Spotlight on: Professor Russell Rickford

By Emma Moley | 1/13/12 4:15pm

“How can I myself live my life everyday in a way that increases justice and… that fights injustice?” - Professor Russell Rickford.

If you’ve been at a student activist demonstration in the past two years, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of history professor Russell Rickford — or at least his distinctive black-rimmed glasses. I sat down with Rickford to chat about his interest in social movements, particularly those involving civil rights and youth activism. A native of Guyana and an expert on the 1960s Black Power movement, Rickford told me his support for student activism stems from his desire to push students’ social and class consciousness.

Courtesy Of Joseph Mehling '69


In the late 80s and early 90s, a spreading Malcolm X Renaissance movement brought with it a resurgence of Black Nationalist thought. This “Malcolm trend” influenced Rickford, who dubbed himself a “Malcolm-ite.” In particular, Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, fascinated Professor Rickford. He wrote the only major biography of Shabazz, entitled Betty Shabazz, Surviving Malcolm X: A Journey of Strength from Wife to Widow to Heroine. Check out an interview here.

Rickford said detailing her powerful life enabled him to “think systematically about gender in the black freedom struggle and broadened [his] political perspective at a critical moment.”

After earning his PhD from Columbia University in 2009, Rickford joined Dartmouth’s history department, where he teaches classes primarily focused on recent black history in the United States. In memory of his former mentor, scholar and activist Manning Marable, Rickford serves on the planning committee for an upcoming conference entitled “A New Vision of Black Freedom: The Manning Marable Memorial Conference.”

Responsibilities as a father and husband, coupled with his currently research on pan-Africanist private schools in the Black Power era, means Rickford must get up "really, really early" — which occasionally means 1 a.m., he said.

Although he knew little about Dartmouth before arriving, Rickford said he’s been “invigorated” by students interested in the history of education, race and social justice.

Rickford finds his relationship with Dartmouth undergraduates “really rewarding, even more so than with graduate students because of their energy and enthusiasm,” he said, noting that he deeply supports the Occupy Dartmouth movement.

“Ultimately, democracy can’t work if people aren’t willing to personally suffer for their vision of social change,” Rickford said. "That’s what you guys are doing. You’re suffering.”

Rickford’s advice for students is hardly simple, yet reflective of his perspective on the insulating aspect of higher education. He told me he believes students should “think about their time here not as a way station on the way to privilege or as a tool for social climbing, but as a tremendous opportunity to come to terms with one's self, to develop a deep moral intelligence, to become fully self-aware and to challenge oneself.”

Rickford claims that often higher education “serve[s] as an anesthetic and numbs people from their own hearts, their inner sense of morality. Students think of education as something they consume, another product. This is an impoverished way of approaching the process of learning, which is about drawing from within oneself the divine intention of humanity, leading to the service of humanity.”

Emma Moley