Course Reflection by Riley Ries

Before beginning this course I never felt truly confident of my knowledge of the American Civil Rights Movement. Sure I had learned about it in classes before, but it was never something that I took a lot of time to study outside of class. This course has been a truly inspirational one, though, both as a student and as an American citizen. A month ago if someone had asked me who the most influential entities of the Civil Rights Movement were, who had lead the charge, I would have answered with names such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or organizations such as the NAACP. After studying the movement though, after learning about the Freedom Rides and the sit-ins, I now realize that it was not the big organizations and famous names that were the base of the movement; rather, college students were the true leaders of the fight for equality. Students such as Diane Nash and Jim Zwerg were important figures, but there were countless

Civil Rights Movement in 1960

Protestors, many of whom are students, lead by Reverend C.T. Vivian (left) and Fisk University student Diane Nash (center) march towards Nashville City Hall.

others whose names will never appear in history books and whose individual contributions will be forgotten with time, but these students deserve to have their legacy remembered. As mere children in comparison to many other activists, students were the ones who stepped up when the adults shirked away from the movement when it started to get terribly violent, when they were faced with the threat of assault, arrest, and even death, but they did so without a second thought, without caring that they may not see tomorrow’s sunrise, because they understood that if they were to die then they would die for a just and righteous cause: equality. If I am to be truly honest with myself, as a college student who is passionate about politics and civil rights, I do not think that I would have the bravery necessary to face beatings, prison, and/or death for the sake of my beliefs, which makes me feel somewhat ashamed and forces me to question whether or not my values are truly important to me if I would not die for them. In addition to the importance of student activism in the Civil Rights Movement, another major idea I will take away from this course is the extent to which de facto segregation has continued, and even worsened, since the end of the Civil Rights Movement. Take Selma, Alabama as a case study. Following forced desegregation of public schools, white families simply moved their children into private all-white schools and public schools became almost entirely black. Neighborhoods, which used to be at least partially desegregated, became completely segregated, and if a black family were to move to a white neighborhood massive white-flight would ensue. While blacks in the United States today do maintain equality in the eyes of the law and de jure segregation has come to an end, de facto segregation is still rampant across much of the South and the United States at large, and until we as Americans can get past our dark past filled with social issues, we will never be able to move forward.

 

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Freedom Riders by Riley Ries

Anniston Bus Burning

On May 14, 1961 the Freedom Riders made their way through Anniston, Alabama, where they were met with unprecedented violence by a mob of Ku Klux Klan members. Pictured above is the bus the Riders took to Anniston, which was demobilized and subsequently set ablaze with the Riders, and other unaffiliated passengers inside.

During the first year of my college career, many of my classes required outside of class time reading that we then deliberated in class discussions. Readings are a tool used by almost all teachers and professors, especially in the humanities, as scholarly works, particularly those base off of primary source evidence, provide strong insights into the topics at hand. In addition to readings, films and videos are also often times used in classrooms. The problem with films and videos, however, is that they can easily turn into time fillers that detract from potentially more productive discussion or lecture. Documentary film, though, especially when it incorporates a large amount of primary source material, such as recordings, pictures, and interviews, can be a very valuable resource for students and professors alike. Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders and the film which is based on the book are both extremely good sources for individuals who are studying the Civil Rights Movement. In his book, Arsenault does a superb job of presenting primary source evidence, such as excerpts from letters and speeches and information given in interviews with civil rights leaders, Freedom Riders, and government officials, to paint for his readers a picture of what the Civil Rights Movement looked like at the front and behind the scenes. In addition, the author provided powerful insight into the thoughts of the Kennedy brothers and the reasoning behind their decisions regarding the desegregation of public transportation. Overall, Arsenault’s book provides readers with a factual, argumentative, and emotionally effective description of the Freedom Ride Movement and makes one wonder why it took so much time and so much violence to bring an end to segregation on buses and in American society at large. The film iteration of Freedom Riders, while equally as factual as Arsenault’s book, was, by virtue of it’s ability to show visual evidence of the atrocities committed by individuals, hate groups, and public officials, much more effective at invoking an emotional response to the stories of

