How do you make history books come to life? Just ask one of the five Andrew Young School of Policy students who traveled to Washington, D.C., in August to attend the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Public Policy majors LaTosha Arnold-Washington, Eugenie Stephenson, Lydia Smith and Christian Hill, along with MSW student Heather Davis, participated in the National Center for Civil and Human Rights’ (NCCHR) “I Am Here” Exchange. They had the opportunity to see history in action – and record it.
Fifty years ago approximately 250,000 people participated in the original March on Washington in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It was during this event that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech. The march was organized by civil rights leaders of the time, including many Atlanta natives and current residents.
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights introduced the “I Am Here” program this year in anticipation of the anniversary of the march and began recruiting undergraduate and graduate students from universities around Atlanta.
After submitting personal statements and participating in a few rounds of interviews, 20 finalists were chosen, including 16 from Georgia State University.
The purpose of the project is to present stories of those involved in 1963 march through the creation of an archive of oral history interviews. Students interviewed original march attendees in Washington as well as movement leaders in Atlanta before the trip, including Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, Minister C.T. Vivian and former Mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin.
Their videos will be available on the center’s website and featured in its interactive exhibits. NCCHR is scheduled to open its doors in downtown Atlanta in May 2014.
Christian Hill, a public policy major and intern at NCCHR, acted as a project manager throughout the project’s duration. He explained that they were looking for students that exhibited extroverted qualities and a connection to the Civil Rights movement. The students would identify people 70 years and older and approach them for short interviews.
The students boarded a bus Thursday evening and, following the 10-hour journey, arrived in The District Friday morning for their first stop at Congressman John Lewis’ office.
Lewis was the youngest of the march organizers and is the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district. He gave the students a tour of his office and spoke to them about his experiences around the time of the original march.
Many of the students claimed this was a very inspiring experience. “That was awesome. It was really great hearing his experiences. I can’t imagine being his age and dealing with that. Hearing it from him was fantastic,” said Eugenie Stevenson, who is working towards earning a Certificate in Gerontology as well as her public policy degree.
In their first evening, public relations firm Ogilvy & Mather hosted a reception to welcome the students where they interacted with other civil rights leaders who attended the original March.
After the reception the students managed to squeeze in some sight-seeing Friday night, which for many students included a moving experience outside the White House. A group of Syrians was holding a candlelight vigil just outside the gates, and several students took a few moments to talk with the protesters and listen to their point of view.
LaTosha Arnold-Washington said she appreciated the opportunity to interact with activists of different causes. “Some were standing and crying, holding hands. Some were sitting and praying. It was very moving.”
On Saturday the group went to the march and, in pairs, began tackling the challenge of completing 20 interviews before the event was over. Each pair had a camera, and they alternated filming and interviewing. With only two-and-a-half hours to complete the task, Heather Davis described the day as intense. “It was a little bit of mayhem, but it was worth it, it was fun.”
“There were young people who were very diverse. There were people advocating for different causes, not just freedom and economic rights but LGBT rights, women’s rights in the workplace. Learning about the struggles that you don’t necessarily hear about every day was the best part,” explained Hill.
Following their experiences, the coherent message of peace and collaboration resonated throughout each of the student’s experiences. “People from different backgrounds came together and recognized the common cause and were able to rally around it. That is huge,” said Davis.
All five students identified hearing the individuals’ stories as their favorite part, and all five talked about how peaceful and inclusive the event was. Hearing directly from participants really allowed the students to understand their struggles from a new point of view.
Davis described the basic sentiment from many she spoke with, “people basically followed the golden rule—be nice to each other.”
In addition, the sense of community was evident throughout the event. “I worried that polarizing issues would come up, but there wasn’t hostility. They want people to know that you have to include everyone; we can’t be on different sides,” she explained.
Stevenson also noted that from many of the women she interviewed, she heard a lot about the importance of education. “A lot of the women, on advice they had to offer to future generations was to gain as much education as possible. Stay in school because no matter what you want to do, it will help you.”
Although all five students are studying related subjects, they each appear to have found new personal motivations because of this experience.
Davis, who will graduate with her Master of Social Work degree in May 2014, is particularly interested in at-risk youth. Her experience with the project cemented her passion for the kids she works for and has reminded her not to be apathetic.
“Now I’m being motivated by a lot of critical civil rights leaders that were there in the 60s … seeing what they had to sacrifice … so they know how valuable they are and that most people that marched were in their teens and early 20s. You can mobilize, you can have a voice, regardless if you feel like people are against you or not. For me, in social work, that’s very empowering.”
Stevenson, who hopes to create policy for older adults, described how the project opened her eyes to the cohort she plans to work for. “That’s why this entire project was really important to me: getting an oral history from the elders. It helps me to anticipate the needs that much better and create policy that fits a wide range of people.”
Hill admitted to not having too much knowledge about the Civil Rights movement before his time with NCCHR and this project, but claims “it really was life-changing for me. These people had such touching stories. When you hear the bravery and heroism that these people displayed, it motivates you to be a part, to ensure that you’re continuing the legacy of equality for all people.
“I’m in the process now of creating a collegiate group committed to civil and human rights,” he said. “I went from not knowing too much about the movement to being extremely passionate about it.”
While all the students had different takeaways, they all agreed that it was a life-changing experience.
Arnold-Washington summed it up: “Although these are some of the stories I was told by my grandparents, by my uncles, it’s different when you can feel the emotions. The experience brought life to history books. It was the best experience in the world; it was like nothing else.”
To learn more about the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, go to www.cchrpartnership.org/index.html.
The website for the anniversary march is http://50thanniversarymarchonwashington.com/.
Written by student Kate Van Camp, M.P.A.