Recently I attended the Facing History seminar "Choices in Little Rock" which uses a case study of the 1957 desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas to explore topics such as federal and states rights, the American Constitution system, and the Brown v. Board decision and its legacies. The seminar also examines issues of race, human behavior, and the power of individual choice. At the end of the week our group had the opportunity to hear from one of the Little Rock Nine, Dr. Terrence Roberts. When he spoke to us about his experiences and his journey since that fateful school year, I couldn't help but be inspired. As a history teacher, yearly classroom screenings of Eyes on the Prize had me well acquainted with the grainy black and white images of the violent mobs outside Little Rock Central High School. Also clear in my memory is the image of nine dignified high school students and their refusal to let hate and bigotry obstruct access to the education that was rightfully theirs. The footage still moves me of course, but perhaps because I've seen it repeatedly, that moment and the people in it, seem frozen in time. But hearing from Dr. Roberts gave me a much needed shift in perspective. Yes, things have changed. It is also just as true that certain problems still remain. And the question I must ask myself about both is what to do about it.
I've been thinking a lot lately about historical memory and legacy, and meeting Dr. Roberts simply brought those ideas to the forefront once again. Standing before me was a man, who as a teenager took up a very brave and public fight that all of us might reap the benefits, and there he was, still giving of himself by speaking with us. Dr. Roberts asserted his ongoing dedication to the civil rights movement because basic protections and freedoms have yet to be fully extended to all members of our society. Not only was I inspired, but I also felt a deep sense of personal responsibility. How many times have I decided not to speak up about something simply because it might feel mildly uncomfortable, and really, what right did I have to make that choice? After meeting a man who faced down screaming mobs and repeated death threats just so he could attend high school, I realize that I can't even for a minute shrug off my responsibility to carry on this work, not when I am the direct beneficiary of his sacrifices and of others like him. The longer I think about this responsibility to honor the memory of past sacrifice, the more things I view in this light.
August 6th marks the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 following several violent clashes between peaceful protesters and police forces in Selma, Alabama. The Voting Rights Act itself serves as a bridge between the past and the present, as a link between the Jim Crow era and the modern day, between political disenfranchisement and full civic participation. Like many bridges, the Voting Rights Act can be taken for granted, enjoyed for its existence without consideration of what it took to create such a structure or any thought given to how big a gulf existed before the bridge's completion.
On this anniversary, how do we commemorate the Voting Rights Act? And who is it that we remember? Is it the marchers beaten by Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge who wanted to bring attention to their lack of voting rights? Is it the members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who organized the voting rights campaigns throughout the south? Is it Lyndon B. Johnson, the president who proclaimed it was high time to "right wrong, do justice, to serve man" and signed the Voting Rights Act into law? The fact is, we owe it to all of those people- so what is a fitting tribute?
Maybe the tribute isn't a physical memorial or a plaque on the wall or a notation made on a calendar. Perhaps the best tribute is a call to action and a conscious choice to uphold and advance the continued fight for civil rights. That "fight for civil rights" doesn't have to be a high-profile protest march or boycott, action can take many forms. Action can look like taking the time to read the entire voter's guide so that I make fully informed decisions at the ballot box. (Don't I have an obligation to do as much, when I considered that people died to have a right I take for granted?) As an educator, action also takes on the form of inspiring students to care about the past and the present so that they fully believe in (and take advantage of) their power to direct and shape the future.
Which people or events inspire you from the civil rights movement? What actions do you take to honor the memory and legacy of those people or events?
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