Historical memory matters, not just in its broadest sweep but also in its details. And sometimes we need a certain amount of public humiliation to bring us back to those first principles.
I found confirmation of this inconvenient truth earlier this summer when my graduate students grumbled a bit after taking a final exam. Graduate students enrolled in history or humanities seminars are not accustomed to taking exams. Instead, they spend their time reading books and articles, writing papers, discussing concepts, and debating ideas. That's the way it should be, but in this case — an unusual course entitled "The Civil Rights Movement and the Law" — there were ample reasons to make them answer a few test questions.
The course was largely experiential, consisting of three nights of introductory seminars followed by an intense seven-day civil rights tour of the Deep South. The heart of the course brought them face to face with an array of movement veterans, ex-Freedom Riders, civil rights attorneys, federal judges, journalists and ordinary Southerners, black and white.
During five years of these summer sojourns, I have seen students undergo life-changing experiences as they confront the ghosts and survivors of the tumultuous 1960s. So I don't worry as much as I normally do about facts and retention of detail. I asked them to read five books and two articles before our departure for Nashville, but I didn't quiz or check up on them during the journey itself. Still, I wanted to encourage them to absorb at least some of the rich historical literature on the civil rights struggle — hence the final exam to be taken two weeks after their return.
This year, question No. 10 read: "In the fall of 1961, _________, a SNCC staff member and former student at Virginia Union University accompanied Cordell Reagon to Albany, Georgia for the purpose of organizing a voting rights project in southwestern Georgia." Many of the students knew the correct answer: Charles Sherrod. But a few minds went blank, even after reading vivid accounts of Sherrod's exploits in two different books. Looking through the list of possible answers (I gave them a jumbled list of names), one desperate student put down "Marshall Dillon" of Gunsmoke fame, and another chose "James Weldon Johnson," the Harlem Renaissance writer who died in 1938.
After the exam, one student who did well on the essay questions but not so well on the objective part of the test complained, "Why do we need to know this stuff? Do we really need to remember the name of the man who led the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, or the Mississippi woman who spoke at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City?" Since we had all flown back to Florida from Birmingham's Fred Shuttlesworth Airport and since I knew she had seen film clips of Fannie Lou Hamer's famous speech, I was a little taken aback. But I tried to be kind and reassured her that I appreciated all of the hard work that she had put into the course and that missing those questions would not have a major effect on her grade.
I should have been tougher. Looking back over recent events, when both the Department of Agriculture and the Obama White House rushed to judgment on the Shirley Sherrod affair — demanding her resignation after a tea party website discredited her with out-of-context excerpts from a speech she gave to an NAACP branch in Georgia — I have come to the conclusion that we should all take some time to reflect on the importance of remembering who did what during the civil rights struggles of a half century ago.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in, and next year we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, when Shirley's husband Charles boarded a freedom bus for Albany. Sherrod is a very unusual name, which should have set off immediate warning signals among federal officials. But it didn't.
Even the most cursory fact-checking would have revealed not only that Shirley Sherrod was a dedicated and compassionate public servant but also that she had spent much of her life attached to one of the true heroes of modern American history.
There is a public park in Albany named for Charles Sherrod and with good reason. He not only went to rural Georgia in 1961 to energize a regional movement for simple justice; he stayed there long after his fellow activists departed, working as a community organizer, serving on the city council, teaching at the local university, and ministering to prisoners as a chaplain.
Amazingly, he is still there, after suffering imprisonment and risking his life more times than most of us can imagine. Now 73 years old, he is still searching for the "beloved community," still fighting for the unrealized ideals that his old friend congressman John Lewis tries to keep alive in the corridors of power.
Few of us can ever hope to match Sherrod's or Lewis' contributions to freedom. But as citizens of an imperfect democracy we all share the responsibility of connecting the present and the future to a meaningful and usable past. Go to the library, buy a book, turn on your Kindle, or take a course. But don't let the deeds and sacrifices of the Charles Sherrods of the world escape your vision.
Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is the author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, and The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, both New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice selections.