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Cotton & Race in the Making of America



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Praise for Gene Dattel’s Cotton and Race in the Making of America - The Human Costs of Economic Power



"Gene Dattel's book, Cotton and Race in the Making of America is one of the best books that I have read on the subject of race and the economic impact of cotton. Mr. Dattel, a native of the Mississippi Delta, writes compellingly from a personal and intellectual perspective. The book is an invaluable guide to understanding the American experience."

James H. Meredith, Civil Rights Activist,

the man who integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962.


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"Cotton and Race in the Making of America" is as important as it is provocative…Dattel provides a real service in reminding a new generation just how profound cotton's role, in fact was… in refreshing – and sharpening – our memories about the role of cotton and the enormity of slavery in American history, Dattel makes a valuable contribution indeed."

Peter A. Coclanis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Journal of Economic History (December, 2010)


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"Gene Dattel's tough-minded, insightful book is an overdue reminder that the Siamese twin of white racism and black repression was always the American dilemma and that cotton was its sire. Should be required reading in Oregon and Massachusetts no less than in Mississippi and South Carolina."

Hodding Carter
Assistant Secretary of State for Jimmy Carter administration
University of North Carolina Professor of Leadership and Public Policy


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"Book Outlines Intertwined History of Cotton, Race"


The New York Times, November 25, 2009

"Gene Dattel grew up in the segregated South and was one of the few Mississippians enrolled at Yale University in 1962 when his home state became ensnared in a bloody confrontation over integration..." (read more)



“Two themes, one explicit, one implicit, compete in this exploration of the link between the development of American capitalism and the devastation of the African-American community. The price of cotton as the determinant of America's destiny, influencing and even overcoming individual will and ethical behavior’ is the fully explicit one . . . The secondary and competing theme is Northern complicity in the slave trade, the cotton economy, segregation, racism and the development of the ‘black underclass in the North and South, with its destructive behavioral characteristics."


Publishers Weekly


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“Books about American history tend to be either triumphal or highly critical. Gene Dattel's study of the racial legacy of cotton, America's leading export up to World War II, is neither. Above all, it is informed, honest, and balanced. Dattel explains insightfully just how slavery and racial discrimination came to plague our nation's ideals and the promise of American life. Mostly it was a by-product--north and south, east and west--of trying to earn a buck, of pursuing the Almighty Dollar. His book is a gem--one of the finest works on the American national experience to appear in many years.”


Richard Sylla, Henry Kaufman professor of Financial Institutions and Markets, Professor of Economics, Stern School, New York University; past President of the Economic History Association


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"Gene Dattel has produced a superb study of King Cotton’s reign over the United States of America. Though exceptionally well-versed in the economic history of cotton production, he never loses sight of the human suffering caused by slavery and its consequences. He also gives a first-class account of the politics of cotton. From the Constitution to the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, each of the key PRESS/EVENTS in the history of the United States looks quite different when you understand the (usually maligned) role King Cotton played.”


Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History, Harvard University, and William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School


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Gene Dattel's book tells the story of the irresistible power of cotton that changed the destiny of the nation-not just the region. America's material obsession blossomed in the cotton fields, where blacks were trapped. Racial hostility-both North and South-was the enabler. His book masterfully captures America's history and its painful legacy.


Morgan Freeman, actor

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“Gene Dattel's command of the details of American economic and social life is impressive in this sweeping study of the relationship between cotton and its human legacy in the treatment of African Americans. The book is full of sage judgments and fresh insights, eminently fair and unflinching in its critical assessments. He shows the power of finance and the search for profit in shaping American attitudes from the Constitutional Convention to contemporary issues of cotton's decline and the search for social justice for the people who worked the fields of this global crop. Dattel skillfully portrays the spaces of cotton's kingdom, from the PRESS/EVENTS fields to the board rooms of New York City's financial companies, and offers compelling evidence of the materialism that drove American life around cotton, often compromising the better angels of our nature.”


Charles Reagan Wilson, Kelly Gene Cook Sr. Chair of History and Professor of Southern Studies, University of Mississippi


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“This is an engrossing and revealing study. It should be read not just by history buffs but by all Americans who want to understand the PRESS/EVENTS and forces that shaped and left their imprint on our country. The book captures with great style and intensity the overwhelming influence of cotton and slavery on our economy, finances, social behavior, and political life. Cotton and slavery prevented the formation of a more perfect union in 1776 and as the author concludes “America no longer needs cotton, but still bears cotton’s human legacy.”


