Freedom Struggles

March 12, 2001

Nick Marinello

In May 1961, a group of 14 civil rights activists, both black and white, set out on a bus from Washington, D.C., to protest the Jim Crow practices of the South. The Freedom Riders' ultimate destination was supposed to be New Orleans, but after a number of brutal attacks, including a firebombing, the riders never made it to the Crescent City.

Forty years later, a panel featuring five Freedom Riders will gather on Tulane's campus for a roundtable discussion that will be, perhaps, the spiritual core to a three-day conference entitled "Tulane-Cambridge Conference 2001: Freedom Struggles in the Atlantic World."

The discussion also is emblematic of the kind of dynamic, accessible conference that organizer Sylvia Frey hopes to produce. Frey, professor of history and co-director of Tulane's Regional Humanities Center, says that the conference, which will take place April 5-7, will be more than an erudite, academic affair.

Sure, there will be a number of scholarly presentations by top-drawer academics from around the world, but Frey points to the Freedom Riders discussion, professional development for middle-school teachers and even an evening of music and art to indicate the breadth of the event.

"We will have activists, researchers and educators here in an interesting mix that will look at and assess the outcomes of civil rights movements in the Atlantic World," she said.

All events are free and open to the public and begin with 11 presentations on the first day that set the table by focusing on freedom movements in Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil and the United States. "We are bringing in major scholars who will look at freedom movements in New Orleans, Savannah and Mobile and then compare and contrast these to social justice and anti-colonial movements in the Atlantic world," she said.

The second day of the conference, says Frey, will be devoted to eight presentations that assess freedom movements. "We want to look at what integration, affirmative action and economic and political changes have produced throughout the Atlantic world. We want to take a long, hard look at where these struggles have failed and where they have succeeded."

The final day comprises two sessions, both dedicated to the ways societies remember their freedom struggles. The first session will focus on how the civil rights movement is commemorated in America through memorials and the selective choices of our memories. The second session will feature the five Freedom Riders in a 40-year retrospective of the American civil rights movement.

Frey predicts the final sessions will have a particularly broad popular appeal to anyone with an interest in freedom struggles and hopes that a music, art and movement performance on the evening of April 6 also will draw the public's attention to the conference.

The performance, which will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Dixon Performing Arts Center, will feature music of Contemporary Arts Center composer Hannibal Lokumbe, with performances by local and national musicians. Sculptor John Scott will join Lokumbe in a pre-performance discussion.

"The music event is being sponsored by the CAC and the Amistad Research Center," says Frey. "We are building collaborations locally, nationally and internationally."

Another valued collaborator is the National Faculty, a non-profit organization that provides professional development for kindergarten to 12th-grade teachers across the country. According to Rebbecca Mark, associate professor of English and chair of the humanities center's educational committee, the National Faculty was instrumental in identifying 18 teachers from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee to participate in the conference.

"We wanted to integrate K-12 teachers into the conference," says Mark, "and provide them the kind of intellectual and academic development that university professors get all the time."

The teachers will attend workshops on how to use oral histories in the classrooms, as well as how to employ the kinds of materials available in the Amistad Research Center. "We find that teachers have been the greatest innovators," she says. "They need opportunities to talk to one another, talk to scholars and attend presentations and panel discussions."

Mark says all the participants are "master teachers" who will share what they learn with their colleagues throughout the southeast region. Each participant also will develop new curricula based on skills and information acquired at the conference. Presently, the humanities center is awaiting word on further foundation funding that will enable the teachers to tour historical sites from the American civil rights movement.

This year's Tulane-Cambridge Atlantic World conference is the third in a series of collaborations between the history departments of the two universities. The conferences are held every two years, with the location alternating between campuses. Frey says the additional support of the newly formed Tulane Regional Humanities Center has helped organize this year's event.

"We've drawn upon the expertise of faculty from across a range of disciplines and programs here at Tulane to identify the leading experts in the field," she says. "One of the great things that has come out of this is that we have been able to put together programs through teamwork."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000