Scene Report —
"Democracy Doesn't Run on Cruise Control; You Have to Keep Your Hands on the Wheel":
Describing Digital Public Activism Through Documenting Student Boycotts and Lunch-Counter Sit-ins in Atlanta, circa 1960-1961
by Jeanne Law Bohannon
Public writing, as a method of inquiry, demonstrates a commitment to civic discourse and recovery of elided rhetorics. As a pedagogical philosophy, the practice of public writing with students is also democratic, what Anne Ruggles Gere lauds as "remarkably effective for motivating students to revise their prose, for enhancing their sense of audience, for broadening their stylistic repertoires." This approach to public writing helps instructors create engagement that transcends courses and disciplines.
Andrea Lunsford has long advocated for students and teachers to compose public works together, collaboratively creating texts that have value to communities outside university walls. Faculty and students in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kennesaw State University (KSU) put Gere and Lunsford's theories into praxis as we construct an initiative that brings together public memories, community-building practices, and social justice research co-authored by students, faculty, and community partners. We call it Democracy Doesn't Run on Cruise Control, after a quote by our community partner Lonnie King; it's a multi-platform, public narrative that documents untold stories of the Atlanta Student Movement's lunch-counter sit-ins and economic boycotts, one that collects oral histories of the surviving activists/advocates and complementary artifacts, then curates them in a digital collection in our university archives. We are also producing a full-length documentary that corrects the white-washed history that elided those voices that transformed a city and a movement. Every semester, undergraduate students and faculty mentors in Communications and English conduct interview protocols with movement alums and advocates while also researching in archives, attics, and basements for documents associated with oral recollections. Over the next year, we will put all of these pieces together into a publicly accessible archive, hosted by KSU but available to all.
A Kairotic Moment to Remember
Atlanta was largely left out of the thrust to remember the civil rights struggle. High school textbooks have a few pages on Martin Luther King, Jr., or a bit of content on Selma or Greensboro. Atlanta's role in shaping and informing the movements throughout the South, as well as the participants themselves, who were mostly students from the five HBCUs around the city, has been critically overlooked. Through community partnerships with Atlanta Student Movement leaders, we are recovering the voices of the people, places, and events that took place in Atlanta in 1960-1961 that influenced a US presidential election and shifted cultural paradigms of race. We are currently in a race against time, as most of the surviving members and advocates are in their late 70s, early 80s, and even 90s. Now, 2017 marks fifty-seven years since the lunch-counter sit-ins in Atlanta. We have an opportune yet fleeting moment to work with aging members of the Movement to affect community memory of its activist voices, which we are losing as each month passes.
When we planned this project, student researchers and I brainstormed about what we wanted audiences to take away from participants' narrated experiences of the sit-ins at Rich's other lunch counters throughout Atlanta—sit-ins that lead to the desegregation of lunch counters in the city and the entire American South. Rich's Department Store in Atlanta was the first retailer in the South to desegregate its lunch counters. This success was compelling because it was also the largest retailer in the city, and Rich's was central to the economic and popular culture of Atlanta and the South writ large. As Lonnie King puts it, students of the movement focused their boycott on "the Big Kahuna of department store lunch counters in the whole South."
Chronology of How
Student, faculty, staff, and community researchers have partnered across KSU—from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Information Technology Services, and the university archives, to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Multicultural Student Affairs—to create a digital humanities network for publication and dissemination of these oral histories, their associated artifacts, and a documentary film tentatively titled, And Others. The working title represents a recurring theme that runs through everything we've found about the Atlanta Student Movement members: they are too often never named in documents, news reports, or photos, instead simply referred to as "others." Our team feels strongly that every aspect of this project, from titles to names of archival collections, needs to raise awareness of the lived realities these students faced as they changed the world.
The project originated in 2016 and grew into a sustained relationship with our senior community partner and the movement's Chairperson, Dr. Lonnie King. He has guest-lectured at special events and participated in class dialogues at KSU, frequently interacting with students in small groups.
Dr. King is a vital partner in vetting histories and artifacts as well as a key informer for students who want to create co-curricular opportunities in our Student Life programming. Over the past several months, he has provided us advice, grounding, and even transportation, when we needed to get folks into the studio.
We have recorded narratives in our studio on-campus, and we plan to travel to people too ill to come to us. We dig like archaeologists in physical and digital archives as well as in people's attics for battle plans. In our on-going archival research, we seek out associated artifacts, such as arrest records, media reports, photographs, and correspondences to support testimonies.
We recently received permission from the Atlanta Journal/Constitution archive to use the photo below, which shows Movement leaders Lonnie King and Marilyn Pryce accompanied by Martin Luther King, Jr. as they are led to jail after their arrest at the Rich's sit-in. The original photo listed the student leaders as "others," another example of their erased experience. Our report here is the first space we can use to right the record.
We just recorded our first narrative at a site of resistance, featuring Lonnie King, walking our film crew through the site of the 1960 Rich’s sit-in. We conducted a walk-though and interview, with student researchers asking questions to frame Dr. King’s discussion of how the student-led sit-in was the first time Martin Luther King, Jr. voluntarily went to jail for non-violent protest and also signi cantly in uenced the outcome of the 1960 US presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
A current iteration of our on-going work is a living website ATL Boycott, featuring content based on archival and primary source research with Dr. Lonnie King, Dr. Roslyn Pope, Dr. Gwendolyn Middlebrooks, Mr. Charles Black, Ms. Norma June Davis, and other Atlanta Student Movement alums.
We have also hosted our first Remembrance Panel, featuring Movement leaders.1 As we continue our work, we encourage you to follow us on Twitter: @kennesawEnglish and join the multitude of other narratives that tell a forgotten and misrepresented history, because we're putting it right and doing what Steve Parks calls "the extra-curricular work of composition."
Gere, Anne Ruggles. "Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition." CCC, vol.45, no.1, pp.74-92, 1994.
Parks, Steve, and Nick Pollard. "The Extra- Curricular of Composition: A Dialogue on Community-Publishing." Community Literacy Journal, vol. 3, no 2, pp. 53-78, 2009.
- Watch the video here: http://ksutv.kennesaw.edu/play.php?v=00030070 . Look for the webtext version of this report in 2018.