Skip to main content

Feature

From Freedom to Equality Around the Nation

A sampler of projects on African-American Civil Rights history supported by state humanities councils

By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, January/February 2013 | Volume 34, Number 1.5

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Rather memorably, the first truth he listed was “that all men are created equal.”

Many have said that it took the Civil War for Americans to make good on this truth, but not even the bloody destruction of the estimated 750,000 people could make a reality of what had once seemed, to a contemplative mind, self-evident. And the following decades showed that the suppression of freedom on racial grounds could take many forms besides slavery. So, for black Americans, the struggle for freedom and equality in law and in fact continued.

Today, more historians are looking at the full sweep of this history, stretching from the Founding era to the late twentieth century, and seeing many connections between abolition and desegregation, between Reconstruction and the Great Migration, between the Civil War and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Taken together, they form a pattern not of occasional outbursts but a dialectic of related events, a tapestry of progress and regress, not a series of reform movements but one long movement culminating in “the movement.”

With the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, numerous state humanities councils have funded many projects showcasing, filming, performing, discussing, and teaching aspects of this important history.

Alabama

On the front lines of civil rights history, Alabama is home to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the recipient of several NEH grants and where the Alabama Humanities Foundation has supported several recent programs, including a public discussion series on citizen activism, highlighting the oral histories of civil rights “foot soldiers,” and another oral history project devoted to movement veterans who were involved in civil rights demonstrations as children. The foundation has also made a grant to the Birmingham Pledge Foundation to support an hour-long documentary on the influence of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The film, Our Mockingbird, follows the development of a joint theatrical production of To Kill a Mockingbird, made with a socioeconomically mixed group of students. In 2007, the Alabama Humanities Foundation supported a two-day civil rights education summit for scholars, students, and community leaders, which included tours of the Rosa Parks Museum, the Civil Rights Memorial Center, Dexter King Church and Parsonage, and the historically black Alabama State University.

Arkansas

Arkansas saw its share of civil rights history when Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block the entrance of black students who would fulfill court-ordered plans for integration at Central High School in Little Rock. Nine African-American students had been selected by the Arkansas NAACP, which was headed by Daisy Bates, and enrolled in the all-white high school. In the Shadow of Little Rock: The Life of Daisy Bates, a documentary supported by the Arkansas Humanities Council and NEH, told the story of Bates, protector of the Little Rock Nine. The district judge who oversaw the case and ordered Central High School to proceed with integration was the Hon. Ronald Davies of North Dakota, whose time on the national stage was recently captured in a video documentary and educational panel supported by a partnership including the Arkansas and North Dakota humanities councils. The Arkansas council has also supported a teachers’ institute sponsored by Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site for twenty-five educators to study with veterans and scholars of the civil rights movement and tour historic civil rights landmarks.

Georgia

The well-known New Georgia Encyclopedia just got better as the NEH-supported state humanities council, with the help of a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, expanded coverage with its Schwartz Prize-winning Civil Rights Digital Library, adding articles to the encyclopedia’s coverage of the civil rights movement. Unsurprisingly, civil rights is central to history initiatives undertaken by the Georgia Humanities Council. In 2011, the council partnered with American Experience to screen Freedom Riders and supported programs in Albany, featuring two veterans of the Freedom Rides. Small grants from the council have supported the Albany Civil Rights Institute, the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum in Savannah, and the Tubman African American Museum in Macon. In 2006, the Georgia Humanities Council helped fund a weekend of programming memorializing the centennial of Atlanta’s 1906 race riot. Another major humanities program that benefited from state council grantmaking was “Without Sanctuary,” an exhibition of postcards featuring images of lynchings (attendees of the hangings would purchase and mail these morbid souvenirs to friends and family) at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.

Illinois

The year 2004 was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Brown v. Board of Education decision, and the Illinois Humanities Council marked the occasion with over twenty-five programs statewide, including lectures, panels discussions, debates, film screenings, and performances from Chicago to Carbondale. In 2011, the NEH-supported American Experience documentary Freedom Riders premiered in Chicago at a special screening and discussion with director Stanley Nelson and three veterans of the rides. This was followed by three other presentations on the history of the Freedom Rides, including commissioned performances, additional screenings, and discussions of the film. The Illinois Humanities Council has also supported radio programming on the history of the civil rights movement, including a discussion between civil rights historians Barbara Ransby and Martha Biondi about Biondi’s book on the black student movement of the sixties and seventies. In conjunction with an exhibition at the DuSable Museum of African American History on the history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Illinois Humanities Council supported a presentation on civil rights by Malcolm X biographer Manning Marable. More recently at the DuSable Museum, the council helped announce the opening of the Sixty to Sixty-five oral history archives documenting the Chicago history of the Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Indiana

The Civil Rights Heritage Center benefited from an Indiana Humanities research grant in 2000, and in 2011 received a historic preservation grant for a guided tour program to civil rights sites in South Bend. Indiana’s interest in civil rights can also be seen in its 1982 traveling exhibition, “This Far by Faith: Black Hoosier Heritage.”

