Reflections on Core Values and Black History Month

March 2, 2021

Dear Friends of Eagleton:

Black History Month in 2021 was an opportunity for us at Eagleton to deepen the exploration of our history, mission, and core values that we began last summer in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the social inequities laid bare by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That exploration, undertaken by Eagleton staff and led by Visiting Associate and former Rutgers Board of Governors member Richard Roper, has led to a restatement of Eagleton’s core values and a renewal of our determination, in studying politics, to improve democracy in order to save it.

I know that many of you are too busy to attend even virtual events as they occur, but Eagleton hosted and co-sponsored several events over the past month that are worth watching asynchronously when you have the time.

On January 31st, Eagleton co-sponsored an event, “A Dream of Kuponya/Kikeokan: Black and Native American Healing at Rutgers University,” which featured remarks by Rev. J.R. Norwood, Dr. Cornell West and Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway.  President Holloway framed the significance of Black and Native American history by pointing out that until recent decades it was a story left untold. Both Black and Native American history, President Holloway emphasized, raise questions fundamental to America’s past, present, and future: What does it mean to be human?  To be considered a citizen?  To be civilized? Those questions resonate, President Holloway observed, in events as recent as the January 6th attack on the Capitol, and in the history of American institutions like Rutgers, which has begun the vital process of honoring the forgotten people, held as slaves, whose lives and labor and indeed humanity went unrecognized in their time and for too long afterwards.

Eagleton, like Rutgers itself, is honoring the lives, labor, and humanity of people held in slavery by the Neilson family, whose descendants donated Wood Lawn, the building which houses Eagleton, as well as much of the land for Cook and Douglass Colleges, to Rutgers.  A plaque honoring their lives will be installed as part of the Scarlet and Black initiative this spring at Wood Lawn.

A stark reminder of the persistence of racist hate and the need for the kind of historical perspective discussed by President Holloway occurred when an event honoring the life of Paul Robeson was Zoom-bombed in the ugliest possible manner.  On February 14th, Chancellor Christopher Molloy spoke for everyone in the Rutgers community in condemning this act of virtual violence.

On February 17th, Eagleton hosted a conversation with Black Voters Matter Fund co-founder LaTosha Brown. The inspirational presentation, moderated by political strategist, Marilyn D. Davis, covered a variety of topics, including: voter suppression, racial inequality, civic engagement, and political empowerment. This event was part of the Institute’s Louis J. Gambaccini Civic Engagement Series, and was presented in co-sponsorship with Rutgers Access Week, Rutgers Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, and Rutgers Paul Robeson Cultural Center.

Wise counsel on how to bring the conscience and idealism of social work to the practical world of politics was provided by this year’s Clifford Case Professor, former Senator Barbara Mikulski.  In addition to the public session, Senator Mikulski visited virtually with Eagleton students and spoke to classes on politics and social work offered by Rutgers faculty in Newark and Camden.

Finally, on February 23rd, Eagleton’s own Professor Din Ambar delivered an inspiring talk about his book, Malcolm X at Oxford Union.  Malcolm’s lasting contribution, Professor Ambar told his interviewer, Eagleton Graduate Fellow Emahunn Campbell, was the transformation he inspired in the way Black people view themselves and, in turn, in the way that Americans should understand and embrace our communities. This event was presented in co-sponsorship with the Rutgers Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities and Rutgers Paul Robeson Cultural Center.

In addition to watching Eagleton’s events and programming, you may be interested in reading President Holloway’s book, The Cause of Freedom: A Concise History of African Americans, which talks about African American history in the context of today’s realities. Listen to President Holloway’s interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer about the book, which was released earlier this year.

To paraphrase President Holloway’s remarks at the beginning of the commemoration, in appreciating Black history, we deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and to be an American, and better equip our nation to define the meaning of American civilization for ourselves and for the world.

I hope you take the opportunity to view or listen to some or all of these critical conversations.


John J. Farmer, Jr.
Eagleton Institute of Politics