Confronting the Living History of the Civil Rights Struggle

Confronting the Living History of the Civil Rights Struggle

Confronting the Living History of the Civil Rights Struggle

To visit the town where Emmett Till was brutally murdered is to bear witness to our ongoing struggle for justice.


Our country is experiencing a moment of honest reckoning, one that has been a long time building. To understand the enormity of this moment, one needs only to turn to the American South for the living, breathing memory of the struggle for civil rights.

I’m a documentary film maker by trade, and the first time I led a tour of sites from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, I drove the bus. It was filled with 10 junior high school students and three adult chaperones. Our agenda was created by a former teacher of the school the students attended and my presence was requested to serve as a male chaperone. With little idea of what to expect, I could not have anticipated that the experience would change my life.

Most of us do not have access to all the intricacies of American history. We can learn a tremendous deal about the evolution of civil rights in this country from books, films, and lectures. But to walk the streets where courage and fear so famously clashed—to break bread with and learn from the living foot soldiers, marchers, and participants of the movement both past and present—that is to bear witness. That is to see history come alive.

Today, I travel across the South with groups of Nation magazine readers several times each year. We started our first program in 2018 (the magazine’s adult tours are a mission-aligned way to help support their journalism). Founded in 1865 by abolitionists, The Nation has a long history of covering civil rights, including an annual report on the struggle by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from 1961 to 1966. To date, several hundred people have joined us on the program, and as we travel we spend time with locals: We are present in the streets, the churches, and the rooms that define history. Travelers are transformed by what they witness. In this video, we meet Sylvester, a man born and raised in the same town where Emmett Till was tortured and lynched. His story, his connection to the land and the people, and his recollection of that fateful event compels us to bear witness.

We offer this piece as a chance to witness our uncovered history and as a plea to sustain our moment of reckoning into a movement that propels us forward, defined by progress. A longer version of the documentary will be shared in the fall. Stay tuned.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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