The importance of being Merle

By Scott Henry | Emory Magazine | Nov. 5, 2012

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Political scientist Merle Black has enjoyed nearly unprecedented longevity as one of the nation's most-quoted political pundits and remains a go-to source for reporters looking to understand the political implications of current events including the election season. Illustration by Joe Ciardiello.

In 1961, Merle Black began shuttling between two worlds that could not have seemed more different.

As a nineteen-year-old freshman history major at Harvard, he'd seen the university, a bastion of East Coast liberalism, go crazy over the election of alumnus John F. Kennedy as president.

Then, for his summer job as a roustabout at a gas distillation plant, he traveled to a small town in East Texas, a place soaked in working-class conservatism, where the civil rights movement was still years away from gaining a toehold.

Coming from a family where money was never discussed, Black was shocked to hear his fellow laborers complain—in very colorful terms—about the bite that income taxes took out of their paychecks. During the course of the three summers he worked at the plant, he also was keenly aware of his coworkers' distaste for the gradual undermining of segregation by the federal government.

"I got a real education on race and economics while I was there," Black now recalls. "I was seeing the first signs of disaffection with the Democratic Party in the deep South."

The seeds of interest in this social change that were sown in those early years grew long ago into what, for Black, became a distinguished career as the country's leading scholar on the subject of Southern politics—a distinction shared with his twin brother, Earl, who taught at Rice University until his retirement. Beginning in the late eighties, the two have coauthored four books considered essential reading in the political canon.

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