Tufts Professor: Ferguson Exposes Civil Rights Generational Divide

Download Audio
Rev. Al Sharpton, left, speaks with parents of Michael Brown, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, right, during a rally at Greater Grace Church, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, for their son who was killed by police last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo. Sharpton told the rally Brown’s death was a "defining moment for this country." (AP)
Rev. Al Sharpton, left, speaks with parents of Michael Brown, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, right, during a rally at Greater Grace Church, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, for their son who was killed by police last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo. Sharpton told the rally Brown’s death was a "defining moment for this country." (AP)

The furious protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that have been raging for days are something most Bostonians are watching from afar. But Tufts University professor Peniel Joseph has been thinking deeply about why those protests are happening a half-century after the Civil Rights Movement ostensibly broke so much ground for black Americans.

Joseph points out that even though veteran civil rights leaders such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have been present at many of the Ferguson demonstrations and have called for peace, that hasn't calmed the angry crowds.

"No one wants to see self-destructive riots because there's no future in riots," said the Rev. Jackson in Ferguson Friday night. "I think that effective, non-violent demands will be significant."

Yet more violence broke out over the weekend, and Joseph says that's evidence of a wide and deep gulf between black youth today and the old-guard black leaders of the 1960s.

WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer speaks with Joseph about his belief that Ferguson has exposed a civil rights generational divide.


Peniel Joseph, contributing editor at The Root. He's founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, where he is also a professor of history. He's author of "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America," "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama" and "Stokely: A Life." He tweets @PenielJoseph.


On the "leader-less" nature of the Ferguson protests:
Peniel Joseph:
"I think at the ground-level there are local leaders. I think the voices that have been leader-less are those who have committed acts of violence. But they're not just looters. They're not just people who are wanting to cause chaos. They actually feel angry about both Michael Brown — and Michael Brown is really the match that started this — but they feel angry about racial segregation in Ferguson and really deep poverty there. 22 percent of the people live in poverty. It's a rigidly segregated city, formerly predominantly white. Now it's part of the ring of suburbs and exurbs in St. Louis and other cities — it's 12 miles away from St. Louis — that have an influx of a black population yet white political leaders."

On what type of black leadership is missing:
"What you haven't had is a leader who's voicing, basically, the political anger and rage of black youth and millennial youth. In the '60s you had figures — whether it's Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers or, on the white side, Tom Hayden and anti-war demonstrators — who were sort of the symbols of that political protest. Here, in our current time, you don't have young people. Certainly you've got the Rev. Jesse Jackson. You have the Rev. Al Sharpton. But you don't have a younger leader, and by younger I mean under 30."

On whether disaffected blacks would rally around a new black leader if one were to emerge:
"I think if it's somebody who's from their communities. If it's somebody who actually has lived and worked and experienced what they've experienced and can get that kind of access. But I think it's very difficult for that kind of person to get that access, whether it's to NPR or MSNBC or mainstream media. Because, remember, we've seen in on-the-spot interviews that not everyone is going to be as articulate as the black articulate folks who everyone loves and says, 'That young woman or young man speaks so well.' They're coming from a whole different world. So is that palatable for all of us in the mainstream? So I think it's going to be difficult from that perspective because we may not like what we hear and we may say, 'Well, this person is too irresponsible to be a leader.' And that diffuses the whole point of dialog... We're talking about folks who are unemployed, we're talking about folks who have had run-ins with the criminal justice system, but they're still American citizens. They're still human beings. And that's the whole thing. It's very tough for even black elites to comprehend: how do we help these folks without demonizing them and are they part of the larger American family?"

On how racially divided communities have fueled the Ferguson protests:
"One of the biggest problems that we've seen in Ferguson is this idea of the impact of racial segregation, because law enforcement in Ferguson did not feel as if the people they were patrolling were part of their community, which is why they were pointing live ammo at black citizens in Ferguson. You don't do that to people you go to church with and you congregate with and you feel they're your friends, because some of them might have children who are friends with your children. You only do that when you think you're in Iraq, you think you're in Fallujah."

On whether young disaffected black Americans feel betrayed by the civil rights movement:
"They were told that segregation was overcome. They were told that we were all existing in a bad dream of racial insecurity, and that their parents and grandparents fought and died and struggled so they could have more access. And when they open up their eyes every day they're seeing it's an all-black neighborhood that they grow up in, it's run-down, the streets are segregated. The school Michael Brown grew up in lost its accreditation! So this is what they're facing: they're facing poor schools, they're facing police brutality, they're facing racial profiling. So the interesting thing is when people are telling them, 'You should be grateful about Martin Luther King Jr.' Or Ella Baker or Fannie Lou Hamer, they are really, really puzzled and confounded by that. Or, 'You should be proud about Barack Obama.' Yeah, they're proud that there's a black president, but then they're further confused about how there could be a black president and they could live and exist in the society and the state they live in."

On how economic inequity has contributed to the Ferguson protests:
"Part of what we're seeing is that another war on poverty is part of this, as well. It's not enough to have equality in law. It's got to be equality in fact. And the protests in Ferguson are about that gulf between the rhetoric of American democracy and its reality... On one level what's needed at the national level are definitely writers and organizers and intellectuals and figures who can have media traction, who understand what's going on in a place like Ferguson. [Harvard sociologist] William Julius Wilson calls them the truly disadvantaged: poor black folks who are not getting education, who are living in hugely segregated societies. It might as well be 1950 in Ferguson in terms of how segregated it is. We used to call that Jim Crow. So the leaders we're going to need are both leaders on the ground, grassroots leaders in every single community — and I think that's there — but, at the national level, folks who can connect with what the politics of Ferguson are beyond just the traditional civil rights leadership and paradigm."


Newsweek: Racial Equality In The Age Of Obama

  • "During the past week Ferguson, Missouri, twelve miles away from St. Louis, has became ground zero in the nation’s long running racial political drama that resulted in the governor declaring a state of emergency, in the kind of throwback politics that recall the racial crises of the 1960s."

Cognoscenti: Why Racial Bias And Militarization Are Eroding Trust In The Police

  • "The police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, has sparked both street riots and a much-needed nationwide conversation about police militarization, excessive force and race."

This article was originally published on August 18, 2014.

This segment aired on August 18, 2014.

Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



More from Radio Boston

Listen Live