African-Americans living in the South under Jim Crow segregation in the 20th century faced, according to retired university educator William B. Allen, “injustice, oppression, terrorism,” but they persevered and overcame those factors during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.
That theme of overcoming entrenched racism and segregation “emerged as a very dramatic truth” as Allen, of Havre de Grace, led 45 teachers from throughout the United States on a tour of civil rights historic sites in the South earlier this month.
“It didn’t mean we didn’t internalize high standards for ourselves,” said Allen, 74, who is black and grew up in segregated Fernandina Beach, Fla., north of Jacksonville.
Allen has lived in Havre de Grace since 2008. He is retired from Michigan State University, where he taught political philosophy and served as dean of MSU’s James Madison College.
He is a former member and chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and serves on the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health board of directors. He has also served on the UCH Foundation and Harford County Public Library boards.
Allen received the prestigious Henry Salvatori Prize in 2014. The prize is an annual honor bestowed upon people who promote conservative political philosophy and the principles of the Founding Fathers.
The Allen-led tour of civil rights sites ran from July 7 to 14. It started in Atlanta and included stops in Alabama, Memphis, Tenn., and ended in Little Rock, Ark., where nine African-American students desegregated Central High School in 1957.
“The most important mission was to make the history of the movement something [the participants] would incorporate in their teaching,” Allen said.
It was organized through the nonprofit Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge, Pa.; Allen is a member of the organization’s board.
The Freedoms Foundation was founded in 1949 by advertising executive Don Belding, financier E.F. Hutton and economist Kenneth Wells.
The trio also secured the “active support” of then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower — the supreme commander of Allies forces in Europe in World War II and later the 34th president of the United States — as they developed their organization’s philosophy, according to the foundation’s website.
“We promote the ideals and principles of our free society and encourage all Americans to embrace their rights and responsibilities, and contribute to the common good,” according to the organization’s website. “By recognizing good citizenship through our award programs and inspiring leaders through our education programs, we cultivate civic responsibility in all, strengthening and bolstering our democracy for future generations.”
The foundation runs week-long workshops for educators each year, such as tours of Civil War or Revolutionary War battle sites, Allen said.
The teachers on the trip are middle and high school teachers who hail from 27 states, including several from Maryland. None came from Harford County, though, Allen said.
Organizers wanted the teachers to learn more about the “foot soldiers” of the civil rights movement, such as the nine young people who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, not just the leaders who dominated the headlines at the time, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
King did feature prominently in the trip, however. The group visited memorials to King in Atlanta, his hometown, as well as the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. King served as co-pastor there with his father, Martin Luther King Sr. from 1960 until the younger King was assassinated in 1968, according to the church website.
Allen then led the group to Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama. They visited the Civil Rights Memorial to those who lost their lives during the movement from 1954 to 1968, the Alabama state capitol and the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in April and includes a memorial to the thousands of people lynched in the U.S.
“We came prepared, in having done that study, and still we were overwhelmed by the actual representation through the monuments and the markers,” Allen said.
He said seeing the memorial gives one a sense of wonder at how anyone survived the terror of lynching.
“It’s just overwhelming, and we were so saddened by it all,” Allen said.
The group was relieved of their sadness “with recognition of the strength of the people who endured and overcame,” he said.
The group visited Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, where they met with Melvin Morris, a retired Army Special Forces soldier who earned the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military honor — for his actions in battle in 1969 during the Vietnam War.
Morris saved two wounded comrades, destroyed four enemy bunkers and retrieved the body of a Special Forces team leader killed in action, despite intense enemy fire and getting wounded several times, according to the Medal of Honor citation posted on the Army’s website.
Morris, who is black, talked with the teachers about life in the military during the 1960s and how he dealt with “some of the continuing difficulties occasioned by Jim Crow,” Allen said.
The group visited Selma, Ala., and crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where civil rights marchers were attacked in 1965 as they started their trek from Selma to Montgomery to obtain voting rights for African-Americans.
They visited Tuskeegee University and the nearby airfield where African-Americans were trained to be fighter pilots during World War II, then to Birmingham, which included a stop at the 16th Street Baptist Church where four black girls were killed in a bombing by white supremacists in 1963.
The group visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where King was killed 50 years ago in April 1968, and then went on to Little Rock.
They visited Central High School in the morning and heard a keynote address from Allen’s daughter, Danielle, that afternoon at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Danielle Allen is the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and author of the book “Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education.”
“It was magnificent; the teachers were just wowed,” William Allen said.
His group was among about 200 rising freshmen at the college who heard his daughter’s speech.