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Revolution Aids Research into Earlier Era of Unrest

In Feb­ruary, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity doc­toral stu­dent Burleigh Hen­drickson arrived in Tunisia for com­par­a­tive his­tory research on the social move­ments of 1968 there, in France and in Western Africa. What he found was a nation roaring from a new social rev­o­lu­tion that had begun only weeks ear­lier — and has since turned the world’s eyes to that sec­tion of the globe.

Call it per­fect timing, because the Tunisian rev­o­lu­tion has pro­vided a fer­tile envi­ron­ment for Hendrickson’s research — which includes exam­ining how ele­ments in the decades fol­lowing World War II affected social move­ments in African nations once they gained inde­pen­dence. Hen­drickson is dig­ging up lit­er­a­ture pro­duced from that post-​​colonial era, including rare, under­ground pam­phlets smug­gled into the country. But he’s also cap­turing a rich oral his­tory from those who were alive at the time.

“Before Jan­uary, people wouldn’t talk out of fear. Now they are expressing them­selves freely for the first time,” Hen­drickson said. “If I’d come here six months ear­lier, I wouldn’t be get­ting the same type of infor­ma­tion these people are trans­mit­ting to me now. This rev­o­lu­tion may even change how they remember these his­tor­ical events.”

Hen­drickson, who is studying world his­tory at North­eastern, began his global trek in Paris last July. This July, he will move on from Tunisia to Senegal until the end of the year. His research is sup­ported by fel­low­ships from the Fulbright-​​Hays Doc­toral Dis­ser­ta­tion Research Abroad Pro­gram and the Social Sci­ence Research Council.

“This is really crit­ical for me to try to under­stand how activism was car­ried out in prac­tice, and how impor­tant it was to have this transna­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” he said.

In Tunisia, he described meeting the wife of an activist impris­oned in 1968. She has spent her life seeking reform, and at the time even enrolled other impris­oned intel­lec­tuals in a Parisian uni­ver­sity. She helped to send them books, and even made an effort to send a French del­e­ga­tion to admin­ister exams, to move their edu­ca­tion forward.

Hen­drickson hopes his research leads to devel­oping a global roadmap that helps con­nect these dif­ferent move­ments and why they hap­pened simul­ta­ne­ously. His research stems from the work of Tim­othy Brown, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of history at North­eastern who has focused on such social upheavals in Germany.

Brown said while researchers have long known these con­nec­tions existed, they are only now starting to deeply examine how they actu­ally worked. Brown’s stu­dents are con­ducting sim­ilar research in China and Bangladesh.

“I may not be able to study the whole world,” Hen­drickson said. “But if I can take this little sec­tion and under­stand how the social move­ment and word cir­cu­lated there, it can help researchers piece together an idea of what a global 1968 looks like.

“I also hope that we’re able to put the rev­o­lu­tions in both the first– and third-​​world nations into the same his­tor­ical frame­work so we can show their connections.”

– by Greg St. Martin

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