Photos documenting civil rights protests flashed across a screen Sunday night high above the Young Actors Theatre stage. Below sat community leaders, ready to share their memories of the tumultuous time and their opinions on race relations today and in the future.
The program, which was followed by a YAT performance of the musical “Hairspray,” was hosted by The Village Square, a group promoting civil discourse. Sunday’s topic was “Civil Rights, Civil Means: Tallahassee’s Protests at 50: Why they still matter.”
Hosted by Bill Mattox, member of the Village Square board of directors, guest speakers included Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee; Henry Steele, son of the famed civil rights activist the Rev. C.K. Steele; and Laura Dixie, a protest participant.
“I think the program was important both to remind ourselves what happened here and the good that came out of it, but also to consider what we can learn and apply today,” Mattox said. “I was struck by how compelling and effective these protesters were and the manner they went about things.”
“We thought the local civil rights movement was a wonderful example of the kind of civic dialogue that we are hoping to have about issues today,” said Village Square Executive Director Liz Joyner. “They were a wonderful example of comporting yourself with dignity and humility in a way that made it nearly impossible for people to disagree with them. That is, in my mind, in opposition to the kind of civic dialogue we have now where people are mostly screaming and their audience seems to be the people that already agree with them.”
“In the civil rights fight, you don’t see or feel hate coming from demonstrators,” Dixie said, as images of protesters holding signs such as “We Will Not Fight,” flashed across the screen.
Dixie then shared her story about how, as a child, she snuck away from her family during a visit to town just so she could try the water out of a fountain marked for whites only.
“I just thought it was sweet,” she said. “I had to find out for myself.”
“It disarmed the aggressors,” Williams said about the protests. “We see that now in the state houses around the county folks are so concerned with taking our country back. From where? We are not having those conversations. We could be a better country if we all work together.”
About 50 people attended the talk that ended with Dan Donovan of the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department sharing upcoming plans to put a memorial sidewalk on the corner of Jefferson and Monroe Street, where many civil rights protests took place. The sidewalk, which will be inlaid with quotes, images and footprints, will likely be installed sometime this fall.
YAT will be performing the play, which focuses on the civil rights movement in the 1960s, through July 24.
Visit tothevillagesquare.org to learn more.
–AMANDA NALLEY, www.tallahassee.com