The Times and Democrat
February 14, 2011
By Phil Sarata
WASHINGTON - Breathing life into the civil rights movement is now as easy as using a social media app.
"Civil Rights Meets Facebook," the brainchild of Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School alumna Tara Young, offers young people direct contact with the regular people who Young calls "civil rights icons."
"I tried to do this last year, but I had a hard time getting in touch with them," Young said. "I found them last summer through a civil rights website.
"These people from various parts of the county are the foot soldiers of the movement. They wanted to make a difference and took the risk."
Young has enlisted 37 civil rights workers and volunteers to share and answer questions about their experiences. Continuing throughout February, the campaign will spotlight up to three people on the Civil Rights Heroes (Volunteers and Workers) Facebook page.
Young developed the concept apart from her position as a community organizer in Washington, D.C. Despite some reservations about the media, it didn't take much to convince volunteers to participate, she said.
"Many of these heroes didn't know what Facebook was," Young said. "The Internet is like no other medium. It gives people a comfort level to ask questions that they might not ask in more public settings."
Two individuals with Orangeburg ties are Peter Geffen, founder of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City, and Dr. Joan Mandle, a sociology professor emeritus at Colgate University in New York. Geffen is scheduled to be on the Facebook page Feb. 16 and Mandle on Feb. 23.
Geffen is often asked by schools in New York and around the country to participate in their civil rights studies "because I am a historical relic."
"It is important for the next generation to understand more personally what the civil rights movement was all about," Geffen said. "It is unique for them to encounter humans who have stories that they won't find in a textbook."
As a young college student, Geffen volunteered with the Summer Community Organization and Political Education project established by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Volunteers pushed to register black voters in the face of resistance from Orangeburg authorities.
"Many of these people could not read or write their name," Geffen said. "We created freedom schools in local churches so we could teach those skills to get them registered to vote."
Although South Carolina was not considered as dangerous as Alabama or Mississippi, the volunteers' efforts weren't without risk.
"In 1966, we were staying with the local SCLC leader in his house," Geffen said. "There wasn't a lot of food, so we were always hungry, hanging out in the kitchen.
"One night, someone shot into the front room. If we hadn't been congregated in the kitchen, someone could have been injured or possibly killed."
In the summer of 1964, Mandle volunteered with a Quaker voter registration initiative in Orangeburg. She spent time talking with poor sharecroppers about the importance of voting.
Mandle said volunteers were instructed not to be "too pushy."
"I came from an elite private school and never met poor people," Mandle said. "It changed my life. I discovered we had more in common than differences.
"If it hadn't been for that summer in Orangeburg, I wouldn't have learned this and other important lessons."
Today, Mandle is executive director for Democracy Matters, an initiative giving college students an active role in the dialogue on money in politics. The organization was founded by her adopted son, former NBA star Adonal Foyle.
Mandle said she visited Orangeburg 10 years ago and was "thrilled" at the changes that have occurred.
"It is totally transformed from what I experienced," she said. "I think it's important to understand that civil rights didn't solve all the problems, but they have changed for the better."
To those who feel racism exists on a greater scale in the South than in the North, Geffen said New York is more segregated than Orangeburg.
"Times were very difficult then, but my impression is the generations in the South understood what they had to change and did it," Geffen said. "Blacks and whites had more contact with one another. All my Southern friends are more progressive on race.
"In the end, I learned the power of an individual to affect the whole society."
To join the conversation with civil rights workers and volunteers, click the "like" key on the Facebook page: facebook.com/pages/Civil-Rights-Heroes-Workers-and-Volunteers-on-Face-Book/173008119405780.