Dr. Robert Watson, retired SRU administrator and historian, recalled his upbringing in Slippery Rock as being sheltered from some of the turmoil going on in the nation during the 1960s.
“Having been born and raised in Slippery Rock, you could count on one hand the students of color,” Watson said. “We were somewhat sheltered from the dynamic of what was going on in more urban schools. The middle to late 1960swas certainly some of the more dramatic years. It was a tumultuous time in our nation, with people of color lacking rights, and also Vietnam.”
Watson described his friendship with retired SRU biology professor Thomas Gaither as a relationship that left a lasting impression on him.
“Gaither was one of the very first teachers of color I had the opportunity to get to know,” he said. “Tom Gaither was a Freedom Rider and first hand in the civil rights movement.”
The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists during the 1960s who rode public transportation throughout the south to test newly formed anti-segregation laws.
“I think a real significant tipping point in the whole civil rights movement is the presence of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King,” Watson said. “He certainly espoused the non-violent, non-physical approach and that really raised the bar.”
Though Martin Luther King was a significant voice for civil rights, the movement goes much farther back in our nation’s history.
Dr. Alan Levy, a professor of history, mentioned Frederick Douglass as one of the major starters of the civil rights movement.
“Leaders like Frederick Douglass, as far back as the 1850’s, began the national conversation about notions of civil rights for people regardless of their race,” Levy said. “A major step forward occurred in reconstruction. Frederick Douglass was part of it, but various reconstruction leaders, Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens … Stevens was a senator from Pennsylvania, who among other things helped pass the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was a major change in the federalization of civil rights.”
Dr. Levy said that federalization of civil rights was a major change in the role of the government, a change deemed necessary to secure equal treatment for former slaves in the southern states.
“It became a very debatable issue, because states’ rights advocates, of course, said the country was founded on the principle of states’ rights,” he said. “Well, the whole issue of rights for former slaves and for African-Americans ennobled the notion that it is indeed fitting and proper to federalize some of these issues. Because states were clearly, through much of the time of the 1860s, states were not always following through as they should. It’s very clear.”
The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, prohibits state and local governments from depriving American citizens of their rights without due process of law. It also overruled the 1857 Supreme Court decision that blacks could not be considered citizens of the United States.
“The reason for the Fourteenth Amendment was, could the federal government, in regard to the status of former slaves, could they depend on a state like Mississippi or Alabama to carry out in good faith, the notions that there are equal rights here for everybody regardless of race or prior conditions of servitude,” Levy said. “And so what did they do? They federalized. They changed the Constitution, and they federalized the issue of rights.”
Dr. Levy concluded that the debate and discussion of civil rights continues to this day, and rightly so.
“Civil rights has a controversiality to it when you get into the issue of what is the proper venue of the federal government versus what is the proper venue of the states,” he said. “It becomes an appropriate and legitimate matter of debate. How well we have succeeded in that regard, still remains a matter of debate.”