Dr. Jeffrey McClurken's Oral History Interview


Dublin Core


Dr. Jeffrey McClurken's Oral History Interview


Farmer, James, 1920-1999
McClurken, Jeffrey W.
Department of History and American Studies
Oral History Interview
University of Mary Washington
Mary Washington College


In this oral history interview, Dr. Jeffrey McClurken of the University of Mary Washington's History and American Studies department about his time in Dr. Farmer's Civil Rights class as well as Dr. Farmer's educational legacy at the University.


Hist 428 Spring 2020


To see this video on Youtube please click here.


HIST 428: Farmer Group




McClurken, Jeffrey W.
Eastridge, Kimberly
Mahoney, Eilise


Youtube Video




Moving Image

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Eastridge, Kimberly


McClurken, Jeffery




Text: This oral history interview was created as part of a project on Dr. James Farmer’s educational legacy at the University of Mary Washington. This project was completed for the University of Mary Washington’s Adventures in Digital History class taught by Dr. Jeffrey McClurken. We would like to thank Dr. Jeffrey McClurken for agreeing to participate in this interview.
Text: Thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview, Dr. McClurken. Could you please state your name for the record?
Dr. McClurken: I am Jeffrey W. McClurken, a professor of History and American Studies at Mary Washington.
Text: What year did you graduate?
Dr. McClurken: I graduated in 1994.
Text: How did you know Dr. Farmer?
Dr. McClurken: I mean, I was a student in his class, but of course I’d heard about him long before that semester. People on campus had talked about him and I’d heard about him from faculty in the department about him.
Text: Did you learn something in his civil rights class that you still remember today? Or changed your perspective as a person or as a teacher?
Dr. McClurken: I mean the class was, it’s almost trite, but it was life changing, right? You had this sense that you were in the presence of history greatness. Right? He had this booming, powerful voice, this great smile, terrific way of telling stories. Um, yeah, I mean, I think- look, as a history major I had taken a number of classes in which the Civil Rights movement was covered. Right? But it was one thing to hear about the movement from a faculty member, but there is something fundamentally different in hearing those stories come to life, right? Come to life from someone who has been there. Come to life from someone who is physically and emotionally suffered for the cause you’re studying. It’s just a- it’s a different experience. It’s a transformative experience. Um. You know, I guess another way to put it would be to say that as a history major who had every plan of going on to graduate school, to becoming a scholar, to becoming a professor, a teacher myself, there was something deeply powerful about hearing from what was effectively a living legend. Right? And-and a living legend who was somehow simultaneously clearly human as well. Right? I mean, he was self-deprecating. He was open about his personal struggles. He would talk, for example, about how he dealt with his jealousy of Martin’s fame. Right? Just, first of all, the fact that he talked about Martin Luther King as “Martin,” right? It was a constant reminder to us his ties to the other leaders of the movement. But, that- he wasn’t name dropping. He wasn’t trying to just- he wasn’t using it in some false or pretentious way. He was-he was there. Martin was a friend of his. Dr. King was a friend of his. Um, you know, so he was always-he was just always sort of self-deprecating. He talked through how he agonized about whether or not he made the right decision to stay in jail with the other protestors in Plaquemine, Louisiana, when he could have just paid the court fees and have been at the 1960’s March on Washington. Sort of agonized over whether it was the right thing to do, even thirty years later, or forty years later. So, that sense of, of both the majesty and humanity just really- just really stuck with me.
Text: What kinds of values did he instill in his students? Do you see the reverberations of those lessons in your own teachings today?
Dr. McClurken: Oh, man, I hope so. Um, you know, he-I would say he instilled service, thoughtfulness, honesty, a willingness to confront oppression. A, um, but also a sense- a sense of humor, and a sense of, of the need to still laugh and to be human. Yeah, I’d love to-I’d love to think that that has influenced my own teaching, but I-but I watched—you know, I mean there were, you know, over a hundred of us in each of these classes, um, and, um, and yet you could see people just be affected and transformed by this and we talk about it outside of class. Um, you know, for me personally, that experience solidified my desire to be a historian. Solidified my desire to represent the perspective of those in the past and in the present. Um, so, you know, I-there’s no question in my mind that he-he, he—but I was not the only one who had-who had that kind of reaction to it, because I was sitting with all my fellow classmates, and-and-and hearing their reactions and the conversations they we have at lunch, um, or, um, you know, at the dinner table at, you know, over at what was then Seacobek. Um, you know, having these conversations. It-it went beyond just a class. It was more than just content. Um, it was— this is going to sound trite, but it was an experience, right?
