Rock Hill event to honor 50 years of civil rights

06/23/2014 4:02 PM

06/24/2014 11:09 AM

Rock Hill community leaders have organized a local program to honor the 50th anniversary of the U.S. civil rights movement and the voter’s rights advocacy efforts for black Americans that took place in Mississippi in the 1960s.

Wakita Barksdale started the grassroots effort for the Rock Hill “Freedom Summer Initiative” after watching the trial of Michael Dunn, a white man charged in the 2012 shooting death of Jordan Davis, a black Florida teenager, after an altercation in a parking lot over loud music.

In February, a jury deadlocked on a first-degree murder charge but convicted Dunn of three counts of attempted murder for shooting at Davis’ companions. A new trial has been scheduled for September on the murder charge.

That case and others similar to it across the nation have gained attention from civil rights advocates and many who question whether black shooting victims killed by white people can get justice because of their race.

For Barksdale, Davis’ killing hit home because she has a 9-year-old son. She and her husband mentor at-risk youth through the Barksdale Leadership Group, which works in York, Laurens and Marlboro counties.

In considering the racial aspects of that case, she said, she realized that many young children have little knowledge of the struggle of black Americans who fought for basic civil rights in the 1960s.

Their advocacy and activism “was really important to our community,” Barksdale said, and Wednesday’s Rock Hill event will remind the community about that importance.

The event has been designed to reach children and adults, covering civil rights history and present conditions, worker’s rights, education and advocacy, and leadership training. Organizers have scheduled group discussions, question-and-answer periods, guest appearances by members of the Friendship Nine, and music.

Participants will hear personal stories of those who lived and fought during the civil rights movement.

That experience is vital to young people to understand where they’ve come from, Barksdale said.

“To sit and hear how they organized,” she said, “to rise above all the suffering.”

Friendship Nine author to speak

The Friendship Nine, so named because most of them attended Friendship Junior College, held a sit-in in 1961 at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill. Their sit-in was a peaceful protest against segregation and gained national attention because of their “Jail, No Bail” strategy.

After their conviction for trespassing and breach of the peace, one of the protesters paid a $100 fine, but the remaining nine chose instead to serve 30 days at hard labor at the York County Prison Farm. That represented a first in the civil rights movement, and protesters in other places began to follow their lead.

A children’s book was recently published about the Friendship Nine. Author Kimberly Johnson is scheduled to speak during Wednesday’s event.

For some children and adults who attend, Barksdale said, it might be the first time they’ve studied the civil rights movement. The stories are “remarkable,” she said, and show that “from a little amount of resources, they did a whole lot” to advance racial equality.

Still, she said, there’s work to be done.

Much of Wednesday’s event will focus on voter’s rights and the importance of civic activity and volunteerism. Those lessons are important for young people, says retired Rock Hill Police Chief John Gregory.

The city’s first black police chief says the Freedom Summer Initiative will celebrate achievements of the civil rights movement and address “where do we go from here?”

It’s the first event of its kind in Rock Hill, Gregory said, and its goal is to be upbeat and informative.

For many, “it’s impossible to imagine the United States being a divided country, racially,” he said. The Freedom Summer Initiative is a “place to start” in discussing history and making progress toward a better community.

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