Cashin, 'Agitator's Daughter,' Has New Memoir

Sheryll Cashin, the daughter of civil rights activist Dr. John Cashin Jr., has written a memoir. Her father's activism led to the family's financial ruin, and Cashin says being the child of an agitator is an "extraordinary, complicated inheritance."

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

People inherit many things from their parents: money, looks, property, history. And that last thing, history, can be a blessing and a burden if you come from a long line of rabble-rousing political activists. Sheryll Cashin, an author and law professor, writes about race relations in America. This time, she puts the microscope to her own family for her book, "The Agitator's Daughter."

The agitator of the title is Cashin's father, Dr. John L. Cashin, a dentist in Huntsville, Alabama who challenged the segregationist Dixiecrats by founding an independent party for black Democrats. Sheryll Cashin's family faced constant threats. After one protest, Cashin landed in jail with her parents. She was four months old. Cashin says she wanted to understand why her father risked everything by pouring his passion and most of the family's money into the cause.

Professor SHERYLL CASHIN (Law, Georgetown University; Author, "The Agitator's Daughter"): My father attracted enemies. There's no question in my mind. You know, I can't prove it, but so many things happened at once. His dental office was taken by imminent domain by the City of Huntsville, and a parking lot was put there. The IRS charged him with owing 800,000 in back taxes and investigated him in a very harassing way for about five years. The FBI began an investigation of him. In a space of a year and a half, we moved from an all-white neighborhood and a palatial house back to an all-black neighborhood. And we went from a life of affluence to one where a family of five was living on my mother's $17,000-a-year salary. So it was a dramatic change, and it became more painful as time went on.

NORRIS: Parents pass their hopes and their dreams on to us. And for the children of agitators, people who risked it all, who put everything on the line, I'm wondering if you feel torn. Is there a need to follow in their footsteps, to be a social warrior yourself? Or to run in the other direction and try to find security and comfort, and maybe lift society or your family up in other ways, but to follow the path or choose another way?

Prof. CASHIN: Well, you've hit the nail on the head. It's an extraordinary, complicated inheritance for children of agitators. I mean, I was writing this book, and my children were near the age that I was when my parents were beginning to get involved in civil rights. I couldn't imagine taking my four-month-old baby to a civil rights protest. Wouldn't happen. And that was profound for me. That made me really perceive, you know, the sacrifices that all families ultimately make. I have the same kind of passion. All of my writing has ultimately something to do about American-race relations and lifting up disenfranchised, impoverished people, mainly people of color. And that comes from my dad.

And I have to say, personally, as a parent now, I'm less ambitious for myself. You know, I consciously say no to a lot of things to be home, to be with them because I feel very conscious about the consequences of parents who are away. So I try to do my best, but I also try to conserve the home space and the family and make sure I raise two excellent, high-achieving African-American boys.

NORRIS: You're a law professor. You've done quite well for yourself. So for the next generation, for children who were raised in relative comfort, who don't face the same kind of social barriers, what do you pass on to them?

Prof. CASHIN: Well, I pass on to them what was passed on to me, which is, you know, one of the things that I'm so grateful to my dad that he gave me. I mean, he was broke when I was going off to college, but he gave me everything I needed to succeed, which is this idea that you are excellent. You can do anything you want that you put your mind to. There's no limits on you as long as you're willing to, you know, have a dream and apply yourself with the discipline. And I write about this in the book. You know, my father was brilliant. He was a two-time valedictorian. When I came home with a test that had a 95 on it, he would say what happened to the other five? Because he knew that I could do better. And so I would say to the next generation - this is what I'm saying to my own children - that you can be anything. You can do anything. But it takes work.

NORRIS: Sheryll Cashin, thank you for coming in.

Prof. CASHIN: Thank you so much for having me.

NORRIS: It's been good to talk to you.

Sheryll Cashin is the author of "The Agitator's Daughter: A Memoir of Four Generations of One Extraordinary African-American Family."

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