Text: You have a very unique perspective as both an alumni and a current faculty member. How do you think Dr. Farmer has impacted UMW and the greater Fredericksburg area?
Dr. McClurken: Um, I-I think Farmer’s legacy on-on campus and-and in town is hard to quantify. I mean it’s easier to point to-to sort of organizations or institutions or things that are named after him. Uh, I think the James Farmer Multicultural Center continues on his legacy. I think the Farmer bust is an important reminder, even if not everyone knows what they’re looking at when they walk past it. I think the work being carried out in his name, a lot of the work create the A.S.P.I.R.E. concept was really based in his ideas, and his work. You know, there have been numerous, um, um, first year seminars that have been created, and, about him or with his teachings at the center. Uh, earlier groups have done oral histories with people, um, who work with him or who knew him. Um, you know, I-I I think- you know, for me, as you point out, I do have this unique perspective, right, because I was his student but now I’m back teaching at the school where he taught for almost two decades. Um, you know, my time in that classroom was transformative, and so when I had a chance to come back and teach at Mary Washington, um, I jumped at the chance to try to find ways to remember and honor him, right? For his service to the Civil Rights Movement, but also to his service to a generation of students at Mary Washington. Um, I wanted people to be able to hear that booming voice, to hear his stories as much as possible. It’s why I’ve had three different classes over the last decade create digital projects related to Farmer and his work. Um, you know, I-and I think the work your group is doing and the work those previous groups have done mean that through the work of Mary Washington students everyone can hear James Farmer words, can-can read his words, can hear him tell his stories, to come to understand why we honor James Farmer and his legacy.
Text: Do you have a favorite memory or anecdote about him?
McClurken: It’s central to what I’ve been talking about, I think. You know, the paper-the research paper I wrote for his class was on President Lyndon Johnson’s varied stances—and they varied quite wildly—his stances on Civil Rights over the years. I-I won’t bore you with the details, but, but I know that when I turned in that paper I was very proud of the nuanced story that I had written, the narrative that I had laid out grounded in the primary sources—it really used LBJ’s autobiography which he wrote after he stepped down as president. Now, I-I’m enough of a scholar now and there’s been enough time that looking back, given what I now know about primary sources and Lyndon Johnson, I probably bought-I bought into LBJ’s retellings of his own past more than I should have, right? He was telling his own story in a way that made him look good. But when I got the paper back Dr. Farmer—the only thing he had written on it was: “Interesting. This is not the version President Johnson told me when I was in the oval office.” And so, you know, of course I had professors tell me I needed to think more critically about my sources before, that was the first time I’d ever had a professor cite actual interactions with the people in question to indicate how wrong I was. So, I, you know, and it was-I didn’t take it-I didn’t take it in a bad way. I could hear his-I could hear the tone and his voice, the sort of wry, sardonic tone in his voice as he was like “that’s not what President Johnson told me.” Right? And, um, so that-that was the kind of person he was. He-he-he- it was education, not indoctrination. Right? Um, and so um, you know, I-I- for me the fact that he-that we are finding ways to recognize the ways that-that this man brought the Civil Rights Movement to life through that resonant voice, through that-that wry humor, that deep intelligence, that empathy, right? And-and in some cases, what amounted to an incredibly raw emotion, right? The emotion of someone who had lived through the movement. And so, um, that fact that we are able to celebrate and recognize the life and teaching of Dr. Farmer whose-whose career as a Civil Rights leader, I think, was-was complemented by his career as an educator. It’s-it’s an amazing opportunity and responsibility for all of us, but-but it’s one that I think we gladly take up.
Text: Thank you again, Dr. McClurken, for helping us get to know Dr. Farmer even better!
Text: Interviewee: Dr. Jeffrey McClurken; Interviewer: Kim Eastridge; Editor: Eilise Mahoney; Team Members: John Forest, Katia Savelyeva, Megan Williams; Advising Professor: Dr. Jeffrey McClurken
Text: For more information on this project please go to farmer.umwhistory.org

Original Format

Zoom Video





Hist 428 Spring 2020, “Dr. Jeffrey McClurken's Oral History Interview,” James Farmer at Mary Washington, accessed May 20, 2024, http://farmer.umwhistory.org/items/show/107.

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