This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the turning points in the US civil rights movement: the Selma to Montgomery marches in support of voting rights for African Americans – epochal events recently celebrated in Ava DuVernay’s film Selma.
It is highly appropriate then that Queen’s University Belfast should this year join forces with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee to launch its first “international module”, devoted to the civil rights movements in Northern Ireland and the American South.
Fifteen second-year undergraduate students of history or politics from Queen’s and 10 of their Vanderbilt counterparts are now spending a month together – two weeks in Nashville followed by two weeks in Belfast. For the Americans, the module is an optional self-contained course known as a “Maymester”. For the Queen’s contingent, selected on the strength of their results to date and a personal statement, it represents a standard unit of their degree.
Along with intensive teaching every weekday, participants will visit museums and heritage centres in Atlanta, Birmingham (Alabama), Memphis and Nashville, as well as Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, to explore how the events of a period stretching roughly from 1955 to 1972 are represented today.
The module will “identify the historical origins and contexts of the campaigns for political and legal equality for African Americans in the United States (principally in the southern states), and Catholics in Northern Ireland”. It will go on to consider themes such as “the role of gender, religion, nationalism, historical consciousness and political leadership in shaping each campaign”, “the nature and dynamics of ‘civil rights’ as a political concept” and “the tensions between non-violent and revolutionary elements”. It will also “address parallels, influences and discontinuities between the case studies, encouraging students to assess the nature and outcomes of both through a transnational perspective”.
A healthy precedent
Although the 10-year partnership between Queen’s and Vanderbilt has already yielded exchanges of staff and doctoral students, says Peter Gray, module coordinator and professor of modern Irish history at Queen’s, “this is the first time we have taken a cohort of students abroad” to study alongside their US peers – although he hopes it will set a precedent for similar initiatives.
Catherine Clinton, now Denman endowed professor of American history at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who was involved in developing the module in its early stages, still serves as an international research professor at Queen’s. She will be teaching a class on “women of the US civil rights movement” and accompanying the students on a bus ride from Nashville to Alabama that “replicates the civil rights experience”. She also points to the parallels and links between the two movements.
In Northern Ireland, she explains, protesters “consciously modelled themselves on the Americans and some key American figures went to lecture there”. Perhaps because of this, Queen’s “has a historic interest in the US civil rights movement”.
Well before the module got under way earlier this month, adds Clinton, “the students were already communicating on Facebook. None of the Northern Irish students has been to Nashville, so we sent them a New York Times video on ‘style in Nashville’.”
Those fighting for civil rights in Northern Ireland, agrees Gray, followed what was happening in the US, “particularly what they saw on television”. Although they were also influenced by the wider student protests taking place in Paris, Berlin, Berkeley and elsewhere in the late 1960s, “they saw an analogy with the southern states, which gave them a space for non-violent direct action that didn’t previously exist”.
Despite “some comparative work from the Northern Irish side”, Gray admits that the two civil rights movements have “mostly been studied in isolation”. Yet this is something that makes the module even more exciting. Students will be expected to get to grips with a wide range of primary sources. Those from Queen’s and Vanderbilt, often bringing with them some of the memories and mythologies of their different communities, will work together in small groups as part of the course’s reflective element.
If all goes well, Gray hopes that “students will start making comparisons for themselves” and that, over the longer term, the module “may spur more comparative research on the part of both staff and students”.
54 – the distance in miles between Selma and Montgomery walked by protesters in March 1965
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