Kansas

The Kansas Humanities Council supported “Standing Up by Sitting In” at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, an oral history project with participants from the 1958 sit-in in Wichita at Dockum Drug Store’s lunch counter. Black customers were allowed to buy only takeout from the drugstore. “We never knew what it was to just sit there and have a glass and dishes,” said Carol Parks-Haun, who is quoted in Kansapedia, an online reference guide created by the Kansas Historical Society. Starting in July of 1958, Parks-Haun and Ron Walters began their protest along with other young students, sitting at the lunch counter and asking for soft drinks. They were refused service, but the students quietly stayed in their seats, practicing peaceful resistance, and three weeks after the campaign began, the drugstore owners relented. One week later, another group followed their example in Oklahoma City. A year and a half later, students in Greensboro, North Carolina, followed suit.

Also in Wichita, the Kansas Humanities Council supported research on local civil rights leader Chester I. Lewis, who helped integrate the city ’s police and fire departments and schools. Another council-supported research project covered the experiences of black students in the city schools, dating back to the nineteenth century. The Kansas-born photographer Gordon Parks specialized in capturing images of the civil rights movement (see pages 4 and 5); his works were exhibited and explored in 2012 with support from the Kansas Humanities Council. In Fort Scott, the Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity has benefited from council support for research and oral history.

Topeka is a nationally known civil rights landmark in its own right, and the humanities council has funded numerous projects over the years relating to Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka. The civil rights leader and scholar Julian Bond visited in 1994 to discuss the seminal Supreme Court case, and a year later an oral history project interviewed the children of parents who were plaintiffs in Brown. The 1970 race riots in Lawrence were the subject of lectures and panel discussions supported by the Kansas humanities council, as was a 1977 oral history project on the history of African Americans in Lawrence and Douglas County.

Louisiana

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities has been the leading funder of documentaries in Louisiana for more than forty years, and has supported many films chronicling the history of African-American civil rights. Interestingly, LEH has supported at least two films that sought to understand negative reactions to the civil rights movement and its aftereffects, first in Backlash: Race and the American Dream, which broadcast on public television in 1991, and then in George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, 2000, which focused on the four-time Alabama governor and outspoken segregationist and presidential candidate. Other films supported by LEH include John Lewis and the Civil Rights Movement, Signpost to Freedom: The 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott, Taking a Seat for Justice: Garner v. Louisiana, in which activists who had been expelled from Southern University were found by the Supreme Court not to have broken any laws by “sitting in,” and Journey for Justice: The A. P. Tureaud Story, about the life of this crusading New Orleans civil rights attorney who fought to integrate the city ’s public schools and LSU’s professional schools. Over the years, LEH has provided more than $250,000 in funding for various projects at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. In 2010, LEH partnered with Amistad and Louisiana State Museum in a series of panel discussions on the history of desegregation in New Orleans public schools, featuring some of the African-American women who, as little girls, were the very first students to integrate the city schools.

Maine

The Maine Humanities Council supported a one-day conference on Martin Luther King Jr. in January of 2008, at the University of Southern Maine, Portland, featuring Freedom Riders author Ray Arsenault and other civil rights historians. In 2012, the council supported a monthlong exhibit at Bates College, celebrating a new collection of recent documents, photographs, and videos from the Maine chapter of the NAACP. The collection was processed and curated by Bates students.

Maryland

Martin Luther King Jr. was the subject of a special initiative of the Maryland Humanities Council in 2008. This “remembrance and recollection” brought together several ongoing programs of the council, including community dialogs, the speakers bureau, Chautauqua, and in-school programs. King was also remembered in several projects supported by grants from the state council, at Allegheny College, Coppin State University, and Hood College. And a recent touring discussion sponsored by the council compared his legacy with that of Malcolm X.

Later in the same year, Rosa Parks was celebrated in several connected programs, beginning with a living-history interpretation, then a touring exhibition, and a campaign on city buses, where, for three weeks, a special seat was reserved for Rosa Parks in remembrance of her protest to integrate seating on city buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Short radio spots on Maryland civil rights activists and support for a film-and-conversation series on civil rights followed with the support of the Maryland Humanities Council.

