Civil rights conference marks struggle for voting rights

Orris

In 1964 Peter Orris, now professor of public health, was an 18-year-old volunteer helping African Americans register to vote in Mississippi. He’ll join others discussing Freedom Summer today. Photo: UIC Photo Services

Fifty years ago in Mississippi, the right to vote was not one that African Americans could take for granted.

The anniversary of the struggle to gain that fundamental right will be marked beginning today at the “Freedom Dreams, Freedom Now!” conference on campus.

The three-day conference brings together activists, scholars and civil rights veterans for workshops, lectures, discussions and a special screening of Stanley Nelson’s new PBS documentary, “Freedom Summer.”

“I am excited to see Chicago and UIC as the gathering place for some of the most amazing thinkers, activists and artists around,” said Barbara Ransby, director of UIC’s Social Justice Initiative and professor of gender and women’s studies, history and African American studies.

“The conference will focus on ‘What does freedom mean in 2014 and how can we move closer to real freedom and justice for all?'” Ransby said. “We do have a long way to go and serious conversation to have.”

Speakers will include well-known names like former NAACP chair Julian Bond, activist-professor Angela Davis and hip hop artist Che “Rhymefest” Smith.

Peter Orris, UIC professor of public health, will participate in tonight’s opening session with Bond and other 1960s activists.

Orris was an 18-year-old volunteer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the summer of 1964, working on the voter registration drive.

“We were involved in helping African Americans register to vote because they were being excluded from the process through a variety of unfair tactics,” said Orris, now a physician and professor of occupational and environmental health sciences.

“We were asking them to think about doing something that put them at great risk,” he recalled.

“I was scared a lot of the time in Mississippi,” added Orris, who was jailed for a week and a half after a demonstration. “People tended to threaten violence with some frequency, and carried through on those threats in a number of situations.”

That summer was a learning experience that has carried through his life, said Orris, associate director of the Great Lakes Center for Occupational and Environmental Safety and Health.

“I learned a great deal about talking to people that I didn’t come into regular contact with, like Mississippi farmers,” he said. “And I learned a great deal about how to talk to people without talking down or pressuring them, and how to listen. It was a good summer.”

The Freedom Summer conference is hosted by UIC’s Social Justice Initiative and co-sponsored by 21 campus, community and academic organizations.

Registration and live streaming of the conference are available online.