As ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of major events in the civil rights movement continue this year, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire journalism students and their professor are coordinating a series of historic conversations between a Freedom Rider and a police officer who were at the center of civil rights-era activities.
"Civil Conversations: An Open Dialogue about the Freedom Rides and Civil Rights" will bring together Charles Person, a young Freedom Rider who was badly beaten more than 50 years ago at a bus station in Alabama, and Drue Lackey, a Montgomery police officer who was charged with maintaining law and order during the civil rights era.
"Both of these men have unfinished business," said Jan Larson, an associate professor of communication and journalism who is overseeing the student project. "They both are concerned about their legacies. They've agreed to first meet face-to-face for private conversations and then to have a public discussion during a forum in Atlanta."
The public forum, slated to begin at 6 p.m. March 15 at the King Center-Freedom Hall in Atlanta, will be moderated by UW-Eau Claire journalism major Ginna Roe.
Students, faculty and staff who are part of UW-Eau Claire's Civil Rights Pilgrimage will be in the audience for the discussion. Seats also will be available for others who are interested.
"This is an opportunity for these men to come together after all this time and talk about a dark time in our nation's history," said Roe, a senior from Hudson. "To my knowledge, it's never been done before. Both are eager to share their points of view, but also to listen to each other."
In the summer of 1961, civil rights activists boarded buses to travel through the Deep South to challenge Jim Crow laws of segregation. Charles Person, an 18-year-old Freedom Rider, was severely beaten during a stop at a Birmingham bus station.
That same summer, Drue Lackey, then a desk captain with the Montgomery Police Department, was called to the scene of an attack on passengers of another bus carrying Freedom Riders. When Lackey arrived, the attack already was over.
"More than 50 years later, Person and Lackey have agreed to meet with student journalists and me to talk about those events," said Larson, noting that Lackey was the police officer who fingerprinted Rosa Parks. "Now in their 80s, both men are committed to meeting and discussing their overlapping pasts. They represent a living portion of our nation's history that time is erasing. In future years, their perspective will be lost. It's important to preserve their experiences now."
Roe was a student journalist traveling with UW-Eau Claire's Civil Rights Pilgrimage when a chance conversation first connected her with Lackey.
"It was during my first Civil Rights Pilgrimage trip, and I had another story already in the works," Roe said of meeting Lackey. "We were at a little cafeteria for lunch, and I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. I told him we were in Montgomery reporting on the Civil Rights Movement. He mentioned that he knew the man that had fingerprinted Rosa Parks. I was ecstatic and asked him to put me in contact with him. Before we knew it we were jumping on the bus to go interview him."
Inspired by her experiences on her first pilgrimage, Roe decided the following year to again join the trip as a student journalist.
"During the second trip, while interviewing Freedom Rider Charles Person, I asked him if he had ever received an apology from law enforcement," Roe said. "He told me no, and that he didn't expect one. But he said it had always been on his bucket list to sit down with former police officers and ask them what was going through their minds at the time.
"The next day, I interviewed Mr. Lackey, and I asked him if he would be interested in speaking with Mr. Person. He was very interested, and now here we are."
Larson and the students will bring Person and Lackey together for conversations about their lives during the movement and beyond, Larson said. The conversations will be videotaped and integrated into a larger video project documenting aspects of the civil rights years as told through the lens of people who lived it, she said.
"It is a rare privilege as a journalist to engage two people who represent different sides of the same coin in such a historic conversation," Larson said of the project.
During the forum, the men will talk with each other and answer questions from the audience, Larson said. Roe, who plans to have a career in broadcast journalism, volunteered to serve as the moderator.
Roe said she's been overwhelmed by the support she and other students have received as they've put the forum project together.
"As a student and a journalist, I am so grateful for this opportunity," Roe said. "Having this kind of support behind our ideas is incredible. Jan Larson has been part of this project every step of the way. From the first day we met Mr. Lackey, I could tell she was just as excited as I was. It is very rewarding to know that your professors support your dreams."
In addition to Larson, Roe credits Jodi Thesing-Ritter, associate dean of students, for making the project possible. Thesing-Ritter was instrumental in creating and then overseeing the Civil Rights Pilgrimage since its inception.
Each year during Winterim and spring break, more than 100 students join the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, visiting sites of historic importance to the U.S. civil rights movement.
The trips include stops at the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta; the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Ala.; the Civil Rights Memorial and the Rosa Parks Museum and Library in Montgomery, Ala.; the National Voting Rights Museum and other sites in Selma, Ala.; Central High School and William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark.; and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn.
Students also stop in New Orleans, where they visit the famous Preservation Hall, home of New Orleans jazz.
While in Selma, students participate in a service project to serve the community where the march to Montgomery began the fight for voting rights for African-Americans.
"This trip is a transformative educational experience that inspires students to see the world differently," Thesing-Ritter said. "Consistently students return to campus with a vision for how they might make change in our world."
In 2012, up to 10 communication and journalism students began joining the pilgrimage as reporters, documenting stories and preparing reports for Inside Eau Claire — the communication and journalism department's online portal for student journalism and capstone projects.
Larson said the trips have helped many of the student journalists better understand the power of storytelling and the opportunities that exist for journalists to do important work.
"It's exciting to see students completely flip what they think they want to do with their careers after going on this trip," Larson said. "I've had students who wanted to be sports or entertainment reporters come back wanting to instead cover social justice issues. They see that by telling stories they can give a voice to people who otherwise don't have one. It's powerful to see the transformation in how students think about themselves and the world around them."
Interviewing historic figures like Person and Lackey is an unusual opportunity for student journalists, Larson said. It's the kind of experience that will help new graduates distinguish themselves in the highly competitive field of journalism, she said.
The UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, department of communication and journalism, and the College of Arts and Sciences helped fund the journalism students' project.
For details, contact Jan Larson at 715-836-4314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.