Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

David Montgomery (1927-2011): Internationally Renowned Historian Struck Fear In Hearts of UK Auto Execs

This is the third in a series of posts honoring the memory of distinguished labor historian and Sol Stetin Award judge David Montgomery. (Part I, Part II)

Ever since late on the afternoon of December 2 when I received initial word of David Montgomery’s death, I have puzzled about what I might say that others have not said better and more fluently. There is little that I can add to Josh Freeman’s and David Brody’s encomia in this space or Jon Wiener’s on the Nation’s webpage. I can only second what others have said about Montgomery’s remarkable scholarship, and, in fact, I did so in print many years ago beginning with my review of his first book, Beyond Equality, and those that followed. Yet Brody perhaps was even more illuminating in suggesting that Montgomery’s greatest impact was on the graduate students that he trained at Pittsburgh first and then Yale, who became among their generation’s leading historians. In fact, I had direct experience of that impact when in the winter of 1973, the members of my graduate seminar in labor history at Binghamton met for a weekend in Pittsburgh with Montgomery’s students. That relatively small group of students included Shelton Stromquist, Ronald Schatz, Peter Rachleff, Peter Gottlieb, Peter Friedlander, and Bryan Palmer, all of whom have since made an enormous impact for the better on labor history in particular and history in general. For such accomplishments, Montgomery deserved to be the first recipient of the Sidney Hillman Foundation’s Sol Stetin Award.

Instead of repeating what others have written, let me reflect on a few moments of a personal relationship that lasted over half a century and began in the summer of 1961 when Montgomery came down from Minneapolis to teach summer session at Northern Illinois University, my first academic home. We were candidates for the same position at the University of Pittsburgh, that David won, and less than a decade later I succeeded him at the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick where he and E.P. Thompson created the M.A. Program in Anglo-American Labor History. At Warwick I learned of the powerful impact that Montgomery had on British students and how he continued his political activism as well as his scholarship, speaking to Labour Party and trade union groups. It was his activism that caused the Rootes Motor Company (a subsidiary of Chrysler) to employ a private detective to investigate Montgomery and then seek to have him deported from England as an “undesirable person” through the offices of the university vice-chancellor. So it might be said that Montgomery’s influence led to the strike precipitated by the M.A. students in the Anglo-American Labour History program that shut down the university for the entire second term in 1970. Few American historians have had as great an international impact as Montgomery, whether through the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam or universities in Italy, Germany, France, and Latin America. Montgomery not only breathed new life into a stale historical backwater in the U.S., as Brody noted, but he did so as well on a global stage. He earned all the many honors that he received in a distinguished career, and his presence will be sorely missed by many too numerous to count.

Melvyn Dubofsky is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History & Sociology at Binghamton University. He is the winner of the 2011 Sol Stetin Award for Labor History.