After finishing her undergraduate degree at Yale, History graduate student Eshe Sherley took a break from school to become a union organizer with the Service Employees International Union.
Now she’s writing a dissertation on the National Domestic Workers Union, focusing on its work in Atlanta in the 1960s. But her work as an activist grounds her graduate studies.
“My very first question: Where is the list?” said Sherley. “Every organizer has the list of people who could potentially be in the union. If I hadn’t done that work before, that would not have been my question.”
A list like that could lead Sherley down a hundred different historical paths, many of which might be hidden from another vantage point. Sherley has yet to get ahold of the list. But her grassroots organizing experience is shaping her approach to research.
If activists seek to improve the world, while scholars seek to understand it, what happens when the two converge? Scholars with activist experience may ask different questions. Sometimes, what they learn inspires them to venture out of the ivory tower and into the trenches.
Professor Heather Ann Thompson, who “absolutely” identifies herself as an activist, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Riot of 1971.
“Not only does knowledge of the past help us to understand, and more effectively to weigh in on important issues in the present, but interestingly the reverse is also true,” she said. Thompson referenced the Plain View Project, a nonprofit that has collected public Facebook posts from current and former police officers which reveal a culture of widespread and overt racism.
“That present day activist effort and the insights it has given us tells me that when I am writing about the police in the 1970s, I should definitely be looking at correspondence between police officers and their union reps, and among police officers themselves back then too,” said Thompson.
Nora Krinitsky’s dissertation focused on policing in twentieth-century Chicago. One of her key conclusions? “Reform is essential to the maintenance of the carceral state.” She’s now a prison abolitionist.
“The questions I asked and the things I discovered in my research really informed my views as an activist,” said Krinitsky, who earned her PhD in 2017 and is now a lecturer in the Residential College and interim director of the Prison Creative Arts Project.
Today, Krinitsky—along with Thompson, Sherley, Professor Matthew Lassiter, and four other History graduate students—works on the Carceral State Project, a U-M initiative that will document the experiences of people affected by the criminal justice system throughout the twentieth century. The idea is to explore the impact of mass incarceration, policing, and immigrant detention in Michigan. The organization’s next big initiative will document the experiences of incarcerated people since the rise of mass imprisonment in the 1960s.
It’s not just Americanists who can integrate modern concerns into their work. Professor Juan Cole specializes in the history of Islam and the modern Middle East. “The advent of social media has allowed those who wish to do so make a prison break from the ivory tower,” said Cole.
After 9/11, Cole found that what was presented to the public about the outcomes of an Iraq War was “almost completely at variance with what I knew about Iraq as a scholar.”
In 2002 he started Informed Comment, a blog focusing on war, climate change, and globalization. It took off, and he was invited to speak on television programs and at Washington think tanks. Informed Comment has expanded to include the work of other scholars, and Cole has embraced Twitter, sharing his insights with 50,000 followers.
But what if you study medieval Europe? It would be natural to assume that only modern historians would benefit from engaging in activist issues. But there are always groups who seek to either use or misuse the past to further a specific agenda in the present.
“White supremacists have long been interested in the Middle Ages as a repository of ‘white’ culture,” said Professor Katherine French, who studies medieval England. Modern white supremacists borrow heavily from medieval iconography. They tout false conceptions that medieval Western Europe was the most successful culture in the world, an entirely white society where women were subservient to men.
White supremacists at the August 2017 Charlottesville rally carried shields painted with Knights Templar crosses, as well as Norse runes and symbols from the Holy Roman Empire. In his writings, the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter repeatedly referenced the Crusades.
“As a medieval historian, you should not only explain the Middle Ages, its complexity and its chronology, but also how its history can be weaponized,” said Taylor Sims, a History graduate student. “Historians need to be actively doing that work with the public, because expertise does matter. But it doesn’t if you’re not able to communicate to an audience of nonexperts.”
At its core, being a historian is about asking the right questions and unearthing the answers from a wide range of competing sources. Activism is also about asking questions: questions about power, social structures, and what help people need. But there is another common trait: activists and historians must understand and connect with real people, with real concerns and hopes and perceptions of the world.
“Activism can be a way for historians to be more grounded in the past, to get to know the actors of the past,” said Sherley. “We think of activists’ work as being oriented toward the future, but I think when that work is done best, it’s also grounded in the past, when you feel really accountable to the people that came before you.”
Alumni In Action: Austin McCoy Donates Activist Papers to the Bentley Historical Library
By the time Austin McCoy finished his PhD in 2016, he had won the History Department’s Fondiler Award for best dissertation and a university-wide ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award. He was also a leading voice in campus social justice activism.
In 2013, following Trayvon Martin’s death a year earlier, McCoy helped organize the United Coalition for Racial Justice to help support #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan), which used social media to highlight the experiences of Black students on campus. He participated in Ann Arbor to Ferguson, which mobilized local activists after police killed Michael Brown, Jr., in Ferguson, Missouri, and Aura Rosser in Ann Arbor. He gained national attention as an activist in the era of Black Lives Matter, penning pieces on contemporary issues in publications from the Michigan Daily to Black Perspectives to the Washington Post.
McCoy is now an assistant professor of history at Auburn University, and his current research analyzes movements against the criminal state and campaigns for participatory democracy after 1967. In 2018 he donated his archive—written and digital files—to the Bentley Historical Library. These oral histories, emails, letters, and photos help preserve the latest chapter in the rich history of student activism at U-M.