Students film research on
journalism and civil rights

 

On March 7, 1965, Alabama State Troopers clashed with hundreds of civil rights activists during a march from Selma to Montgomery. The violence that erupted that day on the Edmund Pettus Bridge became known as "Bloody Sunday" and helped garner support for the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated barriers to voter registration for black Americans.

Nearly four decades later, a group of Elon School of Communications students stood on that same bridge in Selma. They interviewed civil rights leaders who recounted being beaten by authorities who used tear gas, billy clubs and horses to break up the march. Those interviews and others with reporters are part of a video documentary the students are producing that examines the challenges journalists faced covering the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s.

"In school we learned the history of the movement from a white perspective, and here we're getting a whole different perspective," says senior Anna Brodrecht, who grew up in Alabama. "Just talking to the people has made a big difference to me."

Classmate Justen Baskerville learned firsthand about the sacrifices and struggles of the marchers, many of whom toiled in anonymity. "People put their lives on the line to change something that seemed impossible to change," he says. "You have to have a lot of respect for people who did that."

The documentary was the brainchild of Brad Hamm, associate dean of the School of Communications, who secured an anonymous grant to fund the project. "This project is valuable for the tapes themselves. Journalism at its core is oral history," he said.

The documentary includes interviews with locally and nationally known media professionals and civil rights activists. On campus, students interviewed Lee Kinard, former news anchor at WFMY-TV in Greensboro, N.C., and Horace Carter, former editor and publisher of the Tabor City Tribune, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for coverage of the Ku Klux Klan in southeast North Carolina. Students also interviewed former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite during his visit to campus April 8.

Students traveled to Alabama in December and March and shot more than a dozen hours of videotape. They stopped in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, where they learned that often journalists were victims of violence along with the marchers.

"They all said, 'I did the best I could,' and, 'I was in the right place at the right time.' It was almost like civil service for them," says Leah Kessler, director of internships and special projects in the School of Communications. "We didn't know how important the press was to the civil rights movement. It's an angle you haven't heard before."

Sophomore Scott Myrick says the impact of the demonstrations was not lost on the reporters and photographers they interviewed. "Everyone who reported this story knew the stories they were writing were going to cause a fundamental change in America," he says.

For junior Dan Turk, who is also from Alabama, hearing from the activists themselves made a big difference. "It was interesting to hear another side of the story and probably the truth," he says.

In addition to the Selma-to-Montgomery march, the students have focused on the Woolworth's sit-in in 1960 and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four girls in 1963. They also visited the Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery and the Voting Rights Museum in Selma, where they interviewed C.T. Vivian, a top aide to King. One of the most moving experiences for the students was standing on the bridge in Selma talking to civil rights activists who marched on that fateful day and continue to dedicate their lives to the cause.

"Everyone we talked to said that when they topped the bridge, all they saw was a sea of blue," Brodrecht says, referring to the lines of state troopers who awaited the marchers. "The ghosts are still there."

"These people are the living leaders of the civil rights movement, and that is what's so amazing about this project," adds Myrick.

In March, students returned to Selma for a reenactment of Bloody Sunday. During the event, Baskerville got separated from his classmates on the bridge and stopped with the crowd to pray. "I was thinking people fought for my rights here where I'm standing," he says. "That's when it hit me. It was definitely very powerful."

From their interviews the students learned that civil rights leaders were adept at courting the media. "They knew what was news and what would get on the news," says junior Jennifer Sposato. "Without the media, change wouldn't have happened so fast and the way it did."

Part of the students' research involved comparing the way Northern and Southern newspapers and television stations covered the movement. They found that the more aggressive coverage by reporters in the North forced many Southern editors to move protest stories onto the front page.

The documentary is expected to be released next spring and will be available to civil rights museums and colleges and universities nationwide.

"It was a good experience taking what you learn in the classroom and using it in the field," says Baskerville. "In the crunch, we came together as a team."

Myrick calls it "learning as you go." "Every hour we were learning something about our technical craft or our interviewing techniques," he says. "We were getting experience that not a lot of people will have."

Says Brodrecht, "Through this project, we've gotten in touch with history."

 

 

Share your news and items of interest. To contact us, e-mail: communications@elon.edu
School of Communications 
2850 Campus Box 
Elon, NC 27244-2010   (336) 278-5724 
E-mail: communications@elon.edu
Last Modified:  7/21/03
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