Historical Perspectives on Ferguson

Erstwhile’s Alessandra Link provides links to recent writing on Ferguson that offers a historical point-of-view.

The past few mornings I’ve jumped out of bed and headed straight to my computer, anxious of news about the latest round of protests taking place in Ferguson, Missouri. While the headlines addressed my most immediate concern—peoples’ safety—I longed for more commentary on Ferguson’s connections to our nation’s past. Below you will find articles and sound bites that place Ferguson in historical perspective.

I should mention that I’ve only scratched the surface here, so if you have items to add please do so in the comments section.

US has yet to overcome tortured racial past by Annette Gordon-Reed, Financial Times

While Thomas Jefferson may not have been the most prescient of the American presidents (that whole “nation of yeoman farmers” idea didn’t quite pan out), historian Annette Gordon-Reed suggests that he did raise important questions about race and citizenship that continue to concern the American public. Specifically, Jefferson warned of the potential for racial war and conflict after the abolition of slavery. With the recent violence in Ferguson in mind, Gordon-Reed invites us to consider “whether a form of war (sometimes hot, sometimes cold), has been waged against blacks in America from Jefferson’s time until our own.” All in all, this is a brief but incisive piece from a renowned Jefferson scholar and legal historian.

Image from the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. 8/28/1963

Image from the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. 8/28/1963 Source: U.S. National Archives

Thomas J. Sugrue interview in Libération

 Sugrue—a specialist in urban history, civil rights, and race—offered his thoughts on Ferguson to this French daily newspaper (n.b. I read the translated version). He covers topics ranging from the militarization of the police force to the election of Obama. He also tackles the popular illusion that we’ve entered a post-Civil Rights era. The protests at Ferguson, Sugrue explains, should remind us that the fight for civil rights is far from over.

Bullets and Ballots by Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker

Cobb, a writer for The New Yorker, makes the most obvious historical comparison. He suggests that the images from Ferguson hark back to the protests of the nineteen sixties. His commentary on Black Power is particularly illuminating here. Cobb explains that Black Power was partly a response to increasing police brutality, but it wasn’t simply about meeting violence with violence. Black Power also promoted political engagement. “It called for an insular black political empowerment,” Cobb writes, “in contrast to a prevailing civil-rights ideal of interracial cooperation.” Black Power activists were willing to use either the bullet or the ballot to win racial equality. “Ballots triumphed over bullets half a century ago,” Cobb concludes. “The scenes that played out in Ferguson,” he adds, “were a reminder that the absence of the former increases the likelihood of the later.”

100 Years of Tear Gas: A Chemical Weapon Drifts Off the Battlefield and into the Streets by Anna Feigenbaum, The Atlantic

Feigenbaum charts the history of a weapon wielded in Ferguson: tear gas. She finds that this “less-lethal force” was initially a battlefield favorite, until the Chemical Weapons Convention banned it from use in warfare. So, how did tear gas find its way into the streets? Feigenbaum, a communications scholar, explains.

Bill Cronon’s two cents

A longtime Cronon fan, I couldn’t help but include this short sound bite he posted on, well, on his Facebook page. Now before you judge my less-than-authoritative news outlet, I’ll add that he links to an informative report by the Pew Research Foundation. The Pew study reveals stark racial divisions in public responses to Ferguson. What does Cronon make of this? “That Americans respond SO differently to the events in Ferguson seems well worth pondering,” he writes. His brief statement reads as a call to build bridges of mutual understanding. Cronon reminds us that hard-headedness won’t solve the problem. “Merely asserting the rightness of our own views,” Cronon explains, “won’t get us very far.” There is no history here, but Cronon is arguably one of the greatest American historians of our time.

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6 thoughts on “Historical Perspectives on Ferguson

  1. Thanks for excellent timely comments on the general history of race relations in America. The former slave state of Missouri has its own particularly troubled and confused history. Here are just three St. Louis area events of many that help add more local historical depth, at a time when most Americans still resist a full understanding of this country’s violent past.

    The Fairgrounds Park Riot in June of 1949 (when I was a six-year-old Cardinals fan in a St. Louis suburb) took place blocks from the Cardinals’ home field, Sportsman’s Park, when an effort was made to integrate a public swimming pool. Elder white bigots spurred on hostile young people. A candid report created after the event, and now available on line, observed that the issue was not black citizens trying to move too fast, but a large urban majority failing to move fast enough.

    The 1917 violence in the industrial town of East St. Louis, Illinois, represented one of the most destructive race riots in American history. It is sometimes refered to as the East St. Louis Massacre, since more than 100 African-Americans were killed, hundreds more injured, and 6,000 people were left homeless. (See the excellent book by historian Elliot Rudwick, or the book of Charles Lumpkins called “American Pogrom.”) In 1940, artist Jacob Lawrence created a stark image entitled, “One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis.”

    But real perspective on the depth of the that area’s version of the national tragedy only comes when one pushes back into Missouri’s long century of legalized racial enslavement, made famous by the Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, ruling on a case that began in St. Louis. (A new look at St. Louis slavery and the law appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Southern History, in an excellent lead article by Kelly Kennington.) For the tangled and nearly forgotten story of the 1836 lynching in St. Louis of a black man working on a Mississippi steamboat, start with the Wikipedia entry on “the Burning of Francis McIntosh.”

    As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “And so it goes….”

  2. Great post, Alessandra. Thanks for the informative links. I would also suggest Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent commentary on Ferguson for the list. Here’s an example:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/08/Reparations-For-Ferguson/376098/

    Although it came out before the murder in Ferguson, his “Case for Reparations” adds a lot to the conversation. It should be on everyone’s reading list:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

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