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This 1977 file photo shows a memorial plaque at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., for Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, the four girls killed in a bombing at the church in 1963. / Associated Press

For a week last fall, civil rights veterans, mayors from across the country and members of Congress gathered in Birmingham, Ala., for "Empowerment Week,'' marking 50 years since the city played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

It was "a living, breathing testament to bridging that gap" between people who worked in the movement and younger generations less familiar with the history, said Chuck Faush, who is helping coordinate commemorative events.

"People started talking and embracing and really saying, 'OK, we finally have some healing, some reconciliation, some restoration,' '' recalled Faush, also chief of staff to Birmingham Mayor William Bell. "It was incredible.''

Events marking the 50th anniversary of civil rights milestones continue this year in Birmingham and other Southern cities at the heart of the civil rights movement. Demonstrators, many of them college students, staged sit-ins, launched voter registration drives and protested segregation at schools and other public facilities throughout the South. Those efforts led to landmark legislation, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Several incidents in 1963 and 1964 attracted national attention, including a church bombing in Birmingham that killed four black girls in 1963 and the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi that summer.

The following year, hundreds of activists descended on Mississippi for "Freedom Summer" to register blacks to vote.

"We need to recognize the accomplishments and those who made the changes to the segregated Mississippi,'' said Cynthia Goodloe Palmer, executive director of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement.

That group, along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Tougaloo College, the NAACP and others, will host a conference this summer in Jackson, Miss., to commemorate Freedom Summer.

Renewing the fight

Palmer said many civil rights activists are expected to return to focus on new battles, including against state voter ID laws that activists say are designed to disenfranchise minorities.

"They're having to fight some of the same battles, which is so hurtful to me as a second-generation person (and) someone who benefitted from their efforts,'' said Palmer. "This won't just be a three-day reunion. This is another movement.''

In Hattiesburg, Miss., civil rights veterans will conduct seminars on lawsuits challenging segregation. The veterans also are planning an event in June to recognize activists who helped with Freedom Summer and Freedom Schools, which were created to teach math, reading and black history to black students.

The events kicked off in January at the St. Paul United Methodist Church, the site of a mass meeting in 1964 the day before "Freedom Day," a Jan. 22 protest outside the courthouse in Hattiesburg.

"We think it's important that we keep the commemoration in the community where it started,'' said Glenda Funchess, who attended a Freedom School when she was 9 years old.

"We just want to teach the generation behind us about Freedom Summer, about the civil rights movement, so they can teach the generation behind them,'' said Funchess, who said her career as an attorney was inspired by civil rights lawyers in the 1960s. "I don't think the average person feels at ease discussing civil rights history, and it could be because it's not taught in school.''

Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, said it's important to recognize pivotal moments in the civil rights movement. "The nation needs to have a discussion," he said. "We're a very young democracy. We're an experiment in, 'Can you have a multiracial, multicultural democracy?' ''

Initially, some people complained the commemoration events would dredge up old tensions, organizers said.

"There were a number of people who said, 'Why bring up the past?' " Faush said. "But if they don't bring it up, don't talk about it, it is in the past. Let's move forward. There was a generation that really needed to know what was happening not just before their eyes, but what happened before.''

Across the South

In 2012, Bell and other Southern mayors, including Harvey Johnson, then-mayor of Jackson, Miss., announced plans to coordinate and link commemoration efforts throughout the South.

Events in Birmingham last September included panels, marches, concerts and a visit by members of Congress, including Rep. Terri Sewell, the first black woman elected to Congress from Alabama.

Last summer, Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree and other Southern mayors joined thousands of people in Washington to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Other cities have held events and will host a traveling civil rights exhibit. Those cities include Columbia, S.C., Memphis, Atlanta, Washington and Northern cities such as New York and Chicago, where many Southerners migrated.

There are also plans to mark five decades since "Bloody Sunday" in Alabama - March 7, 1965, when police beat protesters marching peacefully from Selma to Montgomery.

"It is by no means over,'' Faush said of the commemoration events.

Organizers hope the events will prompt lawmakers to address problems plaguing the black community.

"We're asking that they embrace all of this with us so that it is not just a commemoration, but it's something that's real,'' Faush said. "Let's get some real jobs out there. Let's take some real streets and turn them around. Let's take some neighborhoods and do great things in them.''



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: 50th-anniversary events highlight Southern struggles

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