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Scholar Leslie Alexander Joins Rutgers as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of History

First course will focus on the policing of Black communities

Leslie Alexandar

Leslie Alexander was a Stanford University sophomore when she took her first class in African American studies.

She had no idea it would change her life.

The course—taught by the noted scholar Sylvia Wynter—shocked Alexander with its unflinching look at the human suffering wrought by the Atlantic slave trade.

“I was completely riveted, captivated, and of course traumatized by the stories she was telling,” Alexander said.

She was also inspired. And soon set out to become a historian.  

Now a renowned scholar of late 18th and early 19th century American history, Alexander joined Rutgers University this year as the new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of History and will begin teaching classes this semester.

She keeps the memory of that early classroom awakening close at hand.     

“That’s one of the things I love about teaching: seeing the light bulb go off in someone’s eyes,” says Alexander. “I get to be part of the process of watching, helping, and supporting students through a process of revelation.”

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of History was established in 1969 to honor the slain civil rights leader and to support the development at Rutgers of excellence in African American studies. Four faculty members have previously held the chair, including David Levering Lewis, who wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of W.E.B. DuBois while at Rutgers. The faculty position is part of the Department of History, School of Arts and Sciences.

“It carries a tremendous amount of significance because of the distinguished scholars who held this position before me, and because it’s named after one of the most famous champions of social justice this country has ever seen,” Alexander said. “In my mind, I would like to use this position as an opportunity to champion the type of scholarship that also reflects the same passionate commitment to social justice.”

She comes to the role at a particularly fraught moment in U.S. race history. The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police in 2020 set off a reckoning that saw widespread demonstrations against police violence, the removal of some confederate statues, and new pressure on institutions to scrutinize their history and take steps to root out racism and support a culture of diversity and inclusion.

But a backlash has emerged: More than 20 states have adopted restrictive voting policies that could  have disproportionate impact on voters color; the Supreme Court is said to be poised to strike down race-conscious college admission policies, and a number of states have adopted or proposed legislation aimed at limiting teaching about race in public schools.

MLK image

Alexander said it’s an urgent and critical time to teach, and she’s heartened by the enthusiasm, energy, and curiosity that students bring to the topic of race.

“I am deeply impressed by this generation of young people who are coming into my classrooms willing to know and understand in a more truthful, holistic fashion what the history of this nation has been all about,” she says. “And it does require courage to have difficult conversations and to have an honest reckoning with the truth.”

She sees her classroom role as helping to guide students as a learning community, encountering, navigating, and working through ideas.

“And that does not mean we are always going to agree,” she says. “What is required is a willingness to come together in an open, honest, and respectful way to discuss really complicated, challenging ideas.”

Alexander’s course on the policing of Black communities will have plenty of room for such discussions. The course is based on her current book project—How We Got Here: Slavery and the Making of the Modern Police State—and begins in the current moment before taking students back to colonial era to show how the surveillance of Black communities was woven into the social and political fabric of the colonies.

The first slave patrols came into existence in the early 1700s, with both men and women expected to participate.

“We see in this early period that laws were implemented to force upon white colonists the idea that to be a citizen, to be a part of the British colonial project, there was a responsibility and a duty to monitor, police, and surveil the Black population,” Alexander said.

Alexander, who grew up in the Bay Area, earned her master’s degree and PhD from Cornell University. Before coming to Rutgers, she was a professor at The Ohio State University, the University of Oregon, and Arizona State University.

She was drawn to her specialty in late 18th and early 19th century history because that era provided insight into how Black people survived enslavement and formed networks and connections that would become communities of resilience and resistance.

“I don’t see it as just a time of torture, repression, and violence, though there is certainly that,” she said. “I also understand it as a time of humans existing under these unimaginable circumstances, yet finding ways of creating families and communities, and even finding joy, laughter, and humor while retaining spiritual connection and devotion—and finding ways to fight back.”

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