Commemorating Freedom Summer

This weekend The Center for African American Studies and the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life have put together an extraordinary celebration and commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the “freedom summer” of 1964. That year student activists from across the country headed south to work with African Americans in the struggle for civil rights. Others supported that work by organizing protests or doing important logistical tasks, often outside the spotlight. Alliances across religious affiliation, ethnicity, gender and race were key components of that heady time. There were tensions, to be sure, but there was also compassionate solidarity to “bend the arc of history” toward justice.

Wesleyan students, faculty and staff, along with other Middletown residents, were very much engaged in those efforts. Churches played a crucial role here as they did in the south. And music was everywhere linked to this work. So it’s fitting that our freedom summer celebration begins Friday with a “rolling concert” at 6 p.m. (100 Cross Street) featuring choirs from AME Zion Church, Middletown High School and Wesleyan. Dar Williams ’89 and Kim and Reggie Harris will be featured Friday evening, along with a children’s choir. The symposium gets underway Saturday afternoon.

In 1964 many in the Wesleyan community joined with a movement to work for the principles like the right to vote and equal protection under the law. These principles are under enormous pressure once again. As we celebrate 1964, may we be inspired to take up today’s challenges.

Thanks to Lois Brown, Rob Rosenthal and everyone who helped make this event happen.


Freedom Summer Schedule:

Friday, Sept. 12

Rolling Concert

6 p.m.

Location:   Dance Department – 100 Cross Street

Performers: Unity Choir, Cross Street AME Zion Church

6:30 pm

Location: Olin Library Steps

Performers: Middletown High School Choir and Wesleyan Singers

7 p.m.

Location: Memorial Chapel

Performers: Children’s Choir of Cross Street AME Zion Church; Dar Williams ‘89, Kim and

Reggie Harris


Saturday, Sept. 13

Freedom Summer Symposium

Fayerweather Beckham Hall – 45 Wyllys Avenue

1:30 p.m.   Panel: “Go South, Young Wes Men”: Freedom Summer 1964 and Wesleyan Student Activism

Panelists: Ron Young ’86, John Suter ’65, Stephen Oleskey ’65

Moderator: Ashraf Rushdy, African American Studies Program and English, Wesleyan

3 p.m.  Panel: Unwavering Courage: Civil Rights Activists of Freedom Summer

Panelists: Penny Patch, Muriel Tillinghast and Gwendolyn Simmons

Moderator: Anna Wasescha, President, Middlesex Community College


4:30 p.m.   Keynote Lecture by Margaret Burnham, Professor of Law and Founder of Civil Rights And Restorative Justice Institute at Northeastern University


Related Events

Friday, Sept. 12: 3-5

Saturday, Sept. 13: 9-12

Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives: “Civil Rights Activism and Wesleyan” An exhibit featuring historic Civil Rights-era Wesleyan materials, documents, and photographs.


Framework for Progress on African-American Studies

It’s finals week, and students are working hard to finish up their projects and study for exams. Still, on Monday about 100 very engaged students made the effort to express their strong concern about the current state of the African-American Studies program. They made the excellent point that a strong program is important for the health of the university. I have also heard from faculty and alumni, as have a number of trustees, the deans and the provost.

There are long-term issues and short-term ones. In the short-term, Academic Affairs has already been working on replacements for two wonderful professors in Af-Am who are leaving (one to Yale, the other to Harvard, alas). These replacements will be visitors who will ensure that we have classes staffed for the coming year. I have also talked with Academic Affairs about two hires on a more permanent basis. We will accelerate the plans to search for a tenure-track (or tenured) professor in African-American studies in global context whose research is in the social sciences. That search will get underway as soon as possible. After filling this first position, we will begin a second search for another social science scholar whose work in Af-Am complements that of the first hire.

While these searches are underway, the provost, deans and I will be talking with faculty across the curriculum whose teaching and research is relevant to African-American studies from a variety of post-national and diasporic perspectives. We have real strength in these areas, and we should tap into it more fully. Indeed, I will be talking with Wesleyan professors who have had shared responsibilities in the past and inviting some to devote their efforts full-time to AFAM in coming years. We will also ensure that the Center for African American Studies can play an important role in bringing some of the most interesting scholars to campus from a variety of fields. This will inform our search process as well as bring powerful intellectual benefit to campus.

We have a challenging but also rewarding endeavor before us, and we will count on the help of key leaders in this area like Professors Lois Brown and Ashraf Rushdy to help us in maintaining a strong curriculum, mentoring students in the program, and conducting successful searches.

Together, we can build a program that will be defined by inspired teaching, advanced research and compelling creative practice.


Dialogue on African-American Studies

Yesterday a group of students marched to South College to demand more resources for the African-American Studies major. The program has struggled in recent years, and it recently suffered a blow when two wonderful professors, Leah Wright and Sarah Mahurin, decided to move on to other institutions. Both Leah and Sarah are extraordinary scholar-teachers, and I am very sorry that they are leaving. Given the problems that were already afflicting the program, students are rightly concerned about the fate of Af-Am at Wesleyan.

Almost 100 concerned students met with Provost Ruth Weissman and me late in the afternoon yesterday. We were mostly in a listening mode, as students described to us what they saw as long-term weakness in African-American studies here. Although there was real anger in the room at times, I also heard some interesting ideas from students about potential directions we might take in the future. I was very sorry to hear the frustration in the students’ voices, and their real concern that this field had been allowed to fall into disarray at Wesleyan.

Some of the questions that came up include: What is the relation of African-Studies to recruiting and retaining students of color? How can we bring more disciplines into AF-Am? What connections should there be between American Studies and AF-Am? Between African studies and our program? How can cross-listing classes from various departments help provide the depth and breadth that a strong major requires?

There are many more questions, to be sure, and we will be discussing them with administrators, faculty and students. Together we will find ways to develop the intellectual energy and range of courses that will best serve our program and our university.