Enter the bright open space of the Chapel Hill Public Library. Join in a flow of people from all walks of life seeking some kind of knowledge or wisdom. As you turn to the left and pass through the security scanners, you see a corner wall full of oversized, sepia prints documenting the life of Howard Lee (Mayor of Chapel Hill 1969-1975 and the first black mayor of a Southern municipality). A quick look to the right and the sepia tint of the past becomes the bold black and white and bright color of the Jackson Center’s most recent exhibit, “The Struggle Continues.” Taking its title from an interview with local civil rights leader, Harold Foster, the exhibit is organized around key themes in local and national civil rights struggle featuring artwork by kids who might be roaming the children’s books section right now or hiding out in one of the study carrels. These images practically jump off the wall into the present and future. “Marching”: two of Jim Wallace’s images from the early 60s show the discipline and commitment of people moving in unison for what is right and good. Their determination is echoed in a snapshot of a Northside Elementary first-grader gripping his declaration for freedom with two hands above his hands on his proud walk back to school at the end of an MCJC civil rights workshop. Another frame holds a third-grader’s manifesto of love and claim for everyone to be able to marry whomever they choose. Pulling all together is a high-school student’s collage-translation of the solidarity she sees in Wallace’s photos.
Together, the assembled images suggest a kind and degree of integration for which the struggle continues: the integration of the past in the present in new, strong visions for the immediate future that embrace difference, cross generations, and ask us all to put our bodies and imaginations to work for the kinds of change on which even a 6-year-old is willing to insist, if given the opportunity.
Above: Ruby Simons stands in front of the The Struggle Continues Exhibit. The photograph in the upper left features her and her husband in a civil rights protest on Franklin Street.
The Struggle Continues is inspiring. I am inspired by it. It is a distinctive representation of a story-in-process—a story of struggle for rights but also of the MCJC’s efforts to answer the call to supplement K-12 education with civil rights history. Once again, this curricular initiative was not our idea exactly. We take our cues from our neighbors and their oral histories. In this case, the civil rights, oral, and local history curriculum is now established at Northside Elementary (we will be working with every grade in the spring) and is expanding across area middle and high schools because one fourth-grade teacher at Morris Grove Elementary bemoaned the half page devoted to civil rights and African-American history in her required textbook (right next to the half page on Native Americans)—and Elizabeth McCain mobilized in turn.
I invite you to join us on one of our on-site workshops in local history. See the middle-schoolers eyes light up when they meet the real J.D. Smith. Listen to the ring of first-graders gathering in song. Join with our community mentors in building pride-of-place among youth who may not otherwise know much less feel, touch, see the kind of community that Northsiders live and make everyday.