LOWELL, Mass. – Fifty years ago this month, civil rights activists engaged in three historic marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., with the goal of demonstrating that black Americans wanted to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
The marches were watershed moments in the nation’s struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. The first march was interrupted by a violent confrontation between activists and police. A second attempt led by Martin Luther King Jr. was also unsuccessful and that same day, a black minister from Boston was beaten to death by a white mob. The third march reached its goal, drawing in more than 25,000 supporters on the 54 miles between Selma and Alabama’s state capital. Images of unarmed marchers being beaten and tear-gassed by police were in the news all over the country, and coupled with word of the minister’s murder, a national outcry arose. The nation wanted an end to the violence and racial prejudice that was denying black Americans access to voting in many states. By August that same year, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.
Beginning this month, UMass Lowell will hold an event series marking the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and commemorate the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, gender or national origin and banned segregation in schools, on the job and any place that served the public.
“The passage of the Voting Rights Act marked an important accomplishment for the long civil rights movement in the United States. However, with recent Supreme Court decisions chipping away at the act, we need to better understand the history of the struggle for voting rights and rededicate ourselves to continuing the fight for equal rights for all,” said Prof. Robert Forrant, a member of UMass Lowell’s history faculty who is the lead organizer of the event series.
Forrant started working on the programs last summer with the help of a committee of UMass Lowell faculty, staff and students. This semester, a team of 18 undergraduates enrolled in Forrant’s honors course on the civil rights movement are participating in the programs for the campus and public, as well as some specifically for the class. Students in the class are from Bedford, Billerica, Brockton, Chelmsford, Groton, Lawrence, Lowell, Merrimac, Middleton, Saugus, Taunton, Walpole, Waltham, West Newbury and Westford.
Forrant said he got the idea to present the event series last spring when remembrances were held around the nation honoring the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and felt that it was important to recognize the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With the support of UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan, College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Luis Falcon and Honors College Dean James Canning, Forrant moved forward with plans for the series and the course on civil rights.
“At a time when too many people do not exercise their right to vote, it is important for young people to learn just how difficult the fight was for African-Americans to truly obtain that right,” said Forrant. “We should not allow the clock to be turned back through a series of court decisions and the passage of state laws that disenfranchise citizens.”
The series will feature a variety of programs, including events featuring speakers who participated in the Selma marches and other civil rights activism, producers of the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series that continues to educate people about the civil rights movement and a photo exhibit of images taken during the marches. The Luna Theatre, a new movie theater located in the restored Mill No. 5 at 250 Jackson St. in downtown Lowell, will host a film series with screenings daily from Friday, March 27 through Monday, March 30.
Campus events in the series are all free and include:
- Selma to Montgomery: A Photo Exhibition – Images by photojournalist and activist Matt Herron – whose photography is on display at the Smithsonian Institution and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture – documenting the 50-mile march will be on display daily from Monday, March 23 through Thursday, April 30, with an opening reception on Monday, March 30 at 5 p.m., at University Crossing, 220 Pawtucket St., Lowell.
- Young People and the Civil Rights Movement – The acclaimed TV documentary series “Eyes on the Prize” is considered one of the most powerful retellings of the civil rights movement from the 1950s through the mid-1980s and Callie Crossley, best known today as a journalist and host on WGBH in Boston, was one of its producers. The event will include remarks by Crossley as well as a performance by the UMass Lowell Choral Union, directed by Thomas Malone, of songs from Martin Gaye’s 1971 album, “What’s Going On?” The program is Thursday, March 26 at 4 p.m. at O’Leary Library Learning Commons, UMass Lowell South Campus, 61 Wilder St., Lowell.
- The Struggle Was Not Only in the South – Jason Sokol, author of “All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics From Boston to Brooklyn,” will discuss his book, which explores the paradox of present-day race relations, which show both regression and progress. The event is scheduled for Thursday, April 2 at 4 p.m. in Dugan Hall, Room 104, UMass Lowell South Campus, 883 Broadway St., Lowell.
- The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Struggle for Civil and Political Rights – In the 1960s, Charles Cobb and Judy Richardson were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced “snick”), which played an active role in many of the major events in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Today, Cobb is an author and journalist who has worked for National Geographic and National Public Radio and is now a senior analyst at allAfrica.com. Richardson is a leading scholar with the SNCC Legacy Project and a documentary filmmaker who worked on “Eyes on the Prize” and went on to her own projects, including “Sacred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968,” which details some of the overlooked violence of the civil rights movement. Both Richardson and Cobb have written books about their experiences with SNCC and have served as visiting professors at universities. They will share their experiences at this event, which is Thursday, April 30 at 4 p.m. at O’Leary Library Learning Commons.
For a full list of events, see www.uml.edu/FAHSS/VRA-Commemoration.aspx.