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The dance piece "In the Gap" illustrated the struggle for change.

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Civil Rights Event Probes What Was, What Is, and What Should Be

April 2, 2015

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Alumni from the 1960s, student-dancers, faculty members, and the undergraduates who just returned from an Alternative Spring Break trip to Montgomery, Alabama, took part in a stirring event on March 31 in McCullough Student Center.

Titled “The Civil Rights Struggle 50 Years Later: What Was, What Is, What Should Be,” the two-hour gathering was designed by the Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life to “challenge, engage, inform, disturb, and motivate” the attendees, and most participants agreed that the event exceeded expectations.

About 125 members of the Middlebury community gathered in Wilson Hall (formerly the McCullough Social Space) and sat at round tables of eight to encourage conversation and reflection after each portion of the program. Ira Schiffer, the associate chaplain at Middlebury and one of the leaders of last week’s trip to Alabama, said “there will be no closure… It will be on each of us to take today’s experience and decide how it impacts our lives, and what, if anything, we choose to do with it.”

Leslie Blau of the Class of 1969 said he was motivated to participate in the march from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago because “not one person of color was permitted to vote in the state of Alabama.” He recalled the sight of “armed police officers waiting for us on the steps of the Capitol” in Montgomery, and remarked that “an immense chasm of time has elapsed.” He marveled at the degree of social change that has occurred in America when, just a few days earlier, the daughter of former Alabama Governor George Wallace embraced the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. in a symbolic expression of unity.

Watch a video of this special on-campus event. 

[Event-29]
Les Blau was one of the alumni who marched in 1965.

Now an attorney in Chicago, "Les" Blau and four other Middlebury grads who participated in the original march and came back to campus for the event – Jack Carter ’66, Peter Knobler ’68, John Perry ’65, and Ed Weissman ’65 – received a standing ovation from the audience.

Faculty members Bill Hart (history) and Larry Yarbrough (religion) gave brief reflections on the semicentennial of the historic march for the “What Was” part of the program. Hart remembered being prevented from swimming in a segregated public pool in the so-called “upper South” of southwestern Ohio in the 1950s, and that he was allowed to attend an integrated elementary school only after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. “We may not encounter segregation like this again for African Americans, but other groups in America might [experience it] because of hatred and discrimination,” he said.

Professor Yarbrough, the director of the Scott Center, recalled that his childhood Sunday school teacher in Alabama was the wife of a Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard. “There is still deep hatred, fear, and suspicion between the white communities and the African American communities in the United States,” he said, “so we have much, much more to do."

[Event 63]
Prof. Brown used movement and music to reflect trust, solidarity, and acceptance.

Eight student dancers then performed the first part of Assistant Professor Christal Brown’s three-part composition “In the Gap,” reflecting the bigotry, anger, segregation, and violence that led to the Civil Rights Movement.

“The idea behind ‘In the Gap’ was to illustrate the moments in history when we fight for change,” explained Brown, who grew up in North Carolina. “The dancers and I created movement manifestations to represent what was, what is, and what should be.”

J Finley, a post-doctoral fellow in American studies at Middlebury, gave a moving talk about her progression from being “a black kid growing up in the 1980s and 90s” in Fort Worth, Texas, to today where she is “charged with facilitating the education of college students.”

“How did I get here?” she asked. “The answer is a combination of amazing luck, doggedness, and an obsession with imagining worlds other than the one that I knew. My education, both formal and informal, is my compass, and my love of words and ideas is reflected in my life’s work as a scholar.”

Finley’s remarks were followed by the “What Is” dance piece reflecting individualism, insecurity, separation, and violence. The dancers costumed in slogan t-shirts replicated both the rising up and crumbling of social movements. The eight dancers were exchange student Kaya Di Cato, Stevie Durocher ’15.5, Krystal Egbuchulam ’18, Octavio Hingle-Webster ’17, Deborah Leedy ’18, Amanda Kimm ’17, Kate McCreary ’15, and Dave Yedid ’15. They were accompanied on their second piece by Evan Allis ’15.5 on guitar and Jacob Lafever, vocals.

[Event 59]
Sierra Jackson '18 expressed her belief that empowerment is a key to equality.

Expressing “What Should Be” were two of the 20 Middlebury students who devoted their Spring Break to travel by bus to Montgomery. Steve Bissainthe ’18 presented data showing the inequality of policing tactics in America, and used the podium to attack the “manipulative and abusive” penal system that disenfranchises people of color. First-year student Sierra Jackson said “when you feel empowered, you feel comfortable enough to help other people so I task all of you to figure out what is your work in this world.”

In the final dance piece, Christal Brown performed a solo to a recording of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Ella’s Song,” with its lilting lyric “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” The piece reflected trust, solidarity, and acceptance, and as Brown moved throughout the audience her students formed a protest line with banners bearing slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Respect Existence, Expect Resistance.”

A tenor of hope filled the room as the event drew to a close. Many people stayed behind to exchange email addresses and continue the discussions they had started. In the words of Christal Brown, “The event was an amazing illustration of dialogic learning, community engagement, and artistic expression.” It was the second gathering supported by alumna Cookie Tager (M.A. French School, 1966) and the “Pasteur Pierre and Helene Gagnier Acting Righteously in Times of Danger” program she started at Middlebury.

– With reporting by Robert Keren and photos by Yeager "Teddy" Anderson ’13.5.

 

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