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Striving for Civil Rights: Byrd Center produces series of lectures on Black American history

By Tabitha Johnston - Chronicle Staff | Jan 22, 2021

The Robert C. Byrd Center has produced a series of six lectures exploring Black Americans' struggle to overcome systemic racism and achieve racial equality. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Ninety-two years ago this Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born. His assassination at the age of 39, in Memphis, Tenn., may have ended his work as a civil rights leader, but it did not prevent his legacy from continuing to change the face of the United States.

That unshakeable legacy led to the establishment of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a federal holiday by Pres. Ronald Reagan in 1983. While in years past, the holiday has been celebrated with festivals and parades across the country, the COVID-19 Pandemic forced this year’s event planners to alter the annual celebrations, in consideration of social distancing guidelines.

Inspired by the need to highlight Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and African Americans’ fight for civil rights in a safe way this year, the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education has produced a series of six virtual lectures, “Of, By and For All People: Congress and the Fight for Racial Equality in America.” The recording of the series began in summer 2020, exploring the struggle Black Americans have faced to overcome systemic racism and achieve racial equality, from the abolition of slavery in the 19th century to the current Black Lives Matter movement.

According to Robert C. Byrd Center Director Jay Wyatt, the series connects with the center’s work, archiving Congressional history.

“In keeping with the goals of the Robert C. Byrd Center, the lecture series focuses on Congress’ position at the center of historic debates on racism and equality in America, highlighting the instruments and institutions of representative democracy that have been crucial in our long national fight to become ‘a more perfect union,'” Wyatt said in a press release.

The video lectures are 40-90 minutes in length. They are “Slavery, Civil Rights and the Gag Rule Debates in Congress,” “To March Ahead of His Followers: Charles Sumner and the Civil Rights Act of 1875,” “No Innocent Bystanders: The Power and Responsibility of Local Action,” The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act,” “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime” and “The Shame of America: The New Deal Senate and the Federal Anti-Lynching Bill.”

“The journey towards an inclusive meaning of ‘we the people’ has defined the American experiment in representative democracy, since the immortalization of those words within the United States Constitution in 1787,” wrote Robert C. Byrd Center Archivist Jody Brumage. “For Black Americans, this journey has been defined by immense struggle and hardship, from ending the institution of slavery in the nineteenth century to the enduring fight for equality before the law that has lasted into our present age. The Legislative Branch has been a forum at the center of this debate since the first Congress convened in 1789.”

The free series can be viewed at www.byrdcenter.org/of-by-and-for-all-people. The webpage also includes a selection of educational resources, archival documents and lesson plans for exploring the struggle for African American Civil Rights from the Byrd Center Archives, as well as the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The lesson plans are designed for secondary level students and are applicable in civics, history, social studies or government courses of instruction.