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History Month Events To Examine Civil Rights Issues

Feb. 7, 2013
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

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Members of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ legendary 99th Pursuit Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen, receive instruction about wind currents from a lieutenant in 1942. —Photo courtsey of "Red Tails" Facebook page

Sam Houston State University’s history department will honor the Civil Rights achievements of African Americans with Black History Month speaker and film series that will include a mix of feature films, documentaries and, perhaps, a little controversy.

“The history department is sponsoring this year's commemoration of Black History Month in an effort to raise awareness about the African American contribution to our nation's history. We are featuring speakers who tie local and regional developments into the larger, national narratives on civil rights and African American agency,” said Jeffrey Littlejohn, associate professor of history.

“In particular, we want to encourage students to realize that many of the important changes in American policy and social structure that have taken place over the last century have been initiated and led by ordinary people who risked their own livelihoods in an effort to create a more egalitarian and just America,” he said.

The film series will begin Monday (Feb. 11) with a Hollywood film that sparked its own controversy, not only in the topic but over the roles offered to African Americans within the industry—“The Help.”

The 2011 Academy Award-nominated “The Help,” starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer will be presented at 6 p.m. in the Academic Building IV Olson Auditorium.

Based on the novel by Katherine Stockett, “The Help” highlights the work of an aspiring author during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to write a book detailing the African-American maids’ points-of-view on the white families for which they work.

“Many black, and white, scholars believe that it fails to address the real plight of black domestic workers in the South during the mid-20th century. At the same time, it privileges the experience of a young white reporter, who interjects herself into the lives of black women in a way that very few, if any, white women did at the time,” Littlejohn said. “In essence, then, the film downplays the day-to-day indignities brought on by racial oppression and segregation, while it privileges white benevolence and experience.”

On Tuesday (Feb. 11), the history department will showcase a crew of African American pilots in the Tuskegee training program who fought the segregation that kept them mostly grounded in Italy during World War II with a showing of the 2012 film “Red Tails,” starring Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Students will be able to discuss the controversies and issues that emerge from each film following its screening. All films will begin at 6 p.m. in the Academic Building IV Olson Auditorium.

Black history month posterOn Feb. 18, the story of more than 400 Americans, both black and white, who participated in an experiment challenging the mores of a racially segregated society by performing a disarmingly simple act—riding the bus together—with the presentation of the documentary “Freedom Riders.”

The award-winning film chronicles the lives of those “freedom riders,” who from May until November 1961 risked their lives—with many enduring savage beatings and imprisonment—for simply traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South.

Deliberately violating Jim Crow laws, the Freedom Riders met with bitter racism and mob violence along the way, sorely testing their belief in nonviolent activism, according to the PBS website, which houses the Freedom Riders page.

The next day (Feb. 19), SHSU history professors will lead a series of discussions on the experiences and activism of African Americans in American history, beginning at 9:30 a.m. in Lowman Student Center Room 315.

Assistant professor Wesley Phelps will begin the hour-and-a-half presentations with a discussion on Houston’s African American Community and the War on Poverty in the 1960s, followed by associate professor Bernadette Pruitt, at 11 a.m., who will share “The Other Great Migration: Rural African Americans Move to Houston, Texas,” and Littlejohn, who will discuss “Movement Lawyers and Grassroots Activism” beginning at noon.

That afternoon, visiting assistant professor Lindsey Swindall will highlight the “life of activism and art” of Paul Robeson beginning at 2 p.m. and Lila Rakoczy, also a visiting assistant professor, will share “The World War I Experience of African Americans from East Texas.”

That evening, Denzel Washington’s portrayal of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist Leader Malcolm X will be presented. The 1992 biopic, directed by Spike Lee, follows Malcolm X’s life from a childhood during which his minister father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan through the gang activity that led to his imprisonment, and ultimately finding the Islamic faith through the writings of Elijah Muhammad, who inspires him to preach the teachings, pilgrimage to Mecca, convert to Islam and stop his anti-white teachings. He is later assassinated and becomes a Muslim martyr.

The final two movie presentations will be held on Feb. 26-27. That Tuesday will feature the American Experience documentary “Citizen King,” highlighting the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., through personal recollections, diaries, letters, eyewitness accounts and historians.

Finally, Wednesday will round out the month of film and lectures with “Neo-African-Americans,” a living documentary that presents a conversation about identity, America, immigration and the global movement of people.

For more information on any of these events, contact Littlejohn at littlejohn@shsu.edu or 936.294.4438.



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