On Thursday, February 2, 2023, Dartmouth students, faculty, and Hanover community members gathered to hear a lecture from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Heather Ann Thompson. Professor Thompson's 2016 book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy gained her widespread acclaim, and the reputation as a leading historian on the Attica uprising. Thompson is currently a Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Michigan.
Professor Thompson was introduced in Filene Auditorium by Dartmouth Professor of History, Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies, Matthew J. Garcia. Professor Garcia shared his enthusiasm for Thompson's work in his remarks, noting that it had been his "dream" to invite her to campus since coming to Dartmouth. Professor Thompson's visit to Dartmouth was complemented by the concurrent visit of Stanley Nelson, director of the 2021 film Attica, which was screened at the Hopkins Center the previous evening. Touching on a few of Thompson's numerous achievements – a Bancroft Prize and L.A. Times Book Award, founding the Carceral State Project at the University of Michigan, and service on the National Academy of Sciences' Blue-Ribbon Panel – Professor Garcia concluded his remarks by stating that Thompson has "showed us the power and hope in doing research."
Professor Thompson's lecture focused first on her methodology for her book, then on the story of the Attica prison uprising itself, and finally on the legacy the events left on the history of incarceration in America. Thompson began with her central claim that the American incarceration system is "deeply racialized," and that this racialization has nothing to do with crime, citing statistics reflecting divergent rates in crime and incarceration for racial groups.
Highlighting the widespread cover-ups and secrecy within the prison-industrial complex, Thompson noted that it took her thirteen years to complete her book on the Attica uprising. In the process, she battled the state of New York for its policy of holding back archives in her attempt to uncover original copies of legal documents and police records. Thompson herself is involved in currently pending litigation regarding the treatment of inmates in both Illinois and New York.
At the core of Thompson's talk was a comprehensive narration of the events at Attica in 1971 — from the background of the brutally-run prison in the small New York town, to the prison confrontation that catalyzed the uprising, to the legal and political aftermath, and the ongoing fights for disclosure of Attica documents and to permanently close the site. Thompson, and Professor Garcia in his introduction, were particularly transparent in noting the role played by Dartmouth's own Nelson A. Rockefeller in the events that unfolded in Attica. The then-New York Governor's hesitancy to visit the prison site during ongoing negotiations made it harder for conclusions to be reached and substantive change to occur, Thompson suggested.
Joined by Stanley Nelson in the question-and-answer portion of the event, Thompson fielded audience questions on her methodology for discovery of buried, decades-old state documents, her outlook on the current state of incarceration in America, and the potential for future public disclosure of documents surrounding Attica. The depth and passion in her presentation helped bring light to an important historical moment with an enduring impact on our current policy discourse.