Massachusetts

Did you know that on Independence Day in Massachusetts people get together, with the support of Mass Humanities, for public readings of Frederick Douglass’s famous speech, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July to the Negro”? Another kind of reenactment in 2005 brought together more than five thousand people led by Congressman John Lewis to honor the fortieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. They marched from Roxbury to Boston Common, the same course taken by Martin Luther King Jr. and some forty thousand protestors in 1965. Another sponsor of this event was The Atlantic, which produced a special commemorative booklet containing great essays on civil rights that had run in this historic magazine from the 1860s to the 1990s, including “American Civilization” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which the quintessential nineteenth-century thinker argued that as long as slavery persisted, America could not be considered civilized. Mass Humanities has invested in numerous scholarly and public projects exploring the civil rights history of African Americans, especially in New England. In 2008 and 2009, Mass Humanities commemorated the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade with screenings of Traces of the Trade by Katrina Browne. Local efforts to aid fugitive slaves were highlighted in exhibits at the New Bedford Historical Society, Historic Newton, and the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Mass Humanities has also supported scholarly research on abolitionist activities in Northampton and Cummington. Teachers and students have been the intended audience for several other programs, including an out-of-school program for teens that explored the rich history of the Highlands neighborhood in Essex County, onetime home of Frederick Douglass. Mass Humanities has also supported projects addressing general audiences, such as a symposium on the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, a film about the life of civil rights activist Pauli Murray, and a folk opera about Sojourner Truth.

Michigan

In Michigan we see how an example of NEH funding has led to further civil rights programming. NEH awarded a grant to Kevin Boyle in 2001 to research the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet, who purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood of Detroit in 1925 and found a mob on his doorstep; in 2005, Arc of Justice was published and soon won the National Book Award. In 2011, the book was chosen as a selection for the Great Michigan Read. More than three hundred organizations signed up to partner with the Michigan Humanities Council program, which reached fifty-three counties. The council also partnered with the Michigan Roundtable of Diversity and Inclusion to develop a traveling exhibit on housing discrimination, while working also with MLive and the Detroit Free Press to expose more than one million Michiganders to news of the reading program.

Nebraska

In observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Juan Williams, author of the best-selling companion book to the documentary Eyes on the Prize, delivered the 2005 Governor ’s Lecture in the Humanities, connecting the dots from Brown v. Board of Education to the march on Selma and other key moments of the civil rights movement in the sixties. The Governor ’s Lecture was delivered in 2011 by Eric Foner, the NEH-supported author of the classic history of Reconstruction, who discussed his latest work on Abraham Lincoln and slavery. The Nebraska Humanities Council has also supported Chautauqua performances of Charles Everett Pace as Frederick Douglass through the Durham Museum of Omaha, and helped bring Mixed Blood Theater to Nebraska Community College to perform Dr. King’s Dream, based on the life and writings of Martin Luther King Jr.

New Hampshire

In 2003, the New Hampshire Humanities Council awarded a grant to support a public awareness campaign through the Harriet Wilson Project. In 1859, Wilson became the first African-American woman to publish a novel, which was called Our Nig. Her identity had been revealed by a team of researchers, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., but her historic achievement had not yet been recognized in New Hampshire. With the support of the humanities council, the Harriet Wilson Project brought Gates to speak about the discovery of Wilson’s identity to a packed house at the Milford Town Hall. The New Hampshire Humanities Council has supported a number of lectures about African-American history through its Speakers’ Bureau, including several by Valerie Cunningham on black heritage sites. Recently, Cunningham and JerriAnne Boggis received a major grant to support a documentary on the hidden black history of New Hampshire.

North Carolina

In 2011, North Carolina Humanities Council supported Civil War to Civil Rights, a three-day symposium on the role of U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War. Through its Road Scholars series, the council has supported numerous lectures on the long civil rights movement in North Carolina and a “Let’s Talk About It” reading and discussion series on the African-American experience. In 2012, it also supported a Museum on Main Street traveling exhibition devoted to black mobility and the Great Migration.

North Dakota

On Second Thought, a magazine published three times a year by the North Dakota Humanities Council, dedicated its summer 2011 issue to Hon. Judge Ronald N. Davies, a North Dakota judge who had been sent down to work temporarily on the District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas and ended up ruling on a seminal desegregation case against the Little Rock School Board in Arkansas, where Governor Orval Faubus was using the state National Guard to block integration. Davies denied motions by the school board to delay implementation of its integration plan and upheld the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma Humanities, which is published by the Oklahoma Humanities Council, dedicated its summer 2012 issue to the theme of race and reconciliation, after the magazine’s editor, Carla Walker, attended the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation Symposium, also supported by the council. Participants at the symposium were invited to contribute articles on a variety of race-related topics from personal reflections on slavery landmarks in the United States to slave castles in Africa to the 1921 race riot in Tulsa.

