Meridian Star

April 24, 2013

Civil rights conference set for June

By Terri Ferguson Smith /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     The daughter of slain civil rights worker James Chaney will deliver the opening keynote address at an upcoming conference in Meridian that seeks to generate dialogue about the movement.

    Chaney's daughter Angela Lewis was 10 days old when her father, along with fellow civil rights workers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, disappeared in Neshoba County in June 1964. The case of the missing civil rights workers drew international attention and their bodies were found in a earth dam more than a month later.

    Chaney was from Meridian and his daughter lives here now.

    Teaching young people the history of civil rights in the U.S. is chief among the goals of educators and others who will convene in Meridian for the Third Annual National Civil Rights Conference, June 16-18 at MSU Riley Center.

    Philadelphia, which has hosted the conference in years past, is co-hosting this year event. Dr. Keith Dwight Parker, a Philadelphia native and a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia, said Meridian is the appropriate place for the conference.

    "Philadelphia and Meridian are important because Highway 19, which connects the two communities, is the highway in which these young men, back in 1964, were forced off of and subsequently killed," Parker said. "It's only natural that these two communities serve as host sites for the conference."

    Flonzie Brown-Wright will deliver the ecumenical service on the first evening of the conference. Brown-Wright had her own struggle with civil rights. When she tried to register to vote, she was given a voter registration test that only black Mississippians were expected to answer. She failed the first time because she didn't know the meaning of the word, "habeas corpus."

    When she took the test the second time, Brown-Wright was given the same question and she passed, which allowed her to register to vote. She later was elected an election commissioner, the first black woman elected to the position in Madison County. Brown-Wright is now an author and lecturer.

    Other noted speakers include Neddie Winters, president of Mission Mississippi, a faith-based group dedicated to racial reconciliation. Winters, a pastor for more than 20 years, is a consultant, leadership development trainer and coach, conference speaker and workshop leader.

    "He is very, very persuasive. His teaching style is not preaching at you," said Shae Williams, who is helping coordinate the event. "You can apply it to what you are experiencing now and then you can walk out utilizing some of the things he was talking about. I'm very excited to be able to experience that."

    Jeff Steinberg, founder of the youth program Sojourn to the Past, will also speak.

    "He's going to talk about his vision, why he stopped teaching history to create this wonderful opportunity. He felt that students didn't know anything about civil rights," Parker said about Steinberg. "He took it upon himself this program that brings kids from throughout the country, but mostly California because that's where he is based, on a 10-day, five-state civil rights tour. It's a rolling classroom."

    Writer and filmmaker Joan Sadoff will also speak at the conference. She is author of  “Pieces From The Past: Voices of Heroic Women in Civil Rights” and created the documentary film, "Standing on My Sister’s Shoulders."

    Sinnessa Wilburn of Meridian, who is also involved in planning the conference, said Sadoff's film is a powerful and moving portrait of what women in the civil rights movement went through.

    In preparing for the conference, Wilburn said they want to reach out to youth organizations.

    "We feel that it's very important that they play a vital role in attendance. This is about their history and their future," Wilburn said. "We're going to reach out to all of those who are active in our city and surrounding areas to participate as well."

    The National Civil Rights Conference is soliciting papers, panel sessions and workshops for the June conference. The conference theme is "Rise, Advocate, Educate and Cooperate: Voices of Heroic Women and Men in the Civil Rights Movement." Although the program committee welcomes papers, panels and artistic productions on any aspect of human and civil rights, priority will be given to submissions directly related to the conference theme.

    The deadline for submission of paper, panel and artistic production proposals is May 1. Proposals should be submitted electronically and must include: title of paper or panel, author(s) name and affiliation(s), 200-250 word abstract of the paper or panel, and contact information. Proposals should be submitted to:

    Parker said it is vital that young people learn about the struggle for civil rights.

    "We have not taught them. It's not our children's fault that they do not know. I believe our school districts are afraid simply because of time. It's only been 50 years. We are still dealing with the baggage of our history," she said.

    "Nobody wants to talk about it," Wilburn added.

    Parker agreed.

    "We think if we don't talk about it, somehow it will go away," she said. "I think it's important for us to learn about the past. The deficit is with those of us, the previous generation, for our failure to inform our young people."

    Conference attendees and program participants are required to register for the conference.  

    Contact the planning committee chair or visit the conference web site for additional conference information.