Sunday, February 28, 2010

FBI continuing to investigate civil rights era murders

From today's Washington Post:

By Carrie Johnson
Sunday, February 28, 2010; A01

Three years after the FBI pledged to investigate more than 100 unsolved civil rights killings, the agency is ready to close all but a handful. Investigators say they have solved most of the mysteries behind the cases, but few will result in indictments, given the passage of decades, the deaths of prime suspects and the challenge of gathering evidence.

"There's maybe five to seven cases where we don't know who did it," said FBI Special Agent Cynthia Deitle, who is heading the bureau's effort. "Some we know; others we know but can't prove. For every other case, we got it."

Even without taking cases to court, the project has filled in broad gaps in the stories of the murdered, many of whom were forgotten victims from a brutal chapter of American history.

Officials now believe, for example, that an Alabama state trooper killed an unarmed civil rights protester in 1965, a case that helped inspire the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to march in the state. In the deaths of two North Carolina men in police custody -- one found in 1956 with a crushed skull and the other who refused medical treatment in 1960 after a heart attack -- the agency concluded that there was no federal law it could use to pursue the cases.

Investigators have walked through rural cemeteries looking for clues, searched yellowed documents in government archives and interviewed witnesses, some so shattered by their experiences that they still refused to talk. Along the way, officials discovered a more complex story than they had imagined.

In nearly one-fifth of the 108 cases, they learned that the deaths had no connection to the racial unrest pulsing through the South at the height of the civil rights struggle.

In at least one case, the victim had been killed by a relative, but the family blamed the Ku Klux Klan. In other cases, a victim drowned or was fatally knifed in a bar fight. Two black women registering voters in the hot Mississippi summer died in a car accident. One man died under his mistress -- a bedroom secret kept for more than four decades until the bureau came calling.

The FBI's project, which at its peak involved more than 40 agents working in cities across the South and along the Eastern Seaboard, was the agency's most focused campaign to find out what happened in the deaths. For some families, hopes of a legal reckoning have been dashed, but the investigation has produced a different kind of accounting.

"These racially motivated murders are some of the greatest blemishes on our nation's history," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights. "We owe it to people who were all a part of this struggle to be persistent. . . . If we can solve a number of these cases, that's fantastic. But if we can bring to closure all of these cases, I think this will be well worth the effort."

At the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., where the names of victims are etched on the walls of the organization's civil rights memorial, President Richard Cohen added, "Justice in a few of those cases is going to have to serve as a symbolic victory in all of them."

Long-lost evidence
From a conference room on the third floor of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building in the District, the civil rights struggle continues. But four decades or longer after the deaths, nearly every aspect of the trail has gone cold.

Special Agent James Hosty, a former police officer from Kansas who joined the FBI after helping capture the notorious "BTK" serial killer, has spent three years hunting down leads in a case near Atlanta.

In 1946, four black sharecroppers were killed on Moore's Ford Bridge in Walton County, Georgia, prompting President Harry S. Truman to order the FBI to work round-the-clock to bring the shooters to justice. As many as two dozen people, some of them prominent members of the community, might have been involved in the deaths, investigators say.

But no charges were filed -- and volumes of case files sat untouched in FBI archives in Silver Spring for decades until the investigation was reopened by Howard Hatfield, who is an assistant special agent in charge at the Atlanta office, and an agent was assigned full time to the case.

"It basically took six to eight months to get through those records and determine who was alive or dead," Hosty said.

Some of those Hosty thinks witnessed or were involved in the killings had neither a Social Security number nor any other identifier that would allow him to determine whether they are alive and could be questioned or prosecuted.

The case remains unsolved, but new evidence allowed investigators to secure a search warrant in 2008, 62 years after the deadly encounter. FBI agents in Atlanta said they continue to work leads, hoping for a breakthrough from witnesses who at the time feared talking to authorities but since might have changed their minds.

In many of the unsolved cases, family members or victims' rights advocates have complained about how long it has taken for the federal government to investigate and about what they say is the lack of results. But more reasonable expectations are called for by Alvin Sykes, who was part of a successful effort to have the government reopen the investigation into the 1955 killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Mississippi case that helped launch the