NEWBURYPORT — With the help of new technology at Nock Middle School Library, the school’s entire eighth-grade class — 180 students — had the opportunity to interact with a page from American history on Monday as they Skyped with the Rev. Clark Olsen, who was standing by the side of civil rights activist James Reeb when Reeb was beaten to death by white segregationists in Selma, Ala., on March 9, 1965.
Reeb and Olsen, both white Unitarian ministers, had heeded a call by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for clergy to join marchers in Selma following “Bloody Sunday.”
During Monday’s talk, 81-year-old Olsen recounted the story from his home in Asheville, N.C., via Skype’s Internet video conferencing application, among new technology paid for by the Newburyport Education Foundation. As he did, the eighth-graders, who recently completed in-depth projects as part of a civics unit about the civil rights movement, gave him their full attention.
Olsen said it was a series of happenstance events that brought him to Selma that fateful day, starting with the plane ticket purchased for him by members of his Berkeley, Calif., congregation. Olsen made it to Selma and joined marchers on March 9 just after their “Turnaround Tuesday” march.
King told the marchers gathered at Brown Chapel A.M.E. to return later that evening for another march. So Olsen located longtime friends and fellow white Unitarian ministers, Orloff Miller and Reeb, who had also answered King’s call. They decided to share dinner at what was at the time considered a black establishment.
On the way home, the attack took place at the hands of four white segregationists who, despite Olsen’s testimony, were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury after a short deliberation.
Despite the acquittal, the death of Reeb became what Olsen called the “tipping point” that eventually led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965. He recalled not only the roses that President Lyndon B. Johnson sent to the hospital in Birmingham as Reeb lay in a coma, but also President Johnson’s mention of Reeb when he introduced the Voting Rights bill just one week after Reeb’s death.
Olsen said he continues to honor the life of Reeb and keep the civil rights movement alive by telling his story. In the past 50 years since Reeb’s death, Olsen has spoken to thousands of students.
On March 30, he will again join the Sojourn to the Past program that takes 100 students from across the country on a real-life journey to landmark places in the civil rights movement. Together, they will cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
One purpose of his work, he said, “is to help students understand how many people gave so much of their lives to achieve voting rights, but also to understand that knowing about civil rights is not just about learning of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — important as he was.”
During his Skype talk, Olsen responded to student questions, which were provided in advance, including, “Would you do it again, knowing what you know now?” His immediate answer: “Yes.”
Another question addressed Olsen’s motivation for taking part in the movement.
“I just wanted to do the right thing,” he told the students. “Whenever you see an injustice, do something. Say something.” Whether that injustice has to do with race or sexuality, he said, “don’t let it go by without your saying something. You never know what difference it will make.”
Civics teacher Sally Leety developed the two-week civil rights unit now used across the eighth grade following a National Endowment for the Humanities program for educators in Alabama. “It was all about bringing the history to the students,” she said. She worked together with fellow teacher Jen Groskin.
Each year, students pair up and select from 13 civil rights movement events that they are then tasked with “teaching” to the class. The project culminates in a proposal for a memorial on the selected topic that must include a physical representation as well as a mission statement. The students’ projects will be on display at Newburyport City Hall for two weeks, beginning Tuesday.
Leety said Olsen’s talk was an opportunity for this year’s students to further enhance their interaction with the history of the civil rights movement.
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet instrumental people from the movement. What a joy it is now for my students to meet Clark, and be inspired. It has really come full circle,” Leety said.
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