,” he said, “Ordinary people might not necessarily keep their records in writing, but they do so through their music, songs, storytelling and humor. These should be areas of interest to any historian.” 

Litwack’s interest in pop culture is evident from the random Andy Warhol “Pink Cow” postcard, the Aretha Franklin pin-up and a host of other knick-knacks in his room that come from the world outside academia. His house is a labyrinth of books from all around the world, and he plans to add to them from the collection in his office. 

“I don’t like computers,” he said, “and the first thing I read in the morning is the SF Chronicle sports page. I also try to read the Times, Rolling Stone magazine and the Nation.” 

The professor is, among other things, an avid listener of hip-hop. 

“There are some who like it and others who think it is sacrilegious, just like they said about the blues back in the ’20s,” he said smiling. “I think hip-hop is the essence of day-to-day life. It is what rapper Ice-T meant by a ‘cry from the bottom.’ If I teach a survey course, that’s something I want to point out.” 

It’s not just Litwack’s love for hip-hop that makes him something of a rebel. He admits that he has always been one. 

“When I first came to Berkeley in 1949 as an undergraduate, there was no civil rights movement,” he recalled, “but we challenged the discriminatory practices in hiring, in housing and in the workplace. We used to go up to a house which had a ‘For Rent’ sign, and after a black person had been rejected, the whites among us would go up and ask if the place was available. And then, of course, it would be. We would use this as a way to break down the unfair practice.” 

Litwack acknowledged that racism was still alive in modern America, albeit expressed in more subtle ways. 

“We do our best to hide it, we pretend to be concerned, but it is a great hypocrisy,” he said. “Racism is not a southern problem. It is a northern and a southern problem.” 

Although retirement is around the corner, Litwack said that it wasn’t because he was tired of teaching. 

“I love to teach, but there is a voyage I have been wanting to take for a long time. Come October, I will be off to the Dalmatian Coast.” He also has two book contracts to finish. 

Litwack’s advice to his students has always been to research and write well. “But I don’t recommend Wikipedia as a source for your term paper,” he said laughing. “If you look me up there, you will see I retired five years ago.”