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Civil rights history comes alive with film, tour

Former Freedom Rider Ernest “Rip” Patton, center, visits with Kareem Spratling, 28, and Spratling’s fiancee, Tammy Briant, 27, both of St. Petersburg, at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church on Saturday.

LARA CERRI | Times

Former Freedom Rider Ernest “Rip” Patton, center, visits with Kareem Spratling, 28, and Spratling’s fiancee, Tammy Briant, 27, both of St. Petersburg, at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church on Saturday.

ST. PETERSBURG

One after another, the horrific scenes marched across the movie screen.

A Trailways bus on fire in Anniston, Ala. The bombed-out remains of a church in Birmingham. Protesters being beaten back by police at the foot of a bridge in Selma, Ala.

Bonnie Markley, watching the film from her seat at St. Luke's United Methodist Church on Saturday night, recalled seeing the images as a child on her parents' black-and-white TV set in Pennsylvania.

But the details escaped her.

"We didn't learn about any of this in school," said Markley, 51.

That's a situation two local university professors are working hard to change for this generation of scholars.

For the past three summers, Robert Bickel from Stetson College of Law and Raymond Arsenault from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg have led their law and history students on an eight-day, 2,000-mile trek through the Deep South on what they call the Civil Rights Movement and the Law Tour.

From Atlanta to Nashville and from Birmingham to Montgomery and Selma, the students relive the events that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Along the way, they meet civil rights lawyers, media historians and movement veterans who recount what it was like to fight — and in some cases die — for a cause.

Last weekend's viewing of Constitutional Law and the Civil Rights Movement: Visiting History and Heroes was an effort to bring the students' experience to a wider audience. The 96-minute film, a combination of archival still photography and live footage of last summer's trip, is being presented this week at the Southwest Association of Law Schools Conference in West Palm Beach.

"You can try to make your seminars as dramatic as possible," said video producer and multimedia specialist Stan Arthur, who co-directed the film with Bickel. "But it's no substitute for taking students to the hallowed ground where the events occurred that changed lives."

Adds Bickel: "There's something about being there. The earth you're standing on is where it happened. All of a sudden, there's an awareness."

USF student Jonathan Tallon, fresh off the bus from this summer's trip, which ended Friday, said the journey made history come alive for him.

"We read this mountain of material," said Tallon, 37. "But to get out and smell the smells, to see the sights … it adds gravity."

Especially stirring for the students on the most recent trip, Tallon said, was the presence of Ernest "Rip" Patton. The 68-year-old Nashville resident was one of the original Freedom Riders, a group of black and white activists who rode buses throughout the South in the spring and summer of 1961 to challenge segregation in interstate transport.

Patton clashed with National Guardsmen brandishing rifles fixed with bayonets on a ride from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss. Arrested and charged with disturbing the peace, he spent 62 days in jail and was expelled from Tennessee State University.

Arsenault, the USF professor, chronicled Patton's ordeal along with more than 400 other Freedom Riders in his 2006 award-winning book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. The text was among several the students read to prepare for the trip.

With the youngest civil rights activists now in their 60s, the opportunity to expose students to their stories directly is vanishing along with the chance to record their oral narrations, Arsenault said.

And perhaps with their passing, the example of how direct action coupled with a legal remedy can change history.

The power of such a combination was not lost on Tallon, the USF student, who said the tour made him aware of his responsibility to "carry the torch" proffered by foot soldiers in the fight for civil rights.

"We need to pick it up and move it," Tallon said. "That's the message kicking around in my head."

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.

Civil rights history comes alive with film, tour 07/29/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 4:28pm]
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