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Feb. 12, 2008

Q & A with Political Science Professor Fredrick C. Harris
Special from The Record

Professor Fredrick C. Harris
Professor Fredrick C. Harris

Professor Fredrick Harris was involved in race and politics long before he became an expert in the field.

After Atlanta elected Maynard Jackson its first black mayor in 1973, many blacks were hired in large numbers, including Harris’s mother, who worked in the mayor’s office as a secretary and in human resources.

“I was socialized in a political environment that really got me interested in politics because of the changes that were happening all across the country, particularly in my home town,” Harris said. “In the household, family members always talked politics.”

Harris’s life still revolves around race and politics, as he is head of the newly created Center on African American Politics and Society, part of the University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. The center, which opened in January, just released its first study (pdf) exploring racial attitudes toward the presidential nomination process. Among its major findings, reported in a story last month: 76 percent of black voters find a candidate’s electability is one of the most important factors in choosing which candidate to back, compared with 65 percent of whites.

Q.  What is your primary goal for the center?

A.  What I really want to do in this first semester is to look at the political side. And that will [encompass] information about the presidential election process and bringing together scholars who may be interested in participating in cooperative research within the center … and providing an intellectual forum to talk about these different political issues in the presidential process through a visiting speakers series. I really want to develop a major think tank where Columbia, through this center, will play a leading role informing the public as well as policy makers about these social-economic conditions.

Q.  Why is this new center essential to the University?

A.   I want to develop an umbrella of scholars in psychology, political science, sociology, law, economics and urban studies. So to bring together this talent and to develop both theoretically sophisticated work as well as work that will have policy ramifications that inform conditions that affect black communities … is good for Columbia. We have a broad base of talented people who are distributed throughout not only the college but the entire University.

Q. Has there been a greater focus on Democratic candidates since one is African American and the other is a woman?

A. One of the most remarkable things about the Barack Obama candidacy is that this is an African American running who is not running on traditional issues that African Americans have advocated for. In many ways it is a de-racialized black candidacy unlike past presidential candidacies. The Rev. Al Sharpton, for instance, and Jesse Jackson didn’t necessarily think that they would win, but it was part of the agenda-setting process on issues of civil rights, poverty, unemployment and affordable housing—traditional Democratic issues. Barack Obama is a break from the past because he is a black candidate who has been able to raise money, whose base is not necessarily African American but at the moment it seems to be college students. Barack Obama represents the development, or it could be argued, the maturing of black politics.

Q. How did you first get interested in politics?

A. I remember watching television during the Nixon impeachment hearings and the proceedings were done by the judiciary committee. There was this African American woman who gave this great speech and she was a member of Congress and, I found out later, the first black woman from the South to be elected to Congress. Her name was Barbara Jordan.

Q. You are currently writing a book about black activism in the wake of the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till. How did that event change things?

A. When Americans think about the events that sparked the modern civil rights movement they think of either the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision or Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But between these two events was the Mississippi lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in August of 1955. While scholars of the civil rights movement have focused on the miscarriage of justice—the two accused men who later confessed to the murder were found not guilty by an all-white jury—few have looked closely at the wave of activism in black communities that took place in the fall of 1955.

The mixed emotions blacks felt—anger and fear—were a catalyst for collective action in black communities. African Americans contributed huge amounts of money to the NAACP, at that time the most given in the association’s history; held mass rallies in northern cities; picketed the White House and the Justice Department; and linked Till’s lynching to the injustices blacks were facing in their local communities. The mobilization that took place in the response to Till’s murder helped to build national support for Martin Luther King and the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott that started in December of 1955, just months after Till’s murder.