Henry Kaufman, economist and author, On Money and Markets


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“Gene Dattel turns economic history into a gripping narrative, in this sweeping synthesis of an important but underappreciated chapter in the American past. From Whitney’s gin to the mechanical picker, Dattel shows just how close the links have been between King Cotton and the race issue. This book is highly recommended.”


Gavin Wright, Professor of Economics, Stanford University, and author of Slavery and American Economic Development, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War, and The Political Economy of the Cotton South


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“This is a book not just for those who grew up in the cotton fields of Mississippi as I did, but far more than that it is a challenging and compelling account of the complex role which cotton has played in the economic, racial, and political history of our nation. No one is better equipped to present that story than Gene Dattel, a superbly gifted writer, who also happens to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of this fascinating subject. This volume elevates to an important new level our comprehension and appreciation of a largely neglected chapter in our conflicted past.”


William F. Winter, former Governor of Mississippi; 2008 recipient of the Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library for Advancing Education and Racial Reconciliation; member President Clinton’s commission on racial reconciliation, and namesake of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi


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"Gene Dattel has written a very important and necessary book, by locating the expansion of cotton production as a driving force not only in the antebellum South, but in the economy at large. He exposes slave-produced cotton’s central role in causing the Civil War and as the global economic engine that prolonged slavery. Cotton was coveted by New York merchants and the textile barons of England and New England. He shows that after the Civil War cotton and race remained linked until technology finally displaced black labor. He devastatingly critiques the complicit role of the racist North in containing African Americans in the cotton fields. The legacy of this vital crop was economic growth and the social tragedy of slavery and segregation. No examination of American heritage is complete without an understanding of the force that cotton wrought upon its economic and social landscape. America’s racial dilemma cannot be sequestered to one part of the country."


Roger Wilkins, Clarence J. Robinson Professor Emeritus, George Mason University


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”A fascinating account of an essential aspect of American history. Gene Dattel brings clarity and insight to a subject we’ve long known about but not known well. A model for integrating economic, social, and political history—and a terrific read too."


H.W. Brands, Professor of History, University of Texas; author of The Money Men


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“Gene Dattel grew up in the PRESS/EVENTS, historically the center of cotton production in the United States, and a major target of voter registration workers in the 1960s. Thereafter he spent twenty years on Wall Street. These experiences superbly position him to remind us, in overwhelmingly persuasive detail, that for almost a century and a half cotton was America’s leading export; and that before, during, and after the Civil War, white America, North as well as South, endeavored to keep an African American labor force ‘contained’ in the cotton fields. Thus cotton was the foundation of both the growth of the national economy and of racism in the United States.”


Staughton Lynd, 1960s activist, historian, and leader of the 1964 freedom education effort in Mississippi; labor lawyer; former Professor of History, Yale University


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“I …. am very impressed by the extensiveness of the research, the quality of the writing, and the vigor of the narrative. Gene Dattel has produced an important book that shows how "King Cotton" could, all too often, be a cruel tyrant. The book will be welcomed by both specialists and the general reader.”


John M. McCardell, Jr., President Emeritus, College Professor of History, Middlebury College


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"In his book, Cotton and Race in the Making of America, Gene Dattel adds a much needed, unvarnished, and accessible perspective to current racial issues. The book — broad in scope — courageously tackles our most serious social historical tragedy — the African American experience. He deftly explains the brute reality of the economic force — cotton production — that controlled the destiny of blacks during slavery and after emancipation.

Of vital importance, the book compellingly puts America's racial struggles on an American, not just a Southern stage. While the racial injustice of the 1960s is associated with the South, Americans neglect the violence and despair of racially segregated Northern urban ghettos. Dattel reminds us that the widespread racial hatred in the antebellum North caused the North to contain freed slaves in the South during and after the Civil War. The black migration north only began during the World War I-induced labor shortages that forced blacks into de facto segregated ghettos. These islands of frustration erupted in the race riots of Watts, Detroit, and Newark during the 1960s.

Dattel's work will leave a lasting imprint on our understanding of American history. No other work provides such an honest and balanced treatment of the topic. The book's educational journey through the complexities of finance, politics, personalities, and human nature is a tour-de-force. "

Morris Dees, Founder, Chief Trial Lawyer

Southern Poverty Law Center