Rhode Island

Research for Here I Am, Send Me, a documentary on the life and death of Jonathan Daniels, was supported by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and the New Hampshire Humanities Council. Daniels was a white Episcopal seminarian who joined the civil rights movement shortly after the march on Selma. After picketing stores in Fort Deposit, Alabama, that would serve only white customers, he was arrested, shortly imprisoned, and then shot in broad daylight as he moved to save the life of an African-American teenager, Ruby Sales, with whom he had marched and been imprisoned. The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities has also supported research for a documentary on lynchings, as well as an oral history project in which tenth graders at South Kingstown High School interviewed veterans of the civil rights movement, focusing on the year 1968. The council also supported, in 2011, a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Providence Children’s Museum and, in 2012, the African Digital Archive, a searchable resource for learning about people of African descent in Rhode Island.

South Carolina

The Humanities Council of South Carolina has supported numerous projects relating to civil rights, including a recent traveling exhibit devoted to the daring Robert Smalls, an African-American slave who, with his family, fled the South during the Civil War by commandeering a Confederate ship and sailing to safety. After the war he became a U.S. congressman. Another recent and well-known traveling exhibition that has been supported by the council concerns the Rosenwald schools, which were built for rural African Americans with seed money and architectural plans donated by Sears, Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald.

The council also supported a recent oral history project collecting stories from Allendale County residents old enough to remember the local politics of voting between 1963 and 1965. A three-day conference at the College of Charleston entitled “After Slavery—Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Post-Emancipation South” was presented with the support of the humanities council, which has also made grants to support two recent civil rights films: Jail, No Bail, a thirty-minute documentary about the “Friendship Nine,” who staged a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter and were arrested but refused to post bail, and an hour-long documentary about the peaceful desegregation of Clemson University in 1963 called The Education of Harvey Gantt.

Tennessee

Humanities Tennessee recently co-sponsored “The Civil War and Emancipation: Conflict and Reckoning” at the 2012 Southern Festival of Books, a slate of fifteen sessions devoted to commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and featuring several well-known authors, such as Harold Holzer, Henry Wiencek, Madison Smartt Bell, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James McPherson, Tony Horwitz, and many others.

Virginia

The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has met the challenge of exploring American civil rights history in a variety of ways. It published, in a partnership with the University of Virginia Press, The Bill of Rights, the Courts, and the Law, a history of American civil rights cases, among others, that have resulted in Supreme Court rulings, around which the foundation developed extensive educational programming. Another VFH-supported book in which civil rights history is prominent, Don’t Grieve After Me: The Black Experience in Virginia, was published and developed, along with a traveling exhibit, in partnership with the Hampton University Museum. The Christiansburg Institute was founded in a log cabin in rural Montgomery County in 1866, as an initiative of the Freedmen’s Bureau. It was a school serving African-American children, where Booker T. Washington once served as the principal. Grants from VFH supported a traveling exhibit and several publications on the history of the institute as well as restoration of the building, so that it may serve as a community learning center. Bringing humanities organizations together is another important mission of the foundation, which, through the Virginia African-American Museums and Historic Sites Network, has helped build this ongoing forum for cooperative efforts to include 150 member institutions. For twenty years, the foundation has had a partnership with Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, the site of an all-black school where students went on strike in 1951 in a case that was incorporated into Brown v. Board of Education. The museum is in Prince Edward County, where all public schools were closed for five years as the state pursued a strategy of “massive resistance” rather than comply with court-ordered desegregation. The foundation has produced two radio documentaries with the staff of the Moton museum, and in Danville, it has supported development of an online and a traveling exhibit that focuses on local resistance, completing oral histories of residents. In 2004, the foundation organized and hosted a symposium for the fiftieth anniversary of Brown, featuring veterans of the civil rights movement and historians. In 2003, a grant from VFH supported Ain’t I a Woman!, a production of interpretations of Sojourner Truth, Zora Neale Hurston, and five other well-known African-American women.

Vermont

The Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh has not only received grants from NEH to support its permanent exhibition on the Underground Railroad in New England, it has been supported by the Vermont Humanities Council. In 2008, the museum received a substantial grant to support curricular materials, including audio recordings of speeches originally delivered by Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and others. Other grants from the humanities council have helped pay for image research, a slide presentation, and a commemoration of Douglass’s speaking tour of Vermont in 1843.

West Virginia

In 2012, West Virginia Humanities Council cosponsored a lecture series, “The Long Civil Rights Movement in America,” which included speeches on various aspects of the civil rights movement, including women’s rights, Appalachia, northern communities, and the origins of the Black Panthers.

This article was last updated on July 17, 2013.

About the Author

David Skinner is editor of HUMANITIES magazine.