Tobin Miller Shearer - African-American Studies

Tobin Shearer

The historical fault lines created by race and religion have captivated my attention for decades. In particular, I seek to understand how racial identities and religious practices have both contributed to and hampered social change movements. I have followed those paths of inquiry to first study black and white Mennonites during the civil rights movement, then to examine the black and brown children who vacationed with white suburban and rural families in the “Fresh Air” program, and most recently to examine the unexpected ways that public prayer has incited crisis and violence. I’ve also cycled back several times to writing about white privilege and whiteness in twentieth century America. This summer I was invited to take part in a three-week seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities on the civil rights movement in Mississippi. I not only got to have stimulating conversations with scholars from across the country, but I also visited civil rights sites in Memphis, TN, Birmingham, AL, Greenwood, MS, and Jackson, MS, that I had read about for years but never visited in person. I will long remember the deep chill I felt walking past the river where white racists murdered the young African-American Emmett Till. I carry with me memories of having been on the same streets where civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer inspired her community to demand the right to vote.

Although I find deep fulfillment in the hours I spend each day on research, I encounter true joy in working with students, watching their intellectual growth, and supporting them as they write and think better than they ever thought possible. My students tell me that my enthusiasm about the material I teach is infectious. I’ll take their word that this is true. Every lecture I give revolves around a central question. Often I don’t tell the students what I think the answer is, but invite them to come up with an answer themselves. As a result, I often hear them continuing the conversation out in the hallways after class. I also take a keen personal interest in each student and learn every student’s name within the first week of class. I regularly invite students into our home for soup and pie.

Right now I’m working with two undergraduate students as they do original, archive-based research on the civil rights movement. I love watching them come up with new insights, improve their writing skills, and talk more and more like professional historians. When I asked one of them how a recent archive trip had gone, I was treated to a forty-five minute, non-stop, exuberant report on all the great material the archives had offered. I’m also mentoring a group of Franke Global Leadership Initiative students who are doing a project on the minimum-wage debate in Montana. Every time we meet, they blow me away with their professionalism, focus, and energy. These kinds of opportunities to watch students excel put a smile on my face when I wake up in the morning.

About Tobin Miller Shearer

Tobin Miller Shearer is the Director of the African-American Studies Program at UM and an Associate Professor of History. He conducts research into the history of race and religion in the United States with a particular emphasis on prayer, the civil rights movement, and white identity. His classes include "Black: From Africa to Hip-Hop," "Voodoo, Muslim, Church: Black Religion," and "The Black Radical Tradition."