Look to the walls of J. Michael Butler’s office and you’ll learn pretty quickly about his research interests. Posters for Lynyrd Skynrd hang next to public signs from the segregation era. There’s a Robert E. Lee ceramic Jim Beam flask, a Frederick Douglass hand puppet and a vial of “authentic” Elvis sweat.
A history buff with a penchant for studying Dixie rock, Butler might be best known for his interest in civil rights, which has been his primary area of research over the years. This mild-mannered Southern gentleman with a heavy Alabama accent becomes animated when talking about history.
“It’s alive. It’s exciting. It’s based on the interpretation of the facts,” Butler said. “I’m engaging students in a topic that they don’t think is important. It’s American history – it’s not just black history.”
Butler, a new assistant professor of history who joined the Flagler faculty from South Georgia College, says his goal is to open students’ minds to how modern Southern history impacts Americans today.
Since graduating from University of Mississippi in 2001 with a doctorate in history, Butler has built on his dissertation work on the civil rights era to bring his research to a wider audience. Butler co-wrote “Victory After the Fall: The Memories of Civil Rights Activist H.K Matthews” in 2007.
Butler first met Rev. H. K. Matthews while he was doing research for his dissertation. It became apparent that race was not only an issue in his research, but also in his ability to do research on such a sensitive topic. His first challenge was to find African American activists, and his second was to get them to agree to talk to him.
“Most of my work is tearing down barriers,” Butler explained. “The Rev. Matthews wondered why a white boy from Alabama was calling him up asking him complicated questions.”
At first, Matthews would only agree to a very limited meeting with Butler. “We were supposed to talk for 30 minutes the first time we met,” he said. “Three hours later, we were still talking.”
The rest, as they say, is history. After Matthews saw Butler’s dissertation, he wanted Butler to work on his memoirs with him. Such an offer was a major compliment to Butler; he’s been fighting stereotypical assumptions about his accent for a long time, often having to tell people, “Don’t assume I share your prejudice.”
Butler continued to challenge issues of racial tension with his second book, “Beyond Integration: The Post-1964 Black Freedom Struggle in Pensacola, Florida,” which is under review with the University of Florida Press. The book will address social and racial tensions that took place after integration.
“Integration was not the end of the civil rights era,” said Butler. “Feelings intensify after it. The bigger battles didn’t happen in Pensacola until the 1970s. I wondered why.”
Like a good scholar, Butler sought primary research sources to answer that question. As expected, his search brought many challenges.
“I had to be creative in my research on this,” he said. “The newspapers locally intentionally played it down and downplayed the number of protestors. There wasn’t a lot there to work with, so I had to go to police files and legal documents.”
Many of the key activists that Butler sought to interview were already dead. A widow he had arranged an interview with canceled on him, saying the memories were too painful for her. He had prominent white community members hang up on him and refuse to speak to him. Fortunately, Matthews had kept audio recordings of meetings from the civil rights era and trusted Butler with them.
“This humanizes a historical era. These were real people going through this,” Butler said. He eventually was able to interview many important people relevant to the civil rights era, including former Florida Governor Rubin Askew.
Pensacola is an example of how many Southern cities dealt with sometimes hostile race relations. Butler says his hometown of Mobile, Ala., took a similar approach.
“Race relations in Mobile was a great unspoken. The racial tension there was swept under the mat,” Butler recalled. “How little I knew about the civil rights era when I entered graduate school. I’m not sure how you grow up in the South with such an important topic being ignored.
“It was very divisive. Some of my teachers had lived through it, and it was very painful for them. It was the moral issue of the day.”
Butler’s next research agenda turns to Southern rock and masculinity. He thinks pop culture can tell us a lot about Southern society. “Elements of race are always there,” he said. “It defines us as a region. You can’t understand civil rights, the Confederacy or Southern rock without looking at it.
“I want to know why people react to the song ‘Free Bird’ the way they do. Grown white men will hear that song in public and cry openly.”
Butler is as fired up about answering this research question as any other that he has addressed.
“I just love what I do,” Butler said. “One of the good things is that I wouldn’t change what I do for anything. I love to teach. I love to research. I love to write.”
All Butler’s work begs the question, “What does it mean to be Southern?” He said despite the controversy of his work, he still loves where he comes from.
“You can be from the South and still be proud of it,” he said.
Butler sees a major connection between his research and his ability to make history vibrant for students.
“I try not to divorce the two elements of teaching and researching. Anything I can use to engage the students, I use,” he said. “Things that are sensitive have a historical background. We have to understand that to get along.”
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