Remembering the civil rights movement
and Dan Devine
When Alan Gartner quipped, “History is a funny thing,” not a soul in the room laughed.
In town last Saturday for a symposium on Boston’s civil rights legacy held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library, the current chief of staff for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former executive with the National Congress of Racial Equality broke down perceptions of the past into three categories.
“There’s what really happened, what we remember happened and the story we need to create to remember today what happened,” Gartner said during a panel. “The history is not always what we choose to remember.”
Gartner meant to warn listeners that historical experiences can be subjective. But his message also illustrated a larger point frequently emphasized by many of the day’s speakers and participants — that remembering the struggles of that era is a choice, one that new generations must make if past sacrifices are to be honored with future progress.
Titled “Power and Protest: The Civil Rights Movement in Boston, 1960-1968,” the symposium’s panels and lectures celebrated the contributions of Hub citizens and activists during that decade — contributions often overlooked because many view the landmark movement as “something that happened in fits and starts somewhere else,” according to Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History.
Morgan-Welch and her fellow organizers recognized that changing those attitudes means bringing the event’s discussions and recollections to a broader audience, which is why they decided to videotape each panel and address for posterity. Attendees were also encouraged to record their memories of the civil rights movement, which will be archived in the Museum of African American History.
According to event co-chair Kelley Chunn, the panels will be available on the online forum at WGBH’s website within the next several weeks, and 90.9 WBUR-FM plans to air portions of them as part of its Sunday night forum. Chunn said the idea of taping came from Morgan-Welch, who wanted to immortalize the thoughts and remembrances not just of well-known activists, but also of everyday citizens also involved in the struggle.
“We did this so we wouldn’t lose these voices. You were in the presence today of living legends,” said Morgan-Welch. “But when we started planning this conference, there were more of them.”
As participants in the civil rights movement begin to pass on, the need to document their fight grows more pressing. Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree said that providing proper context for Bostonians’ actions during that “freedom decade” is critical in creating a clear picture of the era.
“We’re not trying to rewrite history,” said Ogletree, who moderated one panel. “We’re focusing on trying to create an accurate history of this city.”
And in the process, offer young Boston residents a more complete perspective on both the movement’s significant accomplishments and the many challenges still to be overcome.
During a panel discussion called “The Churches and the Movement,” Minister Don Muhammad of Roxbury’s Muhammad Mosque #11 stressed that the movement brought about protective laws, but the struggle didn’t end there. The black community still has a civic duty to make sure these laws are implemented and enforced by elected officials, Muhammad said, noting that we “will never solve this problem unless we realize that everyone is God’s children” — and the laws should protect everyone.
Rev. Michael E. Haynes, retired pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, cited high costs of living, a lack of accessible affordable housing and continued education problems as issues that continue to require the vigilance of Boston’s black community. As a lifelong Roxbury resident, he’s happy to see that strides have been made, but reminded attendees of the civil rights generation’s moral imperative to localize the movement for young people.
“I’m amazed that so many young people in Boston are not aware of where we have come from,” said Haynes. “Many of them don’t understand that 35 or 40 years ago, I couldn’t walk or ride through South Boston the way you do today. You could not attend the annual Bunker Hill parade in Charlestown 35 or 40 years ago and expect to be safe as they may feel today. We have to help our young people understand ... [because] if not, the less they will understand the role they must play on behalf of the cause of black people in our nation.”
Leonard Alkins, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, echoed the religious leaders’ concerns during the employment panel.
“All of what we have achieved has come through court action. It’s not through fairness,” Alkins said. “But until we can start electing our own officials and impacting legislation, we’re going to continue having problems. Until we take hold of our own destiny, nothing’s going to change much. You may win one here, but you’ll lose three over there.”
That discussion on roadblocks to employment for African Americans during the Jim Crow era saw activists, politicians, lawyers and law enforcement officers join to discuss available job opportunities for blacks in the ’60s, which Gartner summed up in two words: “Slim and nil.”
City Councilor Chuck Turner called inequality in employment opportunities the most damaging impediment to African American progress, and said that balancing the scales will require a shift in commonly held attitudes about the jobless.
“There is a tendency, even among the activist community, to view unemployment as a reflection of a sort of personal weakness, that if you were better, you’d have a job,” said Turner, whose political career includes over 40 years of community activism. “There needs to be a mass realization that they’ve been trying to steal our labor for 400 years,” and that such an imbalance isn’t righted overnight.
Another panel focused on the de facto segregationist policies in the Boston Public Schools during the ’60s. Jean McGuire, executive director of the educational development organization METCO, Inc., said that fight is still ongoing.
“What we saw then is still taking place. That is why it is so critical to keep the stories alive and keep it all going,” said McGuire. “Don’t hold your breath and say that civil rights was then. Civil rights is human rights, it’s everywhere, and civil rights is now.”
Former state secretary of education Dr. Paul Parks suggested that focusing teacher training on the unique needs of urban students would help solve the public education problem.
“There’s a whole lot of teachers coming into these schools that don’t know the first thing about the children, what their lives are like, their body language, none of it,” said Parks.
The educational nonprofit Primary Source sponsored a students-only workshop in which local youth presented a world history project collecting research on the civil rights movement. Kathy Ennis, the organization’s director, relayed plans to develop curriculum materials utilizing content from the event to help teachers bring the past to life in the classroom.
“The kids are the key,” McGuire said. “When I talk to them and they don’t know [legendary community activist] Mel King from Martin Luther King from [recently deceased former governor] Ed King, I know I’m in trouble.”
But the question remains: how much trouble?
Willard Johnson, professor of political science emeritus at MIT, asked during the discussion on students’ role in the movement how we should guide young people in “a time of community organizing with no community, with no sense of civic engagement.”
“Is it evident that we’re now in a crisis?” Johnson asked. “What do we do next?”
Johnson’s inquiries were met with silence.
Moderator Gerald Gill, associate professor of history at Tufts University, began wrapping things up, but Chunn suggested taking more time to address that particular question.
Former television reporter Sarah-Ann Shaw spoke first, suggesting that the civil rights generation needs “to make sure that young people understand history and what they need to do not to repeat some of the mistakes we made” and acknowledging that “we are in a crisis, but a lot of us don’t see it like that.”
Mel King seemed annoyed by the question. “I think young people have to envision the kind of change they want and just go after it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything we need to pass on other than the fact that you have to actually do it.”
With no one else responding, audience member and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association Executive Director Charles E. Walker Jr. characterized the panel’s response as “inept” and asked them to elaborate.
But time had run out.
No such symposium can have all the answers. But at the very least, last Saturday’s gathering did stress the importance of continuing to ask questions. During the event’s final panel, longtime community leader Hubert Jones crystallized that message:
“It’s about us old folks — I’ll speak for myself — stepping out of the way and letting young people come forward and supporting them.”