Jim Zwerg

Pictured above is Jim Zwerg, a white Fisk University student who would become a symbol of the brutal actions taken against protestors by segregationists in the South.

the Freedom Riders. Footage and images of nonviolent protestors and reporters being brutally attacked by segregationists gives one a terrible feeling and forces one to question how a country which has always promoted democracy and equality for all could have possibly had such a dark history. However, the same images and footage also depict the heroism and undaunted courage of the Freedom Riders and give one a sense of pride in these brave activists. The print and film adaptations of Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders are both superb resources for students studying the Civil Rights Movement and the emotional effect the two pieces have had on me is unchallenged by any other sources I have utilized in my study of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

 

 

The Murder of Emmett Till by Riley Ries

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Ruins of the Bryant Grocery Store and Meat Market

In August of 1955, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy from Chicago visited his mother’s family in Money, Mississippi. Emmett Till had grown up around racial prejudice, but had never seen anything like the segregation laws and customs of the Deep South. So, when Till supposedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, the white woman standing behind the counter at Bryant’s Grocery Store and Meat Market in Money, he most likely saw it as a way to get the woman’s attention in order to make a purchase. However, in Mississippi at this time blacks could be punished simply for looking white people in the eyes, which meant interracial flirting, which is what Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam claim the black boy was doing, a truly heinous crime. To punish the naïve child, Roy Bryant and Milam kidnapped Till from his uncle’s farm outside of the small town in the Mississippi Delta and brutally beat and tortured him before putting a bullet through his head. The murders then tied barbed wire around his neck, attached it to some heavy weights, and dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River, from which it was pulled three days later.

Till’s mother demanded her son’s body be returned to Chicago where she held an open casket funeral, as she wanted all of the world to see what had happened to her son. In the following months, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam would be brought to court for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. However, following the trial it would take the all-white jury only sixty-seven minutes to reach a verdict: not guilty. And since the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution protected the brothers from any further risk of prosecution, they proceeded to sell their story of the murder of Emmett Till to Look magazine for $2000, in which they admitted to killing the fourteen-year-old boy. The story of Emmett Till is one which serves as a perfect example of the differences between whites and blacks in the Deep South during segregatiEmmett Tillon. Here was a boy who was murdered simply for whistling at a white woman, and his killers were allowed to go free simply because they were white. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the author essentially makes the point that simply being white gives a person ultimate power over the life of a black person, and the murder of Emmett Till provides a real life example of this power. While there are many events which modern historians can look back upon as having major influence in the Civil Rights Movement and as being truly heinous crimes, few stand out as much as Emmett Till and few had equal political and moral consequences.

The Ongoing Fight for Civil Rights by Riley Ries

 

Southern Poverty Law Center

Beginning with Rosa Parks’ iconic refusal to move from her seat at the request of a white man, Montgomery, Alabama became a central hub of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and his congregation lead much of this battle from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, only a block away from the Alabama Capitol Building, where the very laws which oppressed the activists were created and implemented into the Alabama Code. However, while the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery and the United States may have ended four decades ago, the battle for social equality, in America and around the world, is an ever-lasting cause, and Montgomery is again leading that battle. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), located in the Alabama capitol, tracks hate groups across the world and provides legal support for individuals who have been affected by the groups’ actions. Through this legal support, the SPLC seeks to shut down the hate groups, which range from the Ku Klux Klan to anti-LGBTQ rights organizations to the genocidal Hutus of Rwanda, in an effort to promote the civil rights and liberties and security for all peoples. In addition, the SPLC also seeks to spread awareness of the terrible atrocities committed by these hate organizations. Their headquarters in Montgomery contains an exhibit which informs visitors of the heinous crimes committed by some groups and individuals against minorities, such as Emmitt Till who was brutally murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman, or Billy Jack Gaither, a gay man from Alabama who was beaten and burned alive for being gay. In the past, politicians and activists fought great battles centered around basic human liberties, such as the recognition of slaves as humans and the abolition of slavery, or the or the right of all democratic citizens to cast a vote. The battles fought today, though, while focused on the same principles of the past, target different groups. In America and Europe, China and the Middle East, activists and politicians are fighting for the civil liberties of women, LGBTQ people, and other minority groups. These battles are just as important as those of the past, because if our governments and our peoples continue to oppress others because they are just a little bit different from others, then our world will never be able to truly prosper and we will be stuck in conflict with one another rather than flourish together.

