N.D. sociologist accesses information on race riots from archives
By KEN BRADFORD
Tribune Staff Writer
File folders from the Lemberg Center archives are bulging with newspaper clippings that are beginning to crumble. Dan Myers, a professor at the
University of Notre Dame, hopes the information can be preserved for future study.|
Tribune Photo/JIM RIDER
Dan Myers is amazed at his good fortune.
Information is the crude oil of academic research. It provides the fuel for new ideas and knocks the rust off old ones.
And Myers, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame, is sitting on a geyser of material that had been whispered about among researchers in his field.
Myers, almost by accident, controls the archives from the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence, formerly at Brandeis University.
He and his students are working their way through the archives, which detail thousands of race riots that occurred between 1966 and 1973.
"Previously, research said there were a couple hundred race riots during that period," he said. "We haven't been through everything here yet, but we already know of at least 3,500 incidents.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of riots most people didn't even know about. This will give us a fuller picture of what was going on," he said.
Race riots were part of the volatile fabric of the mid-'60s. Anyone old enough to watch TV at the time will recall footage on the national news of stores ablaze and the bloody faces of rioters and police officers alike.
A riot that began Aug. 11, 1965, in the south central Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts resulted in 34 dead, 1,000 injured and 4,000 arrested.
Two major riots followed in 1967. A three-day free-for-all in Newark, N.J., in mid-July resulted in 26 dead, 1,100 injured and 1,600 under arrest. Two weeks later, in Detroit, a riot left a death toll of 43.
For Myers, 34, riots carry no personal interest. He was born in Xenia, Ohio, after the Watts riot and was still in diapers during the Newark and Detroit riots.
He started looking into race disturbances as an undergraduate at Ohio State University. His interest grew, and he was working on his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin when he heard murmurs of a vast collection of documents on race riots.
He made inquiries but was unable to find this legendary archive.
But after he moved to Notre Dame in 1997, he received a phone call that unraveled the mystery. The answer was to be found at Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind.
Brandeis, a Jewish-sponsored school just outside of Boston, had received gift money that allowed it to open the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence.
From 1966 to 1973, the center compiled newspaper clippings, taped interviews and paid for a Roper Poll study about race riots.
By 1973, racial violence was becoming less common, and the Lemberg Center closed.
A story in The Justice, the Brandeis student newspaper, from Sept. 18, 1973, attributed the closing to a decrease in funding and a sense that the center had completed its task.
There also was concern in the Brandeis community that information gathered at Lemberg would be used to help mayors "put down riots and further oppress city populations," The Justice reported.
In any case, the center closed and the archive suddenly had no home. "For a time, all this was stuffed under a stairwell at Brandeis," Myers said.
Eliot Wilczek, archives assistant at Brandeis, said there was no formal university archive then. He said the decision to transfer the materials on permanent loan to Manchester College, affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, was made in 1979.
Ferne Baldwin, the longtime archivist at Manchester, said the college probably seemed like the logical place for the materials.
"They came here primarily because we had the first peace studies major in America," she said. "It was quite a large collection, and it was here a long time."
But it was a little-known resource, used only by a handful of researchers. "When Notre Dame expressed an interest, we were quite willing to let them have it," Baldwin said.
Notre Dame Professor Dan Myers
now has access to the Lemberg
Center archives, a treasure trove of
information on race riots throughout
America. His students are using the
newspaper clippings, audio tapes and
other information for their research.|
Tribune Photo/JIM RIDER
One of Myers' sources told him about the Manchester collection. "When I called and asked about it, the person who answered the phone said she could see it from where she was sitting," he said.
When he rushed down to see it, he wasn't disappointed.
He's worked out an agreement involving Brandeis, Manchester and Notre Dame that leaves the archives under his care.
It's been quite a task sorting and organizing the materials.
Thousands of yellowing newspaper clippings from papers all over the country now are arranged in file cabinets in a Flanner Hall office. Each clip provides nuggets of information about an event that could be researched.
Lemberg staff members also recorded extensive interviews in 10 American cities--on reel-to-reel tapes as well as cassettes--that need to be examined.
The center also paid the Roper polling organization to interview 6,000 Americans about race relations and civil unrest.
"It's a really great data set," Myers said. "No one's really analyzed it all yet."
To pull together all this information nowadays would require visits to hundreds of newspaper offices and other sites. The beauty of an archive is that all this information now is in one place, Myers said.
He has 16 students, most of them seniors, working on projects related to the materials. Some are in his Riots and Protests class, and others are in a special studies group he leads.
Tony Perez, a senior from St. John, Ind., has based two projects, including his senior thesis, on the archives.
In one, he's comparing how riots in smaller cities were covered by larger newspapers and smaller newspapers.
To his surprise, the larger papers, which would be more remote, seemed to have provided more background and context for the violence. Smaller papers seemed to concentrate more on what happened than why it happened.
The archive was essential. "Without this, I'd be chasing bits and pieces everywhere," he said. "The Lemberg archive was the backbone."
Matt Baggetta, a senior from Johnstown, N.Y., used the old interview transcripts from community leaders to explore people's opinions of the rioters.
"People needed to explain what they were seeing," Baggetta said. "It mostly came down to two ways of looking at it.
"Some thought rioters were just people caught up in the heat of the moment. Others believed rioters were trying to make a statement through a very extreme means of protest."
Without the Lemberg archive, he wouldn't have done the study, which has been submitted to the Sociological Quarterly. "I never would have come up with the idea without this unique data set," he said.
Myers said benefits from the Lemberg archive should go beyond academic use to public policy applications.
For example, a good argument could be made that poor training and tactics may have made the riots of the 1960s even worse.
"There was an attitude that you could bust people back into line," he said. "Police were so insistent on arresting people just for spitting on them."
The current trend, which research might support, is for police to back off from angry confrontations instead of helping them escalate, Myers said. "Police seem to be a lot smarter about controlling crowds."
There are dozens of other directions the research can go--from riots in schools, to bias in media coverage, to efforts at introducing calmer voices during periods of unrest.
And two questions Myers hears often have yet to be answered.
"People ask all the time whether we're going to have riots again," he said.
Without doing all the research, he suspects there are great similarities between then and now, with the gap between the rich and poor growing even larger. But that's just one of the factors.
Another question is whether the violence actually accomplished anything.
Myers said interviews conducted through Lemberg seemed to be asking that same question. It will be useful to measure the responses then against what people would say now.
Staff writer Ken Bradford: