Monday morning, April 7, 2014, The Driskill, Austin, Texas
The civil rights movement, in my estimation, is nothing less than THE defining American story. I regard it as the quest to make America in fact what America has always purported to be.
Our founding words almost glow with idealism. We have all heard them before, but listen again, freshly, as if for the first time.
Here is the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Here are the first 17 words of our Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice…”
The civil rights movement is all about walking the walk. To most of us, it is deeply associated with the 10-year-period from 1955-1965 with all of the familiar imagery: Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, the dogs and the fire hoses in Birmingham, Martin Luther King’s soaring oratory beneath Abraham Lincoln’s “symbolic shadow.” But I believe the civil rights story is far older than that, dating back to the first slave boats well before our country started, and continuing on to this day.
The week ahead promises to be one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever known in my 53 years of taking in oxygen on this precious planet. My wife and Springfield College colleague, Missy-Marie Montgomery, and I will be attending the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. It brings together a staggering cast of characters, including President Obama, former Presidents Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush, and numerous icons of the civil rights movement: Andrew Young, John Lewis, etc.
I have two formal roles here. One is to present an overview of the walk-up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to a group of high school teachers, college professors, and museum personnel who are part of the “Educator Workshop” that accompanies the CRS. I will be sharing some of my research for my forthcoming book that explores the 10 months and 5 days between the March on Washington and the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Those two moments of glittering optimism contained so much darkness: the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four girls, the kidnapping and murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, and, of course, the dark day in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated.
My other role will be moderating a discussion about civil rights between Julian Bond and Bernice King. Bond has lived so much of the civil rights movement: as a co-founder of SNCC, as a former chair of the NAACP, as the narrator of the incredible “Eyes on the Prize” series, etc. And Rev. King has been an eloquent voice for civil rights for many years, speaking before the United Nations, from the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, etc. She is the youngest child of Coretta Scott King and her husband, one of the greatest American heroes who ever lived.
This is a great honor for me, and I am delighted to share the journey with anyone who wants to come along for the ride.