Over the past couple of weeks, St. Olaf hosted a program that served as commemoration of St. Olaf alumni involvement in the civil rights movement. Entitled “A Long Walk Home,” the comprehensive program details a history of race relations, focusing on the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and specifically on the Selma to Montgomery march. The program runs from Feb. 27 to March 12, with March 7 as the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march.
One of St. Olaf’s strongest ties to the civil rights movement is alumnus James Reeb ’50, a Unitarian minister from Boston who expressed a solid support for civil rights in the fifties and sixties. In March of 1965, Reeb responded to a call of action and joined protesters in Selma. Only a couple of days after the nonviolent protesters were stopped and beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge a day referred to as “Bloody Sunday”, Reeb, along with two other Unitarian ministers, were beaten by a group of white men for their support of civil rights. Reeb died two days later due to injuries.
Bruce King, special assistant to President David R. Anderson ’74 and chief diversity officer, was thrilled to be able to design the program honoring Reeb.
“He is an example of what an ordinary person does to become extraordinary,” King said, “Unfortunately, sadly, he was killed in Selma, but he became a symbol of why these things are important. Not only was he eulogized by Martin Luther King, Jr., but also, President Lyndon B. Johnson cited Reeb as a reason why the voting rights act should pass. A lot of people believe [Reeb’s death] sped up Johnson’s thinking in the passage of the voting rights act.”
King is hoping that the “A Long Walk Home” events will bring Reeb’s memory back to campus and help students understand that the issue of civil rights is still history in the making.
“You need a context, you need a framework,” King said, “and I think the program provides a certain kind of framework to think about how Selma is like Ferguson. How Selma is like Staten Island, New York or New York City. I think that if students really want to understand Ferguson, or they really want to understand Mike Brown, they really have to come back and take a look at what was happening in the South, what created the system, how the system was dismantled, and how it’s coming back together as we are fighting hard for civil rights today.”
“A Long Walk Home” has included a variety of events, including guest speakers, short films, an art exhibit and screenings of the movie Selma.
Last Wednesday, Victor Rios, a sociology professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, spoke on his criticisms of the broken windows theory of policing. Rios’s talk was part of a series of lectures about race and policing. Inviting a speaker to address modern day race relation issues echos King’s request to give students an opportunity to learn about the lasting impacts and issues surrounding the civil rights movement.
A short film titled “Alabama Return: Life in Segregated Alabama” was aired on Monday, March 2 and Wednesday, March 4. The film documented a few St. Olaf alumni who had returned to Alabama to remember a summer they spent teaching there as part of the Tuskegee Institute Summer Education Program. Two of those alumni, Jeff Strate ’66 and Sheryl Anderson Renslo ’66, returned to campus last week to give brief “gallery talks” in the Flaten Art Museum. They reflected on the hardships, the cultural differences and the tensions of living in a segregated south.
Flaten Art Museum hosted a number of “gallery talks” throughout the course of the program. Retired St. Olaf pastor Bruce Benson spoke about his experiences as an exchange student at Talladega college in 1966. Anne and Leah Reeb talked about their grandfather’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
During the chapel service on March 10, a group of students spoke about their experiences in Alabama while visiting for the Interim class Creating Southern History. Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald led a week-long trip to Alabama to retrace some of the steps of the Civil Rights Movement. The class explored museums, churches, monuments and iconic landmarks of the movement in Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa and Selma. The tour finished with a commemoration ceremony for Reeb in Selma. President Anderson and other St. Olaf faculty joined the class in Alabama to be part of the ceremony.
Julia Lavanger ’16, one of the students who went on the trip, was moved by the stories the class heard.
“During the freedom rides, there was this really bad, brutal riot outside the bus station in Montgomery and then at the church later on, and [the freedom riders] all hid in this house,” Lavanger said. “We actually got to talk to this woman who was thirteen years old when all these people were hiding in her house. I got to talk to her for a little bit and it was so interesting hearing her firsthand experience. Just being there, where all these things actually happened. Walking past Martin Luther King’s house. And it’s just, you don’t really think how recently that was. It was really cool.”
James O’Leary ’16 shared in Lavanger’s enthusiasm for the experience.
“To be able to see all of these sites in person. Like, this was Doctor King’s desk as he had it, this was his church, this was a piece of the bomb that was used against Shuttlesworth. That was incredible,” O’Leary said.
The “A Long Walk Home” program concluded on Thursday, March 12 with a lecture by Gilbert H. Caldwell on his life as a civil rights activist and on the continuing struggle for civil rights today. There was also a ribbon cutting ceremony in the Rolvaag lobby for the dedication of the Rev. James Reeb Reflection Room in honor of Reeb.
The discussion of civil rights over the past few weeks was not exclusive to St. Olaf College. President Obama and U.S. Representative John Lewis D- Ga., a former SNCC activist who marched across the bridge in 1965, both spoke in commemoration of the Selma to Montgomery march on March 7.
“This is in the news now, and it’s more relevant to contemporary concerns than you would think possible,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s one reason why the school should probably remember James Reeb, because he’s one of a lot of people who participated in big events at this moment of crisis in the country’s history.”