Sept. 8-14, 2000
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Project aims to preserve lessons taught by civil rights figures
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Project aims to preserve lessons taught by civil rights figures

By Dan Heuchert

It has been nearly 50 years since the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas outlawed racial segregation in public schools and helped to usher in an era of social transformation. In the years that followed, many leaders emerged from the black community -- locally, regionally and nationally -- to reshape American society.

A new oral history project, co-sponsored by the University's Institute for Public History and the Darden School, is reaching back to examine the nature of that civil rights leadership. "Explorations in Black Leadership" will bring key civil rights figures to the Grounds over the new few years, where they will participate in public forums and two-hour videotaped interviews conducted by history professor Julian Bond, who is himself a long-time civil rights leader and is currently the national chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The first visits of the series, featuring noted Virginia civil rights lawyers Oliver Hill and Henry Marsh, will take place Sept. 13 and 14, and will include a public forum Sept. 13 at 7:30 p.m. in the Law School's Caplin Auditorium. The session, during which Bond, law professor Michael Klarman and audience members will ask questions, is free and open to the public.

Committed for future visits are Elaine Jones, president and director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (Nov. 1); civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers, chancellor of North Carolina Central University (Nov. 8-9); and Mary Futrell, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University and former president of both the Virginia Education Association and National Education Association (Nov. 29-30).

Project organizers are lining up additional guests, and the effort could go on for several years, said history professor Phyllis Leffler, director of the Institute for Public History.

Bond, who served for many years in the Georgia state legislature, said "Explorations in Black Leadership"is unique in its ambition.

"I am not aware of any similar project whose reach is as broad," he said. "There are projects with a more narrow focus, but none I know of with this reach.

"This project represents an attempt to examine the lives and achievements of a wide variety of black leadership -- in education, civil rights, business -- and to try to determine from in-depth study the forces which shaped them. It promises to give us invaluable resources that will be useful for generations yet to come."

According to Leffler, the project has two key objectives.

The most obvious aspect is to preserve the history of the era, expanding the historic record.

Oliver Hill, now 93, won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999. "We think he has a fascinating story to tell," Leffler said. "He got involved, and took the risks necessary that a black man had to take to enter the bar in Virginia.

"You have to understand the impact these people have had in American society."

Beyond preserving history, though, is the inquiry into the nature of leadership itself. "A lot of people wonder what has happened to our leaders, black and non-black, in America," Leffler said.

The study will seek answers to many questions. What have been the criteria that allowed some African Americans to rise to the top of their professions? What qualities have contributed to their success? How do people become leaders, and what constitutes effective leadership?

Beyond sociological and political considerations, those questions also are of increasing importance in the business world of shifting demographics.

Darden School dean Edward A. Snyder made the decision to co-sponsor the program "in a microsecond," he said. "Darden's mission is developing people who create, transform and lead successful organizations. To do that effectively, you have to understand the power of compelling ideas, the endurance of strong convictions and the high price of courage.

"Each of the principals in this series, by personifying these ideals, advances the Darden mission."

The archives and tapes of the series will be useful to scholars, businesses, communities and public schools, and could form the basis for new courses at the University, Leffler said. One possibility is a book project or even a documentary film tied to the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 2004.


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