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Focus on Scholarship
Stephen Balkaran
Tracing the Steps of the Civil Rights Movement

Stephen Balkaran, at 38, wishes he had lived during the days of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. “Imagine getting to meet Martin Luther King,” he remarks in hushed tones. His students listen intently. “Understand, this man was committed to striving for equality—with drive, persistence, and courage. He faced down bomb threats, assassination attempts, and being jailed for marching peacefully, as well as enduring intimidation by the Klan and white supremacists.”

Balkaran, an adjunct lecturer in philosophy, raises consciousness in his students whether he’s teaching courses in African American Studies, American Philosophy, Philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement, or 21st Century Civil Rights and African American Politics.

He declares, “I want my students to feel how vivid and moving the images of the Civil Rights Movement are so they will fully grasp the meaning of segregation as seen in White Only signs, in Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus, in news photographs showing police brutality, in James Meredith walking to class at the University of Mississippi in 1962 accompanied by US marshals.”

No Time Limit on Fighting for Human Rights
One day Balkaran described to students how the Montgomery Bus Boycott pressed for a more humane public transportation system. Some 50,000 African Americans mobilized, and the boycott lasted 381 days until the local segregation ordinance was lifted on public buses. A student asked, “Why didn’t they give up after, say, 200 days?” Balkaran asserted, “There’s no time limit on fighting for human rights and freedom.”

Balkaran holds firm convictions about human rights and social justice. Having emigrated from his native Trinidad some 20 years ago, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science from the University of Connecticut. After receiving a second master’s in international relations in 1997 from UCONN, he worked as a research associate in third world economic development for the United Nations and then as a consultant to the World Bank.

Balkaran’s immersion in civil rights and human rights issues deepened with his role as assistant director of UCONN’s African National Congress project. He archived ANC (Nelson Mandela’s ruling party in South Africa) documents detailing apartheid conflicts.

It was while Balkaran was a research fellow at Yale University (he also was a research fellow at Harvard) that he worked with prominent Civil Rights Movement figure Kathleen Cleaver, former wife of Eldridge Cleaver, a Black Panther Party leader. “I’m indebted to Kathleen for her insights into what it means to be an activist and scholar,” observes Balkaran. Kathleen Cleaver is a professor of law in the African American Studies department at Yale.

Balkaran traveled south in the summer of 2005 to make a personal pilgrimage, retracing the steps of the Civil Rights Movement. In Montgomery, he felt the palpable presence of Rosa Parks and of King preaching at the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church. In Selma, he imagined the intimidation used to terrify black voters. Finally, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Balkaran stood on the balcony where King was assassinated. “Such a journey is haunting every step of the way. Right then and there, I vowed I’d develop a field study course to illustrate in a powerful way the Civil Rights struggle,” says Balkaran.

One of a Kind Civil Rights Project
He did just that, developing the Civil Rights Project at CCSU. Balkaran acknowledges the support of Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs Joseph Paige in bringing about the week-long course. This summer, Balkaran will guide some 20 CCSU students along a carefully laid out route— from Montgomery to Birmingham, Selma, Memphis, and Atlanta—tracing historic events in the Civil Rights Movement. “To my knowledge, CCSU is the only university in America with a course that literally walks the Civil Rights Movement,” Balkaran says.

In Montgomery the class will follow the footsteps—and strategies—of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, then meet and interview people—both blacks and whites— from the Montgomery community about their experiences and struggles during the historic era. At the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, students will relive the early stages of King’s long, nonviolent struggles.

After consulting resources of the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, students will do research, interview former and current police officials in the Birmingham Police Department, and collect oral histories describing the use of police brutality and the rise of campus security during the period. Patrick Williams, president of CCSU’s Black Student Union, comments, “I’m anticipating a great trip. This class will be one of the best learning tools to see what the people we admire fought for and to see the conditions they were living in. We’ll be able to learn from people who were actually part of the movement. It will be an opportunity to take a walk into history, a history not taught as often as it should be.”

Following the Selma-to-Montgomery March route, students will have the opportunity to imagine what is was like to be demonstrators demanding fairness in voter registration. Final destinations for the class will be the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and the King Center in Atlanta. “One of the goals for this Civil Rights Project is for students to consider the tragedy of the death and the affirmation of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” observes Balkaran. “I hope students come away with a fuller understanding of one of the most critically important eras in modern American life, and of the enduring significance of race in the nation’s history.”

—Geri Radacsi

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