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Retracing the steps to freedom

UGA's class on rhetoric of the civil rights movement takes students to the places where history was made

by Matt Weeks (ABJ '05)

On a sweltering July day, Candace Blackburn stands at the front of the 16th Street Baptist Church sanctuary in Birmingham, Ala., where Martin Luther King Jr. eulogized four little girls killed when the church was bombed by segregationists in 1963.

She reads his immortal words to her classmates, nine fellow UGA students sitting in the church pews before her.

“And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair,” she quotes King. “We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence.”

She takes a deep breath and continues to read as a tear rolls down her face.

“May I now say a word to you, the members of the bereaved families? It is almost impossible to say anything that can console you at this difficult hour and remove the deep clouds of disappointment, which are floating in your mental skies. But I hope you can find a little consolation from the universality of this experience. Death comes to every individual.”

The civil rights era has just become real to Blackburn, a 40-year-old wife and mother.

“As I was standing there and reading what Dr. King said in the exact place he said it, I started thinking about myself,” she said later. “I wondered what I would do if I was there and (about) the feelings that their families went through. I have a teenage daughter—it made me realize just what a bad thing it was.”

For four days in June and July, students enrolled in the Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement class—taught at UGA’s Gwinnett campus—got a first-hand look at crucial sites of the civil rights era. Joined on the tour by a dozen others not enrolled but interested in the subject matter, they traveled the Deep South by bus through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. At each stop, the students fulfilled part of their academic requirement by reading aloud a speech of their choosing—words delivered originally by the likes of King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy.

Many of them, including Blackburn, thought the movement revolved around a single leader who managed to sweep the nation through nonviolent protest. On the tour, they learned it was not just King’s movement, but a splintered and disorganized affair with dozens of leaders, not all nonviolent.

“I think young people today have a hard time relating to the past and classes like this are really helpful in doing that,” said senior Heather Bosquet, who was on the tour. “I’d heard of this class before and people always told me it was a life-changing experience. And it was.”

During the journey to nearly a dozen sites including Selma, Montgomery, Memphis and Meridian, the students hit key places in the civil rights struggle—the hamlet where Emmett Till may have whistled at a white woman, the corner where Rosa Parks was arrested—and met with activists from that time.

One such activist, Hollis Watkins, left a family reunion early to get home in time to meet the students. The septuagenarian talked about his younger years and taught the students “freedom songs” with catchy, simple melodies and lyrics.

Later on the bus, the students reprised the songs Watkins taught them and added a few others including “We Shall Overcome,” a well-known anthem of the civil rights movement. Instructor Rita Van Zant calls this practice the “laying on of hands,” carrying a message down through generations, after the stalwarts of the movement are all gone.

“I want them to shake everybody’s hand who they meet,” Van Sant said. “I’m Episcopalian and in my church when someone is ordained, all the other ministers lay their hands on the new person to sort of pass down their knowledge. Now they’ve shaken the hands of people who’ve shaken Dr. King’s hand. It’s a way of passing it down.”

In keeping with the splintered nature of the movement, the students heard contradictory rhetoric during the tour. At a stop in Mississippi, state senator and activist David Jordan told the students that things are getting better for black people, that times have changed and people are more accepting.

But Lecia Brooks, education director at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, urged students not to believe their textbooks. The movement is far from completed, and civil rights crimes of today are often slipping past undetected, she said.

“I think the abuses we face now are more covert, less out in the open, so they’re harder to identify and harder to become outraged about,” Brooks said. “Most of what happened during the civil rights era happened when people couldn’t ignore it anymore. I think when things get that bad again, that’s when more people will take action.”

If the students had political leanings, they didn’t show it. The eight white and two black students were too busy taking in the tour’s sights to adopt an ideological stance. They listened cautiously to all of the speakers’ words, compared them with what they’d learned in the classroom, and came away with a finely-honed ability to dissect language.

They critiqued the layout and placement of exhibits in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and discussed the muddled, pro-segregationist reasoning of Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s inaugural remarks. At a monument outside Anniston, Ala., that read “We Dare Defend Our Freedom,” they begged to know if the statement came from a segregationist or integrationist point of view. No one could answer them.

“I’ve created monsters,” Van Zant said with a smile. “They’re so tuned in to the rhetoric of the time that things just can’t get past them. They’re examining everything.”

Nigerian native Glory Eminue came into the course with a minute understanding of the time. She was familiar with some of the bigger names, but said she wanted to understand the foundations of a movement that brought equality to black Americans.

“I think it’s great, but it is depressing too. Sometimes you know so much and you don’t want to know any more,” Eminue said. “But it is important that we do and teach the younger ones, the people in my generation and younger. I wanted to take the class so I could learn and teach my own family.”

Other students, like Jordan Quinn, found the class offered an alternative history of their homeland. Raised in Mississippi, Quinn scarcely knew the story of James Meredith and integration of Ole Miss (which he attended before transferring to UGA) or the plight of martyrs like James Chaney, who was killed for helping black people register to vote.

“I grew up here and went to school here and didn’t know any of this. I went to Ole Miss and it doesn’t have anything there to commemorate it or let you know what happened,” he said. “The first time I heard about it was in class.”

At the 16th Street Baptist Church, Candace Blackburn composes herself and continues King’s eulogy. The room is dark and muggy. The group is behind schedule and eager for lunch.

“Shakespeare had Horatio to say some beautiful words as he stood over the dead body of Hamlet,” Blackburn says, quoting King. “And today, as I stand over the remains of these beautiful, darling girls, I paraphrase the words of Shakespeare: ‘Good night, sweet princesses. Good night, those who symbolize a new day. And may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.’ God bless you.”

Despite the heat, the fast-paced schedule and want for food, the students sit still in the pews. For a moment there is no talk about rhetoric or persuasion or why King chose to quote Shakespeare and not the Bible. In one of those moments rare for a speech class, no one speaks.

Matt Weeks is a reporter for UGA's faculty/staff newspaper.

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photos by Dot Paul (M '97)

Click on image to enlarge

At the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Candace Blackburn reads Martin Luther King Jr.'s eulogy for four little girls killed there in a 1963 bombing.

Students sing freedom songs as they recreate a 1965 protest march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The original march is known as "Bloody Sunday" for the violent reception the marchers were met with after crossing the bridge.

At the Southern Poverty Law Center is Montgomery, Ala., students place their hands on the Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin, who also created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

Rita Van Zant, who created the "rolling classroom," addresses students arbitrarily designated to sit in the back of the bus in a segregation exercise.

Former FBI agent Bill Fleming discusses the hunt for the bombers of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

Hollis Watkins, a former activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, shares freedom songs with the students from his Jackson, Miss., business.

Police and Dog Attack, at Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park, depicts 1963 protests. Lunging from both sides of the pathway, the sculpture gives a glimpse of what protestors felt when police dogs were used to discourage them.

Lecia Brooks, education director of the SPLC's Civil Rights Memorial Center, explains the landmark lawsuit that forced the United Klans of America into bankruptcy. The suit was filed on behalf of the mother of Michael Donald, who was lynched by Klan members in Mobile in 1981.

Thu Phham reads the eulogy of civil rights worker James Earl Chaney, killed in 1964, in front of his grave outside Meridian, Miss. Defaced by bullets, his headstone is reinforced by two steel beams to prevent further damage.

Eight-seven-year-old Col. Stone Johnson, a long-time Birmingham, Ala., resident, talks of his experience during the movement. He took the class on the Freedom Walk of Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham.

Members of the tour record their names on the electronic Wall of Tolerance at the Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Memorial Center. By adding their names, the members pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance.