Wilson Center Experts

Fredrick Harris

Fellow
United States Studies

Expertise:
North America
;
United States
Affiliation:
Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for the Study of African-American Politics, University of Rochester
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Reconstructing the Past: The Role of Collective Memory in African-American Political Life"
Term:
Sep 01, 2003
-
May 01, 2004

I have taught political science at the University of Rochester since the fall of 1994. In addition to my years of research and teaching at Rochester, I have worked as a research assistant at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. and, during graduate school, as a research analyst at the Chicago Urban League's Research and Planning Department. My experiences at the Joint Center and the Chicago Urban League have provided me with a "real world view" of African-American politics which has provided invaluable insights for my own research. I started graduate school in the fall of 1987, the same year of the death of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, Jr. The black community's reaction to Washington's death and the subsequent movement to retain Washington's legacy, had a profound impact on my understanding of urban political machines and reform movements. Thereafter, I became interested in studying Chicago's various black communities. When I began my research on religion and black political activism for my dissertation, I used black churches on the South Side and West Side of Chicago as laboratories for disentangling the complex relationships between religion and African-American political activism. In addition to estimating the impact of religion on black political life through survey research, I conducted ethnographic work on politicians' visits to black churches during elections. These accounts revealed forces that were not apparent in surveys; in particular, the ethnographies demonstrated how political actors can use religious rituals and symbols to construct political action in black communities.Connecting the experience of real world politics to theories of political action is a part of my recent research project on collective memory. While growing up in Atlanta during the 1970s I heard the word lynching for the first time. My great-grandmother, who by then was in her 90s, often told stories to me and my younger sister about family members while showing us pictures from a wicker basket. On one particular afternoon she came across a picture of my great-great grandfather. When I asked what ever happened to him her voice cracked. She told us that he had been lynched by the Klan in a city northeast of Atlanta and thrown into a lake. That story has always stayed with me and was rekindled in the summer of 1999 when James Byrd, Jr. was dragged to death by white supremists in Texas. This event led to me examining how tragic events may stimulate collective action in black communities. Turning back to the 1950s, I plan to examine how the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi contributed to collective action of African Americans in the early stages of the civil rights movement. Social movement perspectives on the civil rights movement have given little attention to the mobilizing aspect of Till's murder in black communities outside the South. Instead, movement scholars have focused on the impact of the 1954 Brown Decision and the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Till's murder occurred between those two events and had, I argue, a more galvanizing impact on black mobilization than the Brown Decision and the bus boycott. In addition to my research interest, I have a commitment to fostering the development of African-American Politics in the discipline of political science. I serve as director of the Center for the Study of African-American Politics at the University of Rochester which is dedicated to providing an intellectual environment for rigorous research on the political life of African-Americans. I also serve as co-editor (with Cathy Cohen) of a book series by Oxford University Press titled Transgressing Boundaries: Studies in Black Politics and Black Communities.
 

Education

B.A. (1985) Political Science, University of Georgia; M.A. (1990) Political Science, Northwestern University; Ph.D. (1995) Political Science, Northwestern University
 

Subjects

African-American Politics,Race and Politics,U.S. Elections
 

Experience

  • Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for the Study of African-American Politics, University of Rochester
  • Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Rochester, 1994-2000
  • Fellow, Summer Institute on Contentions Politics, Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, July 10-August 18, 2000
  • Visiting Fellow, the Russell Sage Foundation, 1999-2000
  • Research Analyst, the Chicago Urban League, Department of Research and Planning, Chicago, Illinois, 1988-93

Expertise

American Politics, with a focus on social movements, civic participation, and African-American politics

Project Summary

This project explores the relationships between collective memory and collective action by considering how the shared memories of significant historical events that affected the life chances of African Americans influence black activism. The analysis starts with the civil rights movement by considering the impact of both positive and negative events on black activism during a period of heightened political mobilization in black communities and, in the context of the south, a period in which participation exposed actors to considerable risks. While collective memories may enhance the ability of social groups to engage in collective action, their influence on the collective action of marginal groups may be especially complex. Depending on what is remembered, the collective memories of marginal groups may either facilitate group action or discourage it. Past events symbolizing the cost of challenging structures of oppression may weaken the possibility of collective action among marginal groups, while events symbolizing victory may signal to group members that successful cooperation is possible.

Major Publications

  • Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism (Oxford University Press, 1999) Awarded the 1999 Outstanding Book Award, National Conference of Black Political Scientists; 2000 Distinguished Book Award, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion; 2000 V.O. Key Award for Best Book in Southern Politics by the Southern Political Science Association; and a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2000.
  • "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: The Erosion and Transformation of African American Civic Life," Civil Society, Democracy, and Civic Renewal (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999)
  • "Collective Memory and the Civil Rights Movement," Cycles of Hate (Princeton University Press, 2002)

Stay in Touch

Are you a Wilson Center alumnus? We want to hear about your latest move, award or project. Please send us your news at alumni@wilsoncenter.org.