The Wilson County Black History Committee and The Roy Bailey African American Museum and History Center played host to “Reflections on the Civil Rights Movement” on Saturday, a presentation on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer that followed the signing of Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The event included a luncheon and a lecture by Linda Wynn, professor of history at Fisk University and assistant director for state programs with the Tennessee Historical Commission. Wynn’s lecture, “From Freedom Summer to the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” highlighted the activism that pushed for more African Americans to vote, especially in Mississippi.
“In 1964, Mississippi was targeted specifically because in Mississippi, there was such entrenched racism, and [Civil Rights activists] wanted to register African Americans to vote,” Wynn said. “[That] is specifically what Freedom Summer was about, it was about getting African Americans to vote.”
Wynn said in Mississippi, about 17,000 African Americans were registered to vote, but only about 1,600 actually cast a ballot, prompting the political actions of 1964.
“It’s important to understand that freedoms are won, but that doesn’t mean that they are always maintained, so each generation has to fight for something that was already given,” Wynn said.
Kwame Lillard, who participated in Freedom Rides as a student activist, was in attendance at the event.
“The Nashville student movement sort of re-ignited the Freedom Rides after [the Congress of Racial Equality] abandoned it – after the busses burned,” Lillard said, “and Dr. King realized that the Nashville student structure was so formalized and so successful that he issued an edict that Nashville would be the staging area for all the Freedom Riders coming down from all the states.”
Kwame recalled travelling through Alabama to help students who had been evicted from schools in Birmingham and deported to the Alabama-Tennessee state line to safely return to Birmingham in protest.
“It was a complete victory for the people of Nashville and the South, by the people of Nashville and the people of the South,” Kwame said. “The movement in Nashville created the first non-city movement – by that I mean the movement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott was in Montgomery, Little Rock, Ark. school issue was in Little Rock, the Freedom Ride was a regional and international movement because it had international students, and it set the pattern for everything that came after that.”
Jesse McLevain, a state House District 57 candidate, is a volunteer with the Wilson County Black History Committee. McLevian expressed concern over the lack of knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the public school system.
“I’ve talked with the newly retired assistant principal at Lebanon High School. He said that a lot of those high school students don’t even know who Martin Luther King was, so there is a need for education,” McLevain said.
Thelma Shockley, an activist during the Civil Rights Movement and Carthage resident, recounted stories of injustice and attacks on herself and her family. At one point, she was threatened with jail for refusing to send her son to an all-black school.
“Go ahead, put me in jail. You take me, you’re going to have to take them, too,” Shockley said.
Another activist, Sallie Palmer, described one scene of violence outside the Capitol Theatre, where demonstrators attacked Palmer and others with eggs and attempted to intimidate them by setting fires in front of them.
For the Civil Rights protestors, this was not a surprise, as past events and organized non-violence training was given to all of the protestors.
“If you don’t plan to be non-violent, then you don’t need to be in this training,” Palmer recalled being told. “When we went on the picket line, we had to assure them that we would not be [violent,] that we would accept whatever they had.”
The event also included a tribute to Civil Rights activists Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Myles Horton and Will Campbell, a tribute to The Lebanon Clowns – a Negro League baseball team – and member C.E. McAdoo, as well as a presentation of the Chris Prince Athletic Award to William Prince and Rochelle Price.
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