The words of Martin Luther King Jr., resounded through the speakers of the Bynum Theater as John Brown University students and faculty assembled to observe Constitution Day on Wednesday, September 18, 2013.
“We cannot afford to stop moving. . . our nation has a date with destiny,” said King in the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary about the US civil rights movement.
Constitution Day commemorates the adoption of the United States Constitution, which was signed on September 17, 1787. Students and faculty commemorated the day by looking back on the US civil rights movement, which protested the Constitutional restriction of African-American voting rights that are now recognized by the Constitution.
John Brown University students observed this national holiday on Wednesday evening by watching a portion of the 1987 PBS documentary of the civil right movement entitled Eyes on the Prize and by questioning a panel of university professors comprised of Trisha Posey, Don Balla, Marquita Smith and Frank Niles.
“The struggle for voting rights was a hard fought battle, and it’s important for students to realize how much these rights matter,” said Dr. Frank Niles, professor of political science and chair of the department.
This struggle, however, hit much closer to home for Marquita Smith, head of the department of communications and assistant professor of journalism.
“Being African-American, only a couple of generations removed from this situation, provides me with a different perspective,” said Smith. “The stories of people going to the polls were my grandparents. I can still see the scars on my grandmother’s back from going to vote. . . . We were not even seen as people until the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Smith continued to described her passion for the civil rights movement, by explaining that while living in Montgomery, Alabama a number of years ago, she and her colleagues commemorated the renown fifty-four mile march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery by walking over thirty miles of the route taken years ago on “Bloody Sunday” March 7, 1965.
Trisha Posey, associate professor of history and director of the Honor scholar program also described the significance of observing Constitution Day by explaining that our history as a nation is entirely relevant today.
Don Balla agreed. He also said studying the civil rights movement provides students a distinct opportunity to relate to marginalized groups. He believes observing Constitution Day not only reminds us to learn from our nation’s history, but it also honors those who have died to earn the right to vote—a freedom many take for granted.
“We need to go back and revisit the things our nation has been through.” Niles said. “Voting seems so remote from us, so distant from everyday reality. Voting, especially at a local level, can really have an impact on your life. . . All politics are local.”
Many of the students present in the Bynum Theater Wednesday evening watched with rapt attention as a grainy video clip from 1965 depicted Reverend C.T. Vivian courageously crying out, “We are willing to be beaten for democracy!”
“Voting is a right; it is not a privilege,” Smith reminded them.