Dr. Howard Kirschenbaum, of Raquette Lake, Professor Emeritus at the Warner School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester, an expert on educational psychology and author of "The Life and Work of Carl Rogers," the renowned psychologist, is not known to be in the habit of lecturing to students at the secondary level. But it is what he is currently doing in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Project.
Kirschenbaum was a college student in the 1960s when he became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream Speech," he was jailed on a Freedom Ride in Maryland, and also in Mississippi at a time when three of his co-workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, who had become icons of the civil right movement, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
To introduce a new generation of Americans to a part of U. S. history that is important to remember, Kirschenbaum has developed a presentation that describes the period of segregation and his own experiences in the "Movement." Through a combination of historic photographs and compelling stories, he recreates a volatile time in American history and the struggle to build a more just society.
Responding to the question, what made him decide to share his experiences with high school and college students, Kirshenbaum, in an interview with the Lake Placid News and The Virginia Gazette, replied:
"Like survivors of the Holocaust, it is important for those of us who participated in the civil rights movement to tell our story. I find young people are engaged and inspired by first hand accounts of the freedom movement. It is one thing to read about it in a book and quite another when conveyed from a real person in your presence making history, come alive."
And the stories he shares with his audience, are indeed compelling.
"It was a balmy June evening in Moss Point. With no sidewalks in our section of this quiet Gulf Coast town, Ron and I walked leisurely along the side of the road," goes one of Kirschenbaum's narratives. "Ron was twenty-one, two years my senior, from Venice, CA, Where we walked, empty lots often separated the small homes, many of them unpainted clapboard shacks, the occasional street lamp or porch light added to the charm of the summer evening."
But the charm evaporated when a police car pulled up next to them and two officers emerged, asking where they are going. "To the house where we are staying," Ron answered. "You are under arrest," one of the officers said. "On what charges?" Kirschenbaum asked. "Vagrancy and we'll see what else," he answered and ordered them to get into the back seat of the police car.
The policemen turned off their headlights and drove out of the neighborhood. Upon reaching a back road, they accelerated to ninety miles per hour for another ten minutes to a pre-arranged rendezvous point with two other, unmarked cars. They told the civil rights workers to stay in the car and got out to confer with the others. Ron and Howard could see through the rear window that about a dozen men, some with guns were discussing the situation.
"Ron asked me, "Kirshembaum recalled, "Do you think they are going to kill us? I replied, "I don't know maybe."
They were two of some 700 volunteers, mostly college students and young people, who came to Mississippi that summer at the invitation of black residents and civil right organizations, to help register voters.
But disenfranchisement was only the tip of the iceberg, Separate and inferior schools, menial employment status, verbal insults, physical assaults, and even lynching were typical of the black experience in Mississippi.
"As we sat in the rear of the police car, on a dark back road in Mississippi, with a dozen faceless men discussing our fate, we knew in our hearts what had happened to our three co-workers might soon happen to us," Kirschenbaum said.
That evening with 'law and order' in Mississippi was just the beginning.
For information about presentation, email HKirschenbaum@warner.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.