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David Sullivan U.S. Maoism Collection

This post is from Gwen Gethner, a graduate student in NYU’s World History program. This is Gwen’s second semester as a graduate assistant at Tamiment Library.
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The Tamiment Library recently acquired the papers of David Sullivan (19??:-2006), an activist involved in the American Maoist movement and other leftist organizations. The collection spans the twentieth century, but the bulk of the materials are from the 1970’s and 80’s. Although the collection is called “David Sullivan and U.S. Maoism,” it contains information about a wide variety of radical groups. The materials are mostly from four major Communist organizations: the Revolutionary Union, the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters, and the Communist Party Marxist- Leninist. The papers also represent a wide variety of splinter groups and loosely affiliated organizations. Many of these are advocacy groups for specific causes such as freeing political prisoners and protesting unfair housing or work conditions.
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David Sullivan’s papers are exciting to work with partly because they are so much more than just “papers.” The collection includes a wide variety of media, from posters to buttons to textiles. For the most part, the materials are “mass-produced” sources, some of which were intended for the public eye and others which were not. The materials range from buttons, which acted as advertisements for the causes they advocated, to advice about security for party members which was clearly private. Most of the sources are “mass-produced” (fliers, buttons etc, of which there were many copies) but some are more personal.
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I am student in NYU’s World History MA program, and I started working at Tamiment as a student assistant in September. The David Sullivan Collection was the first project I worked on at Tamiment, and it was an exciting place to start. I had never heard of the American Maoist Movement, and enjoyed the opportunity to explore the movement largely through primary sources. It was a challenging and fascinating task to piece through the sources to understand the events. Working with David Sullivan’s papers meant trying to guess the origin of pamphlets and notes often identified only with an acronym, and almost never with a date, and gently handling the crumbling paper even of relatively new sources. As with most archival materials, I found I could learn something from the condition and identification of the sources. While processing the American Maoism collection, I got an impression of a group of people who were living largely in the present and for the immediate future. They were not necessarily thinking about how to present themselves historically, and the papers were in many cases not intended for a future or public audience. This only adds to their power; many of these sources were intended only for a very select audience, but we can look at them today to gain a greater understanding of American history. The collection includes minutes from committee meetings, security briefings, and position papers. These are individual but anonymous voices that weren’t intended for an audience beyond members of the organization. The David Sullivan papers are almost entirely the history of organizations rather than individuals. It is all the more intriguing to imagine the personal voices that made up the organizations.
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An exhibit on Flickr shows a few of the highlights from the David Sullivan papers. Intrigued? Stop by Tamiment and find seventeen boxes full of more information!
All images are from the David Sullivan U.S. Maoism Collection (TAM 527) at the Tamiment Library.

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