'Civil Rights Icons' series brings living participants of the movement to Stanford campus

On March 4, several participants in the 1960s Freedom Rides will speak on campus, and in April, entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte will give the St. Clair Drake Lecture.

"Tonight this is a quarter's worth of a history class," Jan Barker-Alexander, associate dean of students and director of the Black Community Services Center (BCSC), told a largely student crowd recently in CEMEX Auditorium. The audience had just taken in a two-hour-plus conversation between civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and former Black Panther Chair Elaine Brown. The program's lead sponsor was the BCSC.

Elaine RayJesse Jackson and Elaine Brown

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and former Black Panther Chair Elaine Brown were the opening speakers in the "Civil Rights Icons" program that will continue into the fall.

That discussion was the first installment of a program titled "Civil Rights Icons" that will extend through next fall with participants in the Freedom Rides this week and entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte in April.

Freedom Riders

Tomorrow, March 4, at 7 p.m. in Jordan Hall (Bldg. 420, Room 41), the campus community will have an opportunity to hear the recollections of three individuals who participated in the Freedom Rides of the 1960s, when an interracial contingent of college students traveled to the Deep South on interstate buses to challenge state-sanctioned racial segregation. The panel will include Ernest "Rip" Patton, who was a 21-year-old student at Tennessee State University when he joined the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala. Patton's participation in a ride from Montgomery to Jackson, Miss., landed him in jail.

Robert and Helen Singleton were a young married couple in 1961 when they organized a contingent of students at UCLA to join the Freedom Rides to the South. They, too, were jailed in Mississippi.

"We realized that we were, in a sense, leaving it all up to the youngsters down South to fight this battle if we didn't go and respond, and that was unfair," Robert Singleton, now an economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, told UCLA magazine in 2011.

The Stanford chapter of the NAACP will sponsor Tuesday's discussion. Stanford history Professor James Campbell will moderate the program.

Harry Belafonte to give the St. Clair Drake Lecture

On Wednesday, April 30, at 7 p.m. in CEMEX Auditorium, singer, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte will deliver the annual St. Clair Drake Lecture, sponsored by the Program in African and African American Studies. Belafonte will appear in conversation with cultural critic Dream Hampton. Additional details about that event will be announced in the coming weeks.

During the first installment of the series, Jackson, who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., noted that Belafonte supported the civil rights movement at great personal and professional risk. During the '50s and '60s, Belafonte leveraged his celebrity to speak out and to raise money for the freedom struggle. When King was jailed in Birmingham in 1963, Belafonte raised $50,000 for his bail.

"When Dr. King was jailed in Birmingham, he would have been in jail for a long time if Harry Belafonte had not raised money to get him out," Jackson said, adding that while King, the martyr, is revered, "few people embraced him and gave up their time when he was alive, and none did more of that and at great professional risk than Harry Belafonte."

Jesse Jackson and Elaine Brown

Recalling his youth and young adulthood in the Jim Crow South, Jackson told students that he was humiliated when as a child he was forced to move to the back of the bus. For him, what he called "legal apartheid" was personal.

"I've been arrested trying to use a public library. I've been arrested trying to use public facilities," he said.

Jackson told students that they should be insulted by the lack of racial diversity on Silicon Valley's corporate boards and suggested that they march from Stanford to some of those firms.

"The Mississippi of today is Silicon Valley," Jackson said after listing the racial composition of the boards of Apple, Facebook, Twitter and other high-tech giants.

"Your generation must be insulted by that; you must fight for your dignity." He also encouraged students to challenge reductions in Pell Grants and federal student loans and to fight for school loan forgiveness.

The first woman to serve as chair of the Black Panther Party, Brown is author of A Taste of Power, which chronicles her ascendance to the head of an organization that created free breakfast programs and community health clinics, confronted police brutality and forwarded candidates for local political offices.

She also is the author of The Condemnation of Little B, about Michael Lewis, an Atlanta man who at age 13 was sentenced to life in prison for a murder Brown insists he did not commit. While she continues to advocate for Lewis, whose nickname is "Little B," Brown currently is organizing a re-entry program for formerly incarcerated youth in Oakland, Calif.

She told the audience that the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world "is an absolute disgrace."

"The current political conditions are not right for a mass movement," Brown said, but "the pendulum will swing our way again." She noted that groups like the Panthers were naïve in their assertion of a "revolution in our lifetime. It took a lot of people dying to recognize that this was a long march," Brown said.

As the program concluded, Dereca Blackman, a Stanford alumna and activist who moderated the Jackson-Brown panel, summed up the goal of the evening:

"The purpose of this evening was to grasp a little bit of the depth and complexity of what went into these movements. That they were about base-building, not just about icons. That they were about strategy, about building on what was before."