Professor takes students on a tour to bring history to life

6:36 PM, Feb 8, 2013   |    comments
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The Civil Rights Movement is a year-round focus for one University of Tennessee professor.

She takes students on a tour to bring that history to life.

Photographs can't quite capture the emotion of a civil rights tour for college students at the University of Tennessee.

"It comes alive and you experience it 50 years later 60 years later in a way that's different from just reading about it," UT graduate student Harry Whiteside said.

Whiteside has been on the tour led by UT History Professor Cynthia Fleming.

She teaches a short course in the spring: one week reading books, a second week touring civil rights sites, and a third week discussing the experience.

"They are usually just amazed at what they've seen and the people they meet. The other thing that's really important about this course is we don't just travel to museums and we don't just travel to civil rights sites. I'm an oral historian which means I have interviewed many of the participants for the books I've written so in advance I always contact people so we have actual advocates who they have read about come out and meet with them and there's times when students even reenact some of the things they've read about," Cynthia Fleming said.

The first stop is the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market then on to sites in Alabama and Georgia.

Visiting the steps of the Alabama state capital where Dr. Martin Luther King spoke touched graduate student Harry Whiteside.

"He says that it's a victory not for the black man and not for the white man but man as man. And to answer your question when he said that I realized this is my history," he said.

Also in Montgomery, Fleming takes students to the Rosa Parks Institute and Archives.

Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. The professor explains that action was planned like so much in the Civil Rights Movement.

"It looked like they were just spontaneous demonstrations but in fact there was so much planning, so much organization, so much hard work that people put into it to make them turn out the way they did," she said.

In Atlanta, Dr. Fleming shows students Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King preached and the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and his tomb.

In Selma, they walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday where local lawman used tear gas and clubs on civil rights marchers.

In Birmingham, students see the 16th Street Baptist Church where four little girls died in a bombing and Kelly Ingram Park where dogs and fire hoses greeted Civil Rights activists.

"There's a human drama involved that changed this nation forever. And students tell me that once they've actually experienced meeting the activists and seeing the places they actually feel part of the drama and that's something that stays with them forever," she said.

Along the way they meet leaders and people who were part of the movement in informal settings.

And of course along the tour they try a lot of local food.

Harry Whiteside said, "My favorite restaurant was Dallas Soul Food in Camden, Wilcox County Alabama. It was just like my grandma's home cooking."

The civil rights course and the hands on tour is part of Professor Cynthia Fleming's contribution to keeping the lessons of history relevant today.

"The Civil Rights Movement was intended to focus on this country's inclusiveness for all of us and I think that is something people should always remember. Those young people said we need to be included but so does everyone else and I think that's a message very worth remembering," she said.

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