THE FOLLOWING ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JUNE 23, 2015 AND APPEARS IN FULL AT PROCESS: A BLOG FOR AMERICAN HISTORY:
FERGUSON, USA: A HISTORIAN’S COLLISION WITH HISTORY, PART ONE
Stefan M. Bradley is the director of African American Studies Program and an associate professor of history at Saint Louis University. He is the author of Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s (University of Illinois Press, 2009), and a coeditor ofAlpha Phi Alpha: A Legacy of Greatness, The Demands of Transcendence (University Press of Kentucky, 2011). He is currently writing a book entitled, “Blackened Ivy: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League in the Postwar Era.”
Note: This two-part post was written with the assistance of two courageous student-activists at Saint Louis University. Part Two, appearing tomorrow, will feature an interview with them.
Some years back, I read an important biography of a civil rights legend. In the epilogue the biographer, an esteemed scholar, mentioned a controversy over whether the scholar’s university should create a monument to that person. The biographer believed that it was the place of scholars to remain disinterested in such current, controversial matters and to observe and record them for the sake of posterity. I could not understand that sentiment. Three of my scholarly heroes are the late John Hope Franklin, Derrick Bell, and Vincent Harding, who used their talents to benefit the Black Freedom Movement. With no disrespect to the biographer, I say thank goodness some scholars chose to wade into contentious waters on behalf of righteousness and justice. In the recent campaigns and events surrounding the Ferguson crisis, I have consciously chosen to use what few abilities I have to help the community address issues of justice.
“Now do you understand how we felt?!,” a participant in the now famous 1968 rebellion at Columbia University asked me on the night in late November when St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced that he would not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown Jr. After shortstopping an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, crawling under the fence of a locked-down compound to race to my smoke-filled car twenty feet from the burning Public Storage building, driving on the wrong side of the road to avoid burning garbage cans, seeing police and National Guardsmen everywhere, and hearing the wails of grief, frustration, and pain from mothers (including Brown’s), the screech of tires, and the angry declarations of young, hopeless people, I had finally felt what I had written about for so many years. During the interview with Hayes, I had explained that, more than being angry or shocked, I was saddened because the narrative of that night would be about the lawless, ungrateful, black youth delighting in destroying other people’s property. The real narrative I understood from my interactions with the people on the ground was one of hopelessness because of the poverty-stricken circumstances in which they lived and powerlessness in the relationship with the justice and political systems….
Go to Processhistory.org to see Professor Bradley’s two-part series in full. Thank you to the Process blog and Dr. Bradley for allowing us to reprint part of this insightful essay.