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An Urban Humanities Initiative

Oral Histories of Ferguson

Clarissa Hayward and Jeffrey McCune

“Oral Histories of the Ferguson Movement” captures the stories of more than thirty participants in the uprising that began in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. It focuses especially on “invisible” activists, that is, on those who were not among the few whom the media selected to serve as movement representatives. Its final product will be a publicly-available archive of audio interviews and transcripts, which capture the experiences, perspectives, and worldviews of people who organized, mobilized, and fought back against racialized state violence, helping launch what is among the most important social movements of our day.

From its inception, the project has included a wide range of students and community members. We began by reaching out to scholars at local institutions who study contentious politics; race, gender, and politics; politics and religion; and related topics, to determine what they would like to learn from Ferguson activists. We also met with some of the activists to find out what they would like to learn, and more generally to get their input on how the project could best serve the community. We designed a protocol informed by the input from both groups.

We then selected and trained a research team comprised of local students and community members, who collected and transcribed thirty-two interviews that capture the stories behind the Ferguson Movement. As of autumn 2017, we have compiled thirty-two audio interviews and more than six hundred pages (about 300,000 words) of transcripts. Our next step is to anonymize these first-draft transcripts as necessary (respondents were given the option of remaining anonymous or being identified), edit them to correct transcription errors (which, in many cases, involves seeking clarification from respondents), and reformat them for consistency.

The final collection, which will be available through Washington University’s “Documenting Ferguson” archive, will give readers and listeners insights into the movement’s structure and effects, and also into the ways key participants approached and thought about it.

For example, it will highlight what participants call the movement’s “leaderful” (as opposed to Occupy’s “leaderless”) structure. It will reveal participants’ understandings of their own goals and accomplishments, as well as the challenges they faced. And it will explore the role that political disruption plays in challenging and changing racial injustice.

The interviewees range from millennials, some of whom are not college-educated and had not been politically active before August 2014, to older ministers who found Ferguson as their call to public activist work, to white self-identified “accomplices,” some of whom only acknowledged and confronted structural racism for the first time in 2014.

To get a sense of the richness of the interviews, please take a moment to listen to these sample clips.

The first is from Kristian Blackmon, a millennial activist, who shared her recollection of what it was like to be in Ferguson in the early days of the protest. Blackmon recalls “seeing tanks in the area where [she] grew up… smelling smoke, smelling tear gas, that type of stuff.” Audio here. 

The second is from Reverend Dietra Baker, a clergy member who explains her understanding of how the clergy learned, over time, to follow the Ferguson activists, rather than attempt to lead them. In Baker’s words, “That’s not always easy for clergy. Clergy are used to being leaders.” Audio here.

The third is from Emily Beck, a white activist, who recalls how, during a protest on a cold night, when she was wearing gloves and a ski mask, she was forced to confront her own privilege. Beck says she “had this terrible, terrible thought…”: that she would be safer if the police could see that she was white. Audio here.

Audio tapes and transcripts of these oral histories will be made publicly available as part of the Washington University library’s “Documenting Ferguson” archive. Our hope is that they will be useful to a wide range of scholars and also to others outside the academy, including journalists, activists and other members of the community.

Clarissa Hayward is Associate Professor of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. In 2017-2018 she is a Fellow in Residence at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the Senior Fellow at the Roy and Lila Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Jeffrey McCune is Associate Professor in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program and in the African & African American Studies Department, both in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. In the Fall of 2017, he is a Faculty Fellow at Washington University’s Center for the Humanities.