This week on Intersection, we talk with Clarence Lang, Professor of African and African-American Studies at The University of Kansas. Lang’s book, Grass Roots at the Gateway: Class, Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis from 1936-1975, explores St. Louis as an intersection of culture, economy and civil rights movements.
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A selected transcript from our interview with Clarence Lang:
What makes St. Louis a good place to look at these issues?
I was politically involved in St. Louis, as well as pursuing my M.A. in History, and I wanted to understand a bit more about the politics, generally defined electoral protest politics, in the city that I was living in, I was living in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area. As I got further into my research, though, I began to understand that St. Louis was not just a convenient backdrop for a narrative about the civil rights movement, but that St. Louis also matters in the sense that St. Louis, historically, had been a transition zone, a gateway if you will, between the East and the so-called Western Frontier. It was known as the gateway to the West, but St. Louis also functioned as a transition zone between the culture, the economies, the race relations of the North and the South. And so, my investigations and my reading of what other scholars had done long before me was that St. Louis was a city that condensed very, I would say, diverse regional experiences. And so, as one scholar argued, it was a laboratory where the conflicting modes of race relations met and clashed.
Even when I was living in the St. Louis area and I would ask native St. Louisans, where they would situate St. Louis regionally the responses were often very different. There were some people who would say the Midwest, and you could certainly make an argument economically, in terms of the ethnic diversity historically of the white population. But there were a number of folks who say, well, St. Louis is actually just a southern town. And part of the argument that I make in the book is that, to some extent, they're kind of both right. And that’s what makes it I think a unique place.
When I started working on a project last year with out entire news team about the protests here at Mizzou, I started thinking, you know, ‘Why Missouri for Ferguson, why Missouri for Concerned Student1950?’ And then the more I looked at the history of Missouri, I was like ‘Of course, Missouri.’ It’s sort of the geographic center of all these different issues of race and class and migration. It all comes together here.
And space. I mean part of the story of Ferguson is the story of the regional fragmentation in the St. Louis area. In some ways Ferguson reflected a situation that we're seeing in many other metropolitan areas around the nation, where you have the migration of racialized poverty from the central cities to the older, inner-ring suburbs. So part of the argument that I would make is in some respects, what happened in Ferguson could have happened anywhere. But it's not entirely coincidental that it happened in Ferguson because I think the dynamics we see in Ferguson represent, in some ways, the leading edge of developments that we're seeing elsewhere. So it's hard to see both of those things and then the University of Missouri-Columbia, which of course was an effect of people who had been involved in the Ferguson struggle, or what have you, coming to campus. So here you have this period that demonstrates how Missouri historically has been a bellwether for where the nation might be heading.
Another thing that your writing explores is how our collective consciousness of the civil rights movement and what it was is this lens through which we see current protests, but that might not actually be helping us understand what's going on. Could you talk a little bit about that?
This is a book I published two years ago, Black America in the Shadow of the 60s, and it really is an exploration of this idea, as someone who grew up the child of baby boomers, who grew up in the late 80s when the 60s moved from being history to mythology.
Right, we don't understand it first hand, it's already been processed for us in a way.
It had become a myth. And always hearing from my elders how that was a time that was like no other, and how that on the one hand, shaped my research interests because I grew up with an intense interest in the 1960s everything from reading the autobiography of Malcolm X as a 14-year-old to watching the Eyes on the Prize documentary series on the Civil Rights movement in the late 1980s. Then later as a scholar, but also as someone who had political involvement, sort of beginning to question how our popular memories of the 1960s, not necessarily what happened, but how we've come to understand that period, how that could be in some ways an obstacle to our own creative political thinking today.
That argument came to me at a moment where a lot of people in the media, and I'm not saying this to bash the media, because there is plenty of that going on but, I think a lot of journalists were very quick, and frankly a lot of the activists who were involved, were very quick to reach back to the 60s as a model for what they might be doing in the present.
So for example, and I've seen some of this, even on the campus where I am, the University of Kansas, of understanding social movements as simply protest when in fact there was a lot more that went into the creation and the sustaining of those movements than simply mobilizing people for demonstrations. There was also a great deal of organizing that occurred between those moments. I guess what I'm saying is one of the things in the book and in my own thinking and practice try to push back against the idea that black people in the 1960s existed in a constant state of revolt. That was a period of revolt, mind you, but the politics of that period were more complex than simply that. And we have to think about how we develop and put forward equally nuanced approaches to the circumstances that we confront.
Intersection's producers are Claire Banderas, Kelly Palecek and Abby Ivory-Ganja.