Hurricane Camille: Race, Rights and Disaster Relief
National Endowment for the Humanities – Summer Stipend
Award Amount: $6,000
Andrew Morris, associate professor of history, is the recipient of the NEH Summer Stipend grant. Summer Stipends support individuals pursuing full-time advanced research on a humanities project for a period of two consecutive months that is of value to humanities scholars, general audiences, or both and support .
Hurricane Camille, which devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969, brought the failures of disaster relief in the United States into sharp focus. Scouring the coast of a state still the emblem of resistance to civil rights for African Americans, the racial dimensions of relief quickly achieved national prominence. Dr. Gilbert Mason, a victim of the hurricane and also the head of the Biloxi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, thundered to a Senate investigating committee that the Red Cross, the putative first line of defense for individual disaster victims, “made black folks beg, cajole, scheme, grovel and become sycophants” in order to gain relief. But the need to reach beyond traditional sources of assistance transcended race and political ideology. One white survivor in Mississippi wrote his Congressman, William Colmer, “I hesitate to write this letter since I share your conservative ways and like to be able to say, ‘I did it my way.’” “However…,” he added, listing his travails since the storm, “…I find myself forced to seek assistance.” Camille would strike a decisive blow in favor of the federal assumption of responsibility for disaster relief, and the rights of Americans for a claim on the nation for help in the wake of calamity.
Disasters punctuate American history, and yet we lack a clear history of the shifting assumptions of where responsibility for disaster relief should lie, and the personal and political circumstances that shaped those assumptions. My book, a broad narrative titled Hurricane Camille: Race, Rights and Disaster Relief, places this storm at the turning point in this history. As I will demonstrate, expansion of federal disaster relief during this period built on broader expectations of a public social safety net in the postwar era, combined with specific, high-profile failures of the existing network of voluntary, state and federal disaster programs in a series of disasters during the 1960s. But it also owed much to the particularities of this hurricane in Mississippi, one of immense scope that rolled across a stage already familiar to most Americans through the tragedies and triumphs of the civil rights movement. The expectations and controversy surrounding the relief effort in Mississippi—though peculiar in some ways to that state’s politics and demographics— nonetheless opened up disaster relief to the same forces that had pushed other areas of social policy toward a broader federal role.