Revolution aids research into earlier era of unrest

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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.”