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How Black Writers Sought Justice During the Jim Crow Era

In American media history, the Saturday Evening Post, often celebrated for its nostalgic portrayal of American life, undergoes a critical analysis in the groundbreaking book “Circulating Jim Crow: The Saturday Evening Post and the War Against Black Modernity” by Dr. Adam McKible, associate professor of English at John Jay College. This study challenges the idealized image of the iconic publication, exposing its deep connections to racist ideologies during the Jim Crow era, contrary to the widely held belief that the magazine offered an uncomplicated reflection of American life.

The book begins with Dr. McKible exploring the career of George Horace Lorimer, an editor who propelled the Saturday Evening Post to prominence during the modernist era and established the magazine’s remarkable influence. With a readership in the millions, the magazine played a pivotal role in shaping public opinion and influencing households across the nation. Under Lorimer’s editorship, the magazine fueled anti-immigration sentiments by promoting nativist politics and racial pseudoscience, contributing to policies that closed the nation’s borders to immigrants from diverse regions, including southern and eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.

“The magazine under Lorimer was very involved in ginning up anti-immigrant sentiment in America and making Americans suspicious of other Americans based on their racial origin,” said Dr. Mckible in an interview with John Jay Research.

Focusing on the Harlem Renaissance, Dr. McKible’s research also exposes how the Saturday Evening Post portrayed African Americans and responded to changes in Black American life during the Harlem Renaissance. He unveils the magazine’s subtle but insidious approach to addressing the era’s transformations, coining the phrase “register and re-contain” to describe how the magazine acknowledged black achievements only to undermine them through racist stereotyping.

Dr. McKible’s findings reveal that despite recognizing the emergence of black modernity, the magazine consistently endeavored to restrain and belittle black accomplishments, transforming them into subjects of ridicule or disregard. This dismissive approach extended to influential figures such as Booker T. Washington and other black leaders during the Harlem Renaissance, as the Saturday Evening Post downplayed their contributions.

In response, black writers resisted the magazine’s narratives by taking aim at the white writers who were widely recognized as Saturday Evening Post authors. By naming such figures, as famous Post authors as Octavus Roy Cohen and Irvin S. Cobb, Harlem Renaissance writers signaled their displeasure with and resistance to the caricatures and stereotypes perpetuated by Lorimer’s magazine.

“With the help of the Saturday Evening Post, America took on the work of establishing Jim Crow, legally and culturally. These were not legal efforts but instead cultural maneuvers designed to denigrate, demean and dismiss black humanity, to take back everything that happened during Reconstruction and destroy it,” says Dr. Mckible in an interview.

Expanding the history to contemporary implications, Dr. McKible emphasizes the importance of truth-telling, challenging nostalgia, recognizing that America’s history is fraught with complexities, and acknowledging the deep-rooted racial inequalities that persist.

“The contemporary media should always tell the truth,” Dr. Mckible emphasizes.

Dr. McKible’s groundbreaking research redefines our understanding of the Saturday Evening Post and contributes to contemporary discussions about media responsibility, representation, and the ongoing struggle for racial equality.

Read about Dr. McKible’s Research here.

Bringing Justice Back to the System: Impact Magazine 2018-19

cover image for Fairer Justice feature article - Impact 2018-19
‘Bernhard Goetz Trial,’ 1987 – courtesy of the artist, Aggie Whelan Kenny

Although it may seem obvious, the basic question of fairness is of huge concern to those interested in reforming our nation’s criminal justice system. This is especially important in the courtroom. “The administration of justice,” says John Jay constitutional law professor Gloria Browne-Marshall, “is supposed to be done as equally under the law as possible.” That’s the concept of due process.headshot - Gloria Browne-Marshall

But the system doesn’t always work fairly. “Mass incarceration … is unfortunately disproportionately shouldered by people of color,” said Browne-Marshall. So how do we change things to ensure equitable outcomes?

Behind the scenes, a host of scholars at John Jay College are leading the charge to develop findings, share knowledge, and train officers of the court to promote courtroom practices that are more impartial and lead to real justice. Read on to be introduced to these scholars, or read the full feature article on pages 16-17 of this year’s Impact research magazine.

Taking Better Testimony

headshot of Deryn Strange

Young or old, witnesses can be unreliable. “The most important finding is that memory is malleable and reconstructive, rather than an exact replica of any given event,” said Deryn Strange, a professor of psychology. Adult memories, especially when recounting traumatic experiences, can change over time and with the introduction of new information. Memories may incorporate intrusive thoughts, or even warp to include what the individual wishes she did differently.

Strange, who not only does research on memory but also educates courtroom officials, believes that whenever someone’s memory is on trial, judges, juries and lawyers all need to understand the power and limitations of human memory. Otherwise, decisions of guilt or innocence may very well be incorrect and unjust.

headshot of Kelly McWilliamsKelly McWilliams, an assistant professor in psychology, focuses her research on children in the witness box, specifically how they use and understand language, and experience memory. Children’s memories are more limited than adults’, and they are susceptible to the introduction of false memories through questioning. Gaining helpful testimony from young witnesses depends more on the questions asked than on their abilities.

McWilliams’s research builds on recommendations from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development — like asking open-ended questions, using general prompts, and more. McWilliams tests new modes of questioning to gather details children might not share in response to an open-ended question, which may be necessary for charging decisions or establishing credibility. “These are practices that take into account what kids are capable of doing and what we should and shouldn’t be asking them to do as witnesses,” she says.

Understanding the Science

Courtroom participants — attorneys, judges, and jurors alike — can often use help determining which pieces of scientific evidence are credible. headshot of Margaret Bull KoveraMargaret Bull Kovera, a social psychologist by training, has researched this issue for two decades.

Evidence like repressed memories and bite analysis, and even fingerprint evidence, lack a solid basis in science. However, they often make their way into evidence, accompanied by expert witnesses, and parties to a trial may not know enough to challenge them. As a result, “they make decisions that are really not borne out by the evidence, if one were evaluating it properly,” says Kovera.

Kovera’s research is working toward a set of safeguards that contribute to better decision-making. The most promising method is simply to highlight flaws in the evidence during cross examination — something that attorneys can be trained to do — or opposing experts can help provide context. In the end, procedure that relies on solid science helps result in fairer justice.

Open to Interpretation

headshot of Aida Martinez-GomezThe quest for fairness doesn’t end at conviction. Post-incarceration, language access is an important part of accessing necessary services and treatment in prison. According to Aída Martínez-Gómez, an associate professor of legal translation and interpreting, incarcerated people who don’t speak the official language of the institution where they are being held face a number of roadblocks. It’s harder for incarcerated people to navigate forms, requests, and services without translated materials. But she says there are promising solutions.

Martínez-Gómez advocates most strongly for nonprofessional interpreting services — or services provided by incarcerated peers. In one example from her work, the practice “not only contributed to overcoming the language barrier in the prison, but also to specific rehabilitation goals and potential job opportunities” once the individual’s sentence ended.


In the end, creating a fairer system means using empirical evidence to apply justice accurately and equally in the courtroom and beyond, and to avoid administering justice in arbitrary, capricious, or discriminatory ways. Though these studies can’t solve every inequality, small changes in process and better education of the parties involved can move the needle on basic fairness.

For the full feature, please visit the John Jay Faculty and Staff Research page to read the whole magazine in PDF form!

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