- Admissions & Aid
- Student Life
For three weeks this June, Robert H. Mayer didn’t just study history, he experienced it first-hand – often guided by the history makers themselves.
The Moravian College education professor – who writes about the Civil Rights Movement for young people – has spent the past few summers captivated by the Mississippi Freedom Struggle and its Freedom Summer, a campaign launched in June 1964 attempting to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi.
To better understand the people, the campaign and the struggle, Mayer contemplated traveling to Mississippi on his own. As luck would have it, he didn’t have to.
Mayer was one of 24 “mainly academics” accepted for the 2014 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for College and University Teachers, Finding Mississippi in the National Narrative: Struggle, Institution Building, and Power at the Local Level.
Hosted on the campus of Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, the program sought to “explore in great depth the struggle for freedom in Mississippi while comparing it to significant events in other parts of the American South, allowing us to address the power of the older national narrative and the newer one based on community struggle.” Fittingly, the institute coincided with the weeklong celebration of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
“This was the most profound learning experience I’ve ever had,” said Mayer upon his return to Moravian’s campus in July.
The professor enjoyed his role reversal acting as the pupil and became immersed in the subject material with his fellow participants, who hailed from a variety of academic backgrounds, including sociology, history and literature. Mayer called the learning environment an “important piece of the experience.” He later noted how much he enjoyed hearing each person’s perspective on how they planned to incorporate their newfound knowledge in their upcoming teachings and research.
Much of the institute consisted of classwork from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. – beginning each day with the singing of freedom songs – and was supplemented with field trips. The destinations included the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and Bryant’s Grocery, site of an incident that led to the brutal murder of Emmitt Till. This latter event “probably started the contemporary Civil Rights Movement,” Mayer pointed out.
“This institute allowed me to do all the things I really wanted to do, which was travel but also connect with activists from that time,” Mayer explained. “We traveled throughout the Delta and Mississippi.
Mayer called touring the Delta with Charles McLaurin, who was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist during the 1960s, a personal highlight. “It was like real living history,” the professor explained. “Charles wouldn’t say, ‘That happened over there.’ He was say, ‘I did this over there.’”
Additionally, the group visited Tougaloo College, a historically black liberal arts college that had many students involved in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden, which commemorates the life of the instrumental American civil rights leader. “While visiting her town, I felt I was walking on holy ground,” Mayer said of their trip to Ruleville, Mississippi.
To complement their experiences with activists like Hollis Watkins and Rev. Ed King, the participants also met with several noted scholars, including Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a faculty member of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University.
While the institute was obviously an intellectual journey, it was also an emotional expedition, Mayer said. “It was really an emotional experience, but learning should involve feeling,” he reasoned.
While trying to place the national narrative against local narratives, Mayer explained his view of the Civil Rights Movement changed over time. “You start to see it from the ground up,” he said. “We often think that Dr. King was the Civil Rights Movement. But when you look at the local movements, yes, Dr. King is a part of the story, but he’s almost like a minor character in the story. The local people are the story. The people who organized the movement and took the physical abuse while standing up within their communities. You start to see the movement differently when you consider the local narratives.
“As a social studies educator, that is an important story to tell.”
Mayer plans to retell that observation when he discusses the Mississippi Freedom Struggle at the annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies in November.
“I was totally consumed by my experiences in Mississippi, and I’m going to be processing it for a long time to come,” Mayer said. “But it has really reenergized my head, my heart and my soul.”