Civil Rights Tour of South to be Highlight of New Course
By Rachel Hartwick
“If it hadn’t been for the media—the print media and television—the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song,” read Aimee Edmonson, Scripps School of Journalism associate professor. As she shared the excerpt, a quote from Rep. John Lewis in The Race Beat, Edmondson wiped tears from her eyes.
“I feel very passionately about this,” Edmonson said of the topic for a new course and civil rights tour for Communication students. “This won’t just be a class about history—it’s a contemporary class, too.”
Students will visit the National Voting Rights Museum, Edmon Pettus Bridge, 16th Street Baptist Church, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Race Beat is among the required reading for Media & the Civil Rights Movement, a special topics class being offered for the first time spring semester.
As part of the course, students will spend spring break on a bus tour of historic sites in the South that were significant in the civil rights movement. They will learn about the movement’s intersection with media and communications.
Edmonson co-created the course with Communication Studies Instructor Tom Costello. Although they had been talking about it for years, they deemed 2017 the year to turn their vision into reality.
“We couldn’t not do it now. It’s really stunning to think about the fact that this class is so relevant right now,” Edmonson said. “With the climate of the last year with this election season, there’s never been a more important time to teach this class, and to really understand the rich and important history that the media plays in issues related to civil rights.”
While both professors incorporate teachings about race in their classrooms, they also had prior experience with the subject. Edmonson’s research and publications center on the civil rights movement and its relation to libel law and free speech. Costello, an OU graduate who returned in 2013 to teach, is trained as a lawyer and previously ran a civil rights and social justice organization in Detroit.
On the tour, the bus will make several stops, including Selma and Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; Money, Mississippi; and Cincinnati.
Along the route, students will see the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where armed policemen attacked civil rights activists who were marching to Montgomery in 1965. They will also visit the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four young African-American girls fell victim to a white supremacy bombing in the midst of the civil rights movement. The bus will make its last stop in Cincinnati to visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
“I’m most looking forward to just going to these historic sites and feeling the meaning and significance of the history that is very recent,” said Kim Reynolds, a senior studying media and social change, who will take the course and tour. “I’m also looking forward to experiencing this with classmates who are just as interested and engaged as I am.”
Prospective students completed a competitive application based on letters of recommendation, DARS information and an essay. Thirty-two people will participate in the class, with 15 from the journalism, 15 from communication studies, one from media and one from visual communications.
“I want the students to be historically literate and understand how this plays a role in what’s going on today. It does affect how we all communicate and interact with each other,” Costello said. “This isn’t just about black people. This is white people, too, and our good and bad parts in that role.”
Costello added he plans to teach the class from a public advocacy point of view, and he hopes that students take the opportunity to be advocates throughout their life, whether that is working for a nonprofit, volunteering or being a mentor.
Reynolds said she wants to work in community outreach and thinks this class will help her better understand how policy has played out in communities.
“I think this history is incredibly relevant to social movements today,” Reynolds said. “It’s important for me as a black female activist to know the history of different activist movements and understand whose shoulders I stand upon.”
The future of the course and tour after this year is unclear. Edmonson said the class is currently scheduled as a “one-time thing,” but she would consider offering it again depending on the circumstances.
“We have no option to think outside of history … I think this class—for everyone that’s in it, black, white, whatever your race is—it’s important to understand (certain) history,” Costello said. “We’ll repeat it.”