By Roderick A. Ferguson, author of We Demand: The University and Student Protests

This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Studies Association in Denver. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on November 20th.

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On August 23, 1971 Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. issued a confidential memorandum entitled “Attack on the Free Enterprise System” to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a conservative and pro-business lobbying group. Popularly known as the Powell Memorandum, the document provided a defense of what it considered to be the “broadly based and consistently pursued” assault on the free-enterprise system by activists on college campuses.

By all accounts, JusticWe Demande Powell was a mild-mannered man, an ironic detail given that his memo would usher in some of the most conservative transformations that our society has ever seen, and in this regard, the memo is a kind of Rosetta stone. If you’ve ever wondered where the idea that corporations are not—well, corporations—but “people” with rights that must be protected or where the conservative network of lobbyists, think tanks, scholars, radio hosts, and tv personalities were first conceived, you will find those answers in a thirty-four page document that was written and disseminated behind closed doors.

My book We Demand: The University and Student Protests looks at documents like the Powell Memorandum to make sense of not only the past but also how it has shaped the present moment of student activism and the emergencies that activate it. This is a past in which progressive students were actively and deliberately constructed as the antitheses of a healthy society whose wellbeing could only be guaranteed by capitalist economic formations, which—as far as Powell was concerned—were more important than the actual people who live in the society. This book turns to the Powell Memorandum and documents like it to revive a question that the writer Toni Cade Bambara posed in the 1990s: “The question that faces billions of people at this moment, one decade shy of the twenty-first century, is: Can the planet be rescued from the psychopaths?”

Roderick A. Ferguson is Professor of American Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and African American Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He was Associate Editor of American Quarterly from 2007 to 2010.

UC Press will publish We Demand: The University and Student Protests in August 2017.