Thought the Civil Rights Movement is now some 50 years in our rearview mirror, its continuing legacy was on display Sunday at Kenosha’s Civil War Museum.
Bill Kurtis, the well-known Chicago TV journalist and nationally known documentarian, talked about his coverage of significant moments in the struggle — and heard from audience members who said the struggle continues today.
Kurtis’ talk highlighted coincided with the museum’s traveling exhibit “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” an immersive, multimedia presentation that will be on display until Aug. 11.
While the modern movement is widely accepted to be sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus in 1955, Kurtis said it really had its roots in the Civil War.
“At first glance, you would conclude that the North won the battle against slavery — so it wasn’t a problem after all, you’d think. That would be wrong,” he said.
Both sides were sick of fighting and wanted to go home, but in the end, the South sought a return to normalcy that would mean domination by whites, he said. In the North, the passion to fight was also quelled, he added.
Kurtis’ presentation, woven with interviews with Parks and other televised news stories, noted that Parks’ actions were part of a strategy in the beginning of the movement. While some called her a hero, he said, others believed her to be a martyr.
As a law student attending school in Topeka, Kan., Kurtis said Brown vs. the Board of Education — the landmark case that was to end segregation in schools — wasn’t well known even to him. And, despite its intentions, decades later “many schools are still segregated,” he said.
In the years leading up to his career as a journalist for CBS, which spanned three decades beginning in 1966, Kurtis said it was the March on Washington and the more than 250,000 who filled the mall outside the Lincoln Memorial that struck him.
“I was struck by the importance of the history and the language,” he said referring to King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
He would also cover the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in which marchers were met by state troopers who subdued them with tear gas and night sticks.
Later, he would cover the protests of the Vietnam during the 1968 Democratic National Convention for which Chicago played host. But, Kurtis noted, Chicago was also considered the “most racially segregated” city in the nation at the time.
King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, sparked boycotts of schools and rioting. Kurtis said he was on the corner of Balbo Drive and Michigan Avenue in Chicago when a police line opened and demonstrators poured through.
The 1968 Chicago riots led then Mayor Richard Daly to declare that authorities were “to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand.”
“Every demonstration would result in violence. ... The first violence was against the press,” he said.
After news outlets talked with police, they backed off them, but “all we had to do then was follow the fights,” he said.
Kurtis said that Chicago continues to have a problem with violence, especially on the south side and west side where the communities have broken down and it its difficult to enforce the laws.
“How to solve it? I’m not sure,” he said.
During a question-and-answer session that followed, the Rev. Monica Cummings of the Kenosha Center for Spirituality and Healing, said she struggled with how Kurtis generalized what was to be done.
“I commend you for your research, for your work you’ve put into this presentation, but I’m really struggling with how you just generalized and not recognizing the historic, systemic oppression of people of color in this country and how it is impacting us today and how people have absolutely lost confidence in the police, the government that they have our best interests at heart.”
To which Kurtis responded: “You said it much better than I.”
Veronica King, branch president of the Kenosha NAACP, said that, when people see where the movement is today, it varies from city to city.
“Here in Kenosha, we’ve been fortunate to have an open-door policy with the mayor, the county executive, the police chief, the sheriff, local corporations and businesses,” she said, adding that the state and the city have had their own icons in the struggle for civil rights, including Mary Lou Mahone and Rev. Olen Arrington Jr.
“We as young people. … We’ve had individuals through the years we could look up to and respect and take charge where they have left off,” she said. “So, I’m proud to say that the movement in Kenosha is still going strong — we’re still make strides — yet there’s still more work to be done but having that open-door policy with elected officials has made a difference.”