Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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.


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.


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 or (727) 893-8413.

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

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Two boys in critical condition after Largo crash


    LARGO — A 7-year-old boy was thrown from a car in a head-on crash on Starkey Road, and both he and a 6-year-old boy were in critical condition Sunday night, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

  2. Trump's new order bars almost all travel from seven countries


    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Sunday issued a new order banning almost all travel to the United States from seven countries, including most of the nations covered by his original travel ban, citing threats to national security posed by letting their citizens into the country.

    President Donald Trump speaks to reporters Sunday upon his return to the White House in Washington.
  3. Somehow, Rays' Chris Archer remains just shy of being an ace

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — Chris Archer had another bad game Sunday.

    Chris Archer is sputtering to the finish line, his rough start on Sunday his fourth in his past five in which he hasn’t gotten past four innings.
  4. In Mexico City, hopes of finding quake survivors dwindle


    MEXICO CITY — Five days after the deadly magnitude 7.1 earthquake, the hulking wreckage of what used to be a seven-story office building is one of the last hopes: one of just two sites left where searchers believe they may still find someone trapped alive in Mexico City.

    Rescue workers search for survivors inside a felled office building in the Roma Norte neighborhood of Mexico City on Saturday.
  5. GOP health bill in major peril as resistance hardens among key senators


    WASHINGTON — The floundering Republican attempt to undo the Affordable Care Act met hardening resistance from key GOP senators Sunday that left it on the verge of collapse even as advocates vowed to keep pushing for a vote this week.

    Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a moderate, said Sunday that it was “very difficult” to envision voting for this health-care bill.