Telling the Untold History of Civil Rights Leaders in Boston

Held on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Watch a recording or read a recap below.

Recap by Claudia Chiappa

On Wednesday, April 21, 2021, the Boston University Initiative on Cities (IOC), BU Arts Initiative, and BU Diversity & Inclusion hosted a discussion on the untold stories of civil rights leaders in Boston featuring Assistant Professor of History & African American Studies Paula Austin, filmmaker Roberto Mighty, and Lecturer in Art & Graphic Design Jessie Rubenstein. Beyond names such as Martin Luther King Jr., the panelists discussed the mark left by other less-known leaders who helped shape the city of Boston and its role in the struggle for Black freedom.

The history of activism is usually taught in classrooms settings, in traditional ways. The panelists, however, showed how different creative mediums can be employed to discuss important historical figures and events.

“It’s critical to consider medium,” noted Rubenstein. “I think there are a lot of conversations happening right now about exposing multi-layered narratives, so I think, yes, medium is important. I think when you can touch people at their senses, you connect with something that’s really internal with them, with their spirit, and that’s really impactful.”

From museum exhibits to graphic designs to films, these channels can spark conversations and display these important historical narratives in even more impactful ways.

One powerful medium used to share important stories is cinema. Mighty is the producer of the 2020 film, Legacy of Love, funded by King Boston and the Boston Foundation, which tells the story of Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott from the moment they met in Boston to them falling in love. While the movie centers around these two characters, Mighty explained how his research led to him finding out more about several less-known leaders who were active in the 1950s and 1960s in Boston.

“When I began exploring what was happening with King and Scott here in Boston, people were eager to talk about their experiences with them,” Mighty noted. “But also, they really wanted me to know that Boston had its own people who were working hard on the issue.”

Some of these leaders include Otto and Muriel Snowden, who founded Freedom House with Melnea Cass, Clarence Jones, who was the first African American Deputy Mayor of Boston, Elma Lewis, founder of Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, Ruth Batson, and many more who helped shape the landscape of the civil rights fight in the city. Their stories, Mighty said, are just as important to remember and celebrate.

For Mighty, hearing these stories directly from the source, from the witnesses who lived through history, is particularly important. Without their testimonies, there is no story to tell.

“My film wouldn’t have gotten anywhere at all if I hadn’t been able to actually interview people who had met and interacted with Dr. King and Coretta Scott King,” explained Mighty.

Art can also be a powerful medium to tell complex stories. Rubenstein presented the visual exhibit developed by students from her Exhibition Design class, inspired by the Sue Bailey Thurman Collection. The project, which depicts the life of Sue Bailey Thurman and centers the “Thurman love ethic,” exploring history in all its multifaceted aspects.

“History is not clean, and laid out, and tidy,” Rubenstein explained. “It’s actually complex and overlapping and overlaid.”

Over the course of 13 weeks, Rubenstein said students explored the collection, becoming familiar with its artifacts and looking for the best ways to convey their message. The final exhibit is composed of several collaborative projects which explore the work and life of Thurman, each in a unique way. Some of the projects include online exhibitions, interactive timelines, a kinetic sculpture, and installations throughout different buildings across the BU campus.

“I personally think exhibition is a really beautiful space for dialogue and for conversation, for exposing many different viewpoints,” explained Rubenstein. “So that’s the medium I’m drawn to. That’s what I like to direct my students to.”

Students will present their final projects to the Museum of African American History at the end of the semester. The full exhibit will be up through the summer and will also be made available on a website, said Rubenstein (Editor’s Note: a link will be provided when available).

Austin presented a project she has worked on with her History of Black Studies class to examine the work of Black student activists at Boston University. Austin said the group focused on the activism during the Black Power era, when students were fighting to have an African Studies curriculum, to develop Boston’s relationship with the Black communities, and to advocate for more inclusivity and diversity in the university.

Students examined primary sources and several artifacts from the King Archives, including old newspaper articles, letters and pictures, to create a timeline of Black activism at BU, said Austin. A spotlight was shined on UMOJA, the Black Student Union at BU, who occupied an administrative building in the 1970s to demand the school be held accountable for its discrimination and lack of support for Black students.

This event is part of a series on Race, Place, and Space, co-hosted by the IOC, the BU Arts Initiative, and BU Diversity & Inclusion (D&I). The series explores the ways in which racial and ethnic groups access, inhabit, occupy, shape, and are memorialized in urban contexts—as well as the ways their contemporary and historical contributions have been made invisible, disregarded, or denigrated.