The Decline of Selma by Riley Ries

Having grown up in a small, rural town and having spent a great deal of time in other small, much more rural towns, over the course of my lifetime I have witnessed first-hand the effects of urbanization to American communities. In the past half century, as the cost of living has risen, as new employment and lifestyle opportunities have surfaced to replace traditional ones, small communities have simply dried up. Families have moved away from the homes where their families had resided for decades because their once thriving communities lost businesses and other sources of employment and economic prosperity as a result of other families leaving en masse. For example, the once thriving town of Garrison, Iowa has been reduced to little more than a collection of houses, a volunteer fire department, and a seed supplier as a result of its once thriving community disappearing. This same cause and effect can be observed in the decline of Selma, Alabama over the last fifty years. Following the Civil Rights Movement, the Craig Air Force Base and the mills of Selma were forced to close due to rising costs which out-weighed the benefits of their existence. As a result, the community lost thousands of jobs, thousands of sources of livelihood for hundreds of families. With these jobs, left all of the money that they indirectly contributed to Selma Buildingsthe local economy, which in turn forced local businesses to close and move to other more prosperous regions of Alabama and the United States. Many of these businesses were owned by white members of the community, thus this mass exodus of whites from Selma, and many other southern black towns and cities, has been dubbed “white flight.” Thus Selma, a once thriving and beautiful river town, today appears dilapidated and run down. If it weren’t for the constant bustle of cars across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, one could look at some of the city’s buildings and mistake it for a completely abandoned city. In fact, the bridge, a major landmark of the Civil Rights Movement, is really the town’s only source of notoriety, the only thing which distinguishes it from other American cities, the only thing which provides incentive for outsiders to visit the city. If the city wants to survive, wants to avoid suffering the same fate as many other small communities in the United States, it needs to provide more incentive not only for tourists to come the city, but also for families and job seekers. If the city of Selma were to rejuvenate its buildings, infrastructure, and business, they could easily capitalize on tourism in addition to that which comes to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This in turn could provide the spark needed to bring more permanent residents to the dying city, who with them could bring larger, more stable industry. Selma, Alabama is a beautiful soutSt. James Hotelhern town, with a history that is rich and truly unique. However, if its people want to preserve the city and its heritage, they must look past their iconic bridge and look towards their once beautiful city and realize the potential it has for a prosperous future.

 

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Movement by Riley Ries

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Praying Ministers

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Praying Ministers – Kelly Ingram Park

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the most prominent organization in the Birmingham, Alabama civil rights movement. Lead by Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, members of the congregation assisted the Freedom Riders numerous times, whether hosting them for dinner, or providing lodging for the night, or braving the potentially deadly force of a white pro-segregation mob to save Freedom Riders in Anniston after the fire-bombing of the first bus. The Church also played a major role in the protests on the streets of Birmingham and the boycott of its bus system.  Kelly Ingram Park is across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In the first week of May 1963, hundreds of protestors, many of whom were children and high school students, gathered in the streets surrounding the park and advocated for the desegregation of their city. On the first day of their protests hundreds were arrested. On the second day Birmingham police officers and firefighters, under orders from the oppressive Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, assaulted protestors with fire hoses, brutally beat them with batons, and unleashed vicious dogs upon themScreen Shot 2016-04-29 at 9.46.30 PM (as depicted in the statue to the left). However, true to their Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, these protestors never fought back against their attackers, whether they were police officers, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, or regular white citizens walking along the streets of the city. Even following the bombing of the Church on September 15, 1963, in which four young girls were killed by members of the Klan, the Church and its congregation preached only love and never violence, and continued to follow the lead of Reverend Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and Fred Shuttlesworth and his congregation arguably had a much greater effect on the desegregation of Birmingham than did Dr. King, SNCC, CORE, or any other individual or group. Had it not been for the heroic actions taken by the members of this congregation, and the bravery and tolerance they exuded in the face of immeasurable pain an suffering, never once faltering from their Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, the desegregation movement in Birmingham and the United States at large would not have proceeded nearly as successfully as it did.