Freedom’s Children’s Children

KSU_to_Selma_group photo crop.jpg

KENNESAW, Ga. (Feb. 1, 2016) The Civil Rights Movement may look and sound different in 2016 than in its heyday — with hashtags, Twitter feeds, Facebook shares and YouTube videos — but some things remain constant: the struggle for justice and equality and the critical role that youth play. A Kennesaw State alum and student experience the movement across generations.

In March 1965, Kennesaw State alum Princella Howard-Dixon, then a college freshman in Iowa, answered the call of civil rights leaders to come to Selma, Ala., to join a march for voting rights across the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to the state capitol in Montgomery.

That fateful attempted march in Selma on March 7, which came to be called “Bloody Sunday” and which has now been enshrined for younger generations in the 2015 Academy Award-nominated movie “Selma,” linked Howard’s childhood growing up in an activist Montgomery family and her own activism as a young adult.

The daughter of parents who used their taxi business to drive workers during the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Howard-Dixon became a youth leader in the movement during the 1960s. She served as president of the NAACP’s youth division in Iowa and as the youngest field state representative for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In that role, she led daily voter registration rallies in Pritchard, Ala.

Howard-Dixon joined legions of young people who became the movements’ foot soldiers and heirs to its legacies. Author Ellen Levine dubbed them “Freedom’s Children” in her 1993 book. Howard-Dixon’s recollections of those heady days of the movement — of living under the constant threat of violence and death — are among the book’s 30 first-hand accounts.

“One thing we all knew: something had to give,” Howard-Dixon recalls in the book. “I’m sure everybody understood that — blacks and whites. It was like a keg full of dynamite. Even in the quietness, it was too quiet. The whole country was too quiet.”

Despite fear, intimidation and violence, the movement achieved great success, largely because it was rooted in the church and community and guided by Christian principles, said Howard-Dixon, who graduated from Kennesaw State in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in Integrative Studies with concentrations in education and professional writing. Attending college in intervals while raising a family and staying connected to the movement, she says, it had taken her 50 years to successfully complete her degree.

“The movement of the 50s and 60s was very organized and disciplined, with strongly principled leadership,” she said. “It was very cohesive, and there was constant teaching and training going on.”

Across Generations

Fifty years later, a busload of 50 Kennesaw State students organized by Yen Rodriguez, leadership coordinator for the Center of Student Leadership, traveled to Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the eventual successful march from Selma to Montgomery.

Jasmine Graham, a July 2015 graduate in communication, was among them. As the outgoing president of the Kennesaw State University chapter of the NAACP, the state of civil and human rights today concerns her, and the commemorative Selma march holds a special meaning.

“There was such a heavy presence there, and I felt an overwhelming sense of solidarity with those who continued to march even while being attacked simply for standing up for their rights,” said Graham. “It made me reflect on would I have had the strength to continue?”

Although they are generations apart in their experience of civil rights activism, Graham and Howard-Dixon see great similarities in the struggle for civil rights then and now, as well as vast differences.

For example, Graham shares Howard-Dixon’s same sense of elation and disappointment with the anniversary march, though for different reasons.

On the one hand, said Howard-Dixon, both the original march and the 50th commemoration of it represents the country's “unfolding dream and expanding vision. Its observance should reflect our nation's values and virtues symbolically, ceremonially and substantively, actively engaging the law and the spirit to realize freedom, justice and equality for all people.”

Sadly, however, she fears the movement towards those goals today is lacking — that there is “a great disruption and disintegration of family and community values,” making it difficult to achieve what the movement set out to do.

For Graham, despite the connection she felt to those who had faced batons, dogs, beatings and other abuse in 1965, she lamented that organizers had allowed the event to become over commercialized — making it feel more like a “flea market” and detracting from the intended spirit of the event.

A Shifting Mood

During Howard-Dixon’s coming of age in the civil rights movement of the 1950s — amid meetings and church services in which the Montgomery Improvement Association engaged entire families to mount its successful bus boycott — the realities of race were inescapable, even to children.

