MLK celebration this Sunday at Prescott church
The crusade for civil rights in the 1960s affected people across America and especially touched the lives of several Prescott residents who will tell their stories Sunday at the Granite Peak Unitarian Universalist congregation's annual Martin Luther King service.
Longtime Prescottonian Ron Barnes, his wife, Betsy, and their two young children spent six weeks in Tuskegee, Ala., at the height of the 1960s civil unrest. Barnes, a young educator, had already immersed himself in civil rights issues. He was president of the United Campus Christian Fellowship, an umbrella organization for campus ministries of all faiths, and in that role, he was encouraging people to go to the South to help black people register to vote. He had also established relationships with civil rights leaders and black educators.
At that time, the federal government was pressuring north American colleges to integrate their faculties with more black professors. Fear mounted among Southern black colleges that the north would raid their institutions of their black faculty and graduate students, Barnes said. In light of this and because of Barnes' experience with both sides of the issue, the National Council of Churches asked him to chair the Commission on Higher Education of the Negro. That led him to a six-week stay at Tuskegee Institute, a black university.
"I needed to personally experience and understand what was happening in a black university," Barnes said of his desire to hear their perceptions of white universities and whether they had people who would want to join the faculty of a white university.
Despite the fact that north American universities' salaries were significantly higher than their counterparts in the South, Barnes found that black educators were so dedicated to their institutions and their students that they shunned the idea of moving to a college in the north.
Along with discovering black educators' commitment to their students, other experiences left lasting impressions on the Barnes family while they were in Tuskegee, Barnes said. These insights gave them "a much better appreciation of the complexities and the challenges of being a black person in the South." While they were there, they saw the black people deal with "the seemingly unending tragedies, such as the torching of the local high school, the burning of a black-owned shopping center and the murders of three civil rights workers in a nearby community," Barnes said.
Added to these atrocities, he said, was a long list of more inequities. Blacks couldn't vote, they couldn't play in certain public parks, they couldn't use public swimming pools, they couldn't eat in most restaurants, they could only sit in balconies of certain movie theaters, they couldn't go to amusement parks, they had to use separate water fountains and restrooms, and they had to sit in the back of buses and stand if a white person needed a seat.
While at the institute, Barnes taught two courses, but it will be the interaction with his black students and the people of the Tuskegee community that will grip the audience that views the documentary "Go South!," which will be the feature of Granite Peak's Sunday service honoring Martin Luther King. Prescott resident Howard Rieder directed the film and discovered the inspiration for it when he heard Barnes speak at a Martin Luther King Day observance at Yavapai College in 2005.
Although the film focuses on the Barnes family, including comments from their daughter, Lisa, two other local participants will talk about their experiences during the civil rights movement from their perspectives as African-Americans.
Gwen Calhoun, a political activist who is involved in many Prescott-area service organizations, moved from Connecticut to South Carolina when she was a young girl and experienced the "culture shock" of segregation.
Lou Burrell is a musician today, but when he was 15, he went to a seminary and was ordained as a Catholic priest in Chicago. He was an active worker for civil rights in Chicago neighborhoods and within his church. He ultimately left the priesthood for another career.
Rieder is an independent filmmaker with a long career in the industry and has received many awards for his work.
The Barneses, Rieder and Burrell will talk about their experiences as part of the 10 a.m. service at Granite Peak, and the "Go South!" documentary will show at 11:30 a.m. Granite Peak Unitarian Universalist is located at 882 Sunset Drive in Prescott. The public is welcome to attend. Access Channel 13 will air the documentary during the month of February.
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