1981: William H. Chafe
Civilities and Civil Rights / Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence & Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley / Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America
1981: William H. Chafe

The 1981 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award was presented to William H. Chafe for Civilities and Civil Rights. The book reveals how whites in Greensboro, North Carolina, used the traditional Southern concept of “civility” as a means of keeping black protest in check and how, as a result, black activists continually devised new ways of asserting their quest for freedom.

William H. Chafe is an American historian and is currently the Alice Mary Baldwin professor of History at Duke University. He is the author of numerous books including Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the PersonalThe Rise and Fall of the American Century: The United States from 1890 to 2008The Unfinished Journey: American Since World War IIPrivate Lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America; and The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century.

Honorable Mention: Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence & Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley by John Gaventa

Using Clear Fork Valley in central Appalachia as an empirical example, Gaventa attempts to discern the "hidden faces of power" - those forces which shape actions and consciousness in ways not readily apparent in formal American political processes. He seeks to clarify and expand upon past theories (by such writers as Bachrach and Lukes) on the nature and maintenance of power.

The region studied here is characterized by stark incongruity - the co-existence of massive natural wealth (coal and land) with pervasive human poverty attended by high unemployment, limited education, malnutrition, and the prevalent hazards of mining coal: black lung, dismemberment, death, and ecological ruin. This has been the region's status quo under the decades of domination by a British company and its absentee owners. Despite these departure conditions and frequently violent union struggles, culminating in the 1969 murder of UMW reformist Jock Yablonski, acquiescence to this status quo has been maintained. Gaventa searches out the answers to how and why wealth and poverty continue to coexist and the powerless continue to accede to the powerful. His astute analysis poses broader questions about the politics of poverty, working-class consciousness, and corporate power in America.

Honorable Mention: Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America by John Langston Gwaltney

In writing his Self-Portrait of Black America, anthropologist, folklorist, and humanist John Gwaltney went in search of “Core Black People”—the ordinary men and women who make up black America—and asked them to define their culture. Their responses, recorded in Drylongso, are to American oral history what blues and jazz are to American music. If the people in William H. Johnson's and Jacob Lawrence's paintings could talk, this is what they would say.