Professor Plans to Plunge Students into Civil Rights-Era South
By Jason Cunningham
Reading the textbooks is simply not enough.
Stephen Balkaran, an adjunct professor of African-American Studies at Central Connecticut State University, will be taking a class of 20 students into the deep south to relive events and experiences of the Civil Rights Movement.
The course, AFAM 244 Tracing the Civil Rights Movement, will take place this summer, taking students on a week-long journey through the struggle for equality that defined a big part of the 1960s in the South and the nation.
“I think it’s necessary for the entire country to understand the struggle for equality. It’s a class that has to be implemented to tell a story,” said Balkaran.
This first-hand experience into America’s dark past is intended to help illuminate young minds who haven’t seen the damaging extent of Jim Crow laws and the severe public inequality amongst races within the practice of segregation.
“The problem I have is that most of my students were born in the 1990s. They’ve forgot what the Civil Rights Movement was all about,” Balkaran said.
The trip, which is scheduled to take place from July 9-16, spans a heavy itinerary that kicks off with a trip to Kelly Ingram Park, the historic demonstration site that brought the horrors of the Civil Rights Movement into the national spotlight. The park is infamous for photographs taken of police brutality during a May 1963 protest organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
From there, the group will trace the efforts of the activists and organizations from the early 1960s and on within the South, traveling to sites in Georgia and Tennessee in addition to Alabama.
“Currently, to my knowledge we are the only course in the country that relives the Civil Rights Movement. We’re in the field, not in the traditional boundaries of a classroom,” said Balkaran. “We are going to create a documentary, so wherever we go we interview,” Balkaran said.
The documentary, the final product of the class’s experience, is to include a wide range of interviews that showcase the many perspectives of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Well, we’re going to go to some of the institutions in the South that put forth racists laws, we’re going to interview people who lived it first hand, Ku Klux Klan members, mayors, police chiefs and Southern scholars,” Balkaran said. “I don’t feel nervous about interacting with members of the KKK. I’m here to conduct things in an academic setting as an academic instructor, going as an instructor.”
Balkaran created the course with an emphasis to talk about the importance of diversity and what it means to our culture and society. To make the course accessible to students, he spent time writing grant proposals to make the trip free for everyone going.
“Most of the kids have taken Civil Rights with me, so they have an understanding of what we’re there to do, expose them to what happened,” Balkaran said. “I also want to expose my kids to life in the South. Mark Twain said that travel eliminates prejudice.”
Two of the students enrolled in the course, Joseph R. LaLanne, a junior majoring in Finance and Law and Nicole Kennedy, a junior majoring in International Studies with a concentration in African Studies, are excited for the trip.
“I feel like my journey will be different because I’m of African American descent. I want to see [the older generation’s] struggles, a first-hand account of: One, what happened and two, how I’ll personally relate to that in my situation, living in New England,” LaLanne said. “We’ve made great steps forward, but in New England, we’ve made a few steps back.”
Some students, LaLanne observes, in Connecticut seem to lack a respectful understanding of what participants in the Civil Rights Movement fought so hard for during periods of segregation. Even though activists and demonstrators worked for the benefit of future generations, LaLanne believes that few in his generation fully appreciate it.
“The young age is blind. I hate the fact that I hear the ‘N’ word all of the time on campus, and it’s mostly black kids too,” said LaLanne “People paid a price for us to be here, people need to see that.”
Kennedy also said she saw many who were undereducated or unexposed to the pain connected to racist terms.
“The human rights struggle is universal,” said Kennedy. “A lot of people feel that because we’re integrated, racism is extinguished. This is a great injustice to our culture.”
Balkaran hopes that a diverse range of students will be interested in taking the course with him next summer. He plans to make Tracing the Civil Rights Movement permanent at CCSU, building from their experience and the documentary, which will be showcased at some point on campus.
To do this, however, Balkaran will need additional grants and funding that benefactors and the university may not be able to provide. Balkaran is aiming to get national attention for the course, seeking television interviews and other ways of getting the word out this year. If all goes well, the class will be open to more than 20 students in the future.
“Imagine standing where King was assassinated. It’d be a haunting experience that would give you the chills,” Balkaran said. “This trip will bring students together. It’ll give an enriched atmosphere to understanding the African-American struggle.”
From churches, capitals and colleges to centers, museums and mayors’ offices, the class has many stops along its way and they’ll be bringing back footage to highlight every discovery. If the trip goes as planned and if Balkaran can get the media attention he needs, Tracing the Civil Rights Movement could be a unique history course for CCSU to offer, one that students will likely be interested in taking.
“Going down South is going to be important because though you learn a lot in the classroom, you can’t experience its impact without seeing what was done,” said Kennedy. “I think it’ll be really informative.”