Experiencing Civil Rights

Contact Professor Robert Bickel
Professor of Law

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Traveling more than 2,000 miles, students visited museums, institutes, universities, and historical locations, and met with numerous Civil Rights Movement veterans.

Each year, Stetson Law Professor Robert Bickel teaches an elective course on the subject of Constitutional Law and the Civil Rights Movement – emphasizing the role of law in the modern history of the struggle for racial equality.  Students study and discuss the case law, social discourse and politics which defined the period from the Reconstruction era through the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Following this classroom experience, during the summer academic intersession, Professor Bickel and Professor Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, conduct a  10-day advanced travel course which offers students the opportunity to personally connect with the people and places that defined the campaign for civil rights from 1955-1965.  

The advanced experiential travel course focuses on learning through  visiting museums, institutes, centers, universities and historic places identified with civil rights law and the Civil Rights Movement.  Learning environments include symposia, interviews and small group conversations with actual veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, including many of the 1961 Freedom Riders, civil rights activists and lawyers, and other notable participants in civil rights movement law and history. For the fourth year, from July 23 –Aug. 1, a group of 34 students from  Stetson University  College of Law, Stetson University’s DeLand campus, and graduate students from the University of South Florida traveled more than 2,000 miles over  10 days, visiting the Albany Civil Rights Museum, the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, the Nashville Public Library Civil Rights Collection, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Rosa Parks Museum and the National Voting Rights Museum, as well as Tennessee State University, Fisk University and Vanderbilt University’s John Seigenthaler Center.  The trip was  accompanied by Rip Patton, a veteran of the original Nashville sit-ins, and the 1961 Freedom Rides, during which he and other riders endured imprisonment in Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary for their effort to enter a “white only” bus station waiting room under the authority of the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton v. Virginia.  Their very presence was deemed a breach of peace and Mississippi courts ignored the Boynton decision.  

In addition to the museums, institutes and universities mentioned, students also visited the sites of some of the most famous events in the civil rights struggle which are identified with these cities, including the Greyhound and Trailways bus stations where freedom riders were attacked by white mobs in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala.; the churches that were at the center of Movement activity (including the churches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, as well as the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which was the target of the Klan bombing that killed four children only 18 days after the March on Washington in 1963); and the scenes of some of the most important protests for civil rights and the violence of white southern resistance (including Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, and the scene of the attack of voting rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in March of 1965), and the courtroom and chambers of Judge Frank Johnson Jr. who heard much of the testimony in Movement cases and wrote the brilliant defense of the First Amendment and the Fifteenth Amendment in Williams v. Wallace – the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march case.  Throughout these visits, students have the opportunity to meet with, and hear the personal stories of more than 25 Movement veterans whose personal leadership and courage defined the cases and direct action that led ultimately to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This rare opportunity to meet people, now ranging in age from 60 to 95, who could share personal accounts of the law and history the students had studied, contributed to both the students’ understanding of legal history and their resolve to sustain and advance civil liberties and civil rights – as the law’s highest calling.  

In 1938, John Dewey wrote that “the institutions and customs that exist in the present and that give rise to present social ills and dislocations did not arise overnight. They have a long history behind them….The way out of scholastic systems that made the past an end in itself is to make acquaintance with the past a means of understanding the present.” This aspect of professional and personal growth and understanding is at the heart of the travel experience.  

A 50-minute documentary film on the travel course is available for educational showings at bar association meetings, schools, churches or meetings of community service organizations. Contact Professor Robert Bickel at 727-562-7854  or the Office of Communications at 727-562-7381  for more information.

To read more news about this year’s travel course, visit the Anniston Star  and read comments by the paper’s editor, Bob Davis.