Growing up in New Jersey during the 1990s and moving to Savannah at 10, Graham says she didn’t know very much about race relations and African-American history at that time.

“I think people became very lax,” she said.

Not long after Graham came to KSU, however, the mood among young African-Americans shifted, capped off by the death in 2012 of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida and the resulting “Black Lives Matter” movement that sprang up a year later when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in his death.

“There was so much going on and I wanted to get involved,” she said. “The NAACP was one way to do that.”

Graham joined other campus organizations as well, becoming a member of LINK (Leaders in Kennesaw); Ladies of Distinction; Women of Color Success Initiative; and Mountain Movers, a community-based organization that builds houses and raises funds to feed people in need. She also volunteered with MUST Ministries, a social services agency in Cobb County.

“A major turning point for me was going to Washington, D.C. with the local chapter of the NAACP and a group of other students to witness the second inauguration of Barack Obama as president,” Graham said. “The whole trip was an education and it started me on the path to where I am now.”

Gaining Momentum

The touchstone of civil rights in Graham’s time, she says, is the growing protest movement against police killings of unarmed African-American men, with a spate of cases in Missouri, Cleveland, New York, North Charleston, Tulsa and Baltimore within two years.

As the issues became clearer and the “Black Lives Matter” and “Hands-up, Don’t Shoot” movements gained momentum, Graham was moved towards greater activism. She led the NAACP in organizing town halls and memorial events in response to the string of incidents. The organization also conducted voter registration drives on campus and held forums to introduce fellow students to candidates. It staged a debate on affirmative action. In the wake of the death in New York of Eric Garner at the hands of police, the organization planned a “die-in” in front of the Commons dining facility on campus as a silent protest.

Then, as in the protest movements of the 1950s and 60s, people were afraid to get involved — afraid of repercussions, Graham said.

“That was one of the hardest things we did,” Graham said. “We tried to reach out to other organizations and despite the fact that we were very respectful and careful to operate within the University’s guidelines, no one wanted to join us,” she said.

Surprisingly, thanks to a word-of-mouth campaign and the support of organizations such as YESbody!, the African and African Diaspora Studies Student Organization and the Anti-Assimilatist Non-Normative Students of KSU, students turned out in large numbers to support the die-in, which Graham considers one of the most successful endeavors during her term.

In the aftermath, at the urging of faculty members in the African and African Diaspora Studies program, students participating in a range of campus organizations formed an informal coalition to deepen their study of civil and human rights leaders and movements. They hold discussions and have readings about the leaders and the issues they organized around — the equivalent of the consciousness-raising sessions students engaged in during the 1960s.

An American Conundrum

Graham’s active involvement over a few short years has brought her to a similar point as Howard-Dixon, who has remained engaged in human rights over the 50 years since she joined the civil rights movement. More and more, Graham says she views the issues of civil rights today within the broader context of human rights, including the rights of ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, women, especially women of color, access to health care and wage equality for all.

“We can march and protest, but it doesn’t stop there,“ she said. “We have to educate ourselves, and be more open-minded— more willing to work with others because there’s a lot to be done.”

Howard-Dixon, who earned a graduate certificate in Kennesaw State’s creative writing program in spring 2015, poses questions she hopes will enlighten all Americans, including the movements for civil and human rights, in a poem titled “An American Conundrum – Halfway Home”:

When will race matter for the right reasons?

When will we, if ever, dispense with the salvos

of using our racial identities to infuriate?

When will race matter only to enliven and

elaborate on what it means to be human? ”

When will we, if ever, cease to dignify our

indignities of yesteryears for

a brighter tomorrow ?

When will race matter for life, liberty,

curiosity, intelligence, wisdom, knowledge,

understanding and Love?

This is an American conundrum,

of which I can only ask in wonder,

if we are even halfway home?”

 

— Sabbaye McGriff

Photos by Robert Anthony Stalcup

Students in Selma photo courtesy of the Center of Student Leadership