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A History of UTMartin's Civil Rights Conferences

Prepared by Dr. Alice-Catherine Carls



In February 2001, at the urging of one of our alumni, Judge Tommy Moore, we held our annual Tom Elam History Roundtable on the theme of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike. From the very beginning, this project was structured to expand outward, and to reverberate beyond the Department of History and Political Science (now Department of History and Philosophy). The Planning Committee decided to hold a series of conferences about the history of the Civil Rights in West Tennessee, and started planning for a second conference in 2002, on the theme of Baker v. Carr. The Planning Committee also decided to make this an annual event. Now in its third year, the Conference has expanded from a one-day event to a full week of events involving ever wider constituencies on and off campus. It is well underway to fulfill its mission.



UTMartin's Civil Rights Conferences aim to document living history by featuring Civil Rights participants as speakers and panelists. Recording the conference proceedings, organizing exhibits, and collecting sources, will make UTMartin a center for the preservation and documentation of Civil Rights history in West Tennessee. Providing professional expertise such as scholarly conference papers and year-around support for local history groups will insure that the African American heritage of West Tennessee is studied, and preserved.


Student panels and presentations encourage wide student participation, not only at the scholarly level, but at the personal level. Examining the importance of the Civil Rights movement for today, exploring one's values, and getting to know one another encourages knowledge and promotes understanding in the spirit of unity that was Dr. Martin Luther King's motto. Visits to historically significant sites of the Civil Rights movement stress the value of those sites and their history. In turn, this helps understand the history of West Tennessee communities.


The Civil Rights Conferences also aim to give back to the West Tennessee community by offering quality programs to the public in a unique learning environment open to students of all ages and all levels, from scholarly recognition to continuing education credits. The Conferences also recognize outstanding contributions of West Tennesseans, both those who participated in the actual events, and the new generation who now documents them. Finally, the Conferences recognize West Tennessee individuals for outstanding service, and UTMartin's own alumni and alumnae, as seen in the Jo Helen Beard Award for best student paper in Civil Rights history.



The goals of the UTMartin Civil Rights Conferences are to:

  • serve the West Tennessee community of people, students, and scholars
  • increase awareness of and document Civil Rights history in West Tennessee
  • increase students' faculty, and staff's awareness of multi-cultural issues on campus
  • promote an atmosphere conducive to increased knowledge and understanding of African-American culture and issues
  • offer students an opportunity to interact with civil rights leaders through oral interviews, historical internships, and other activities
  • encourage student participation in and training for the preparation of conferences
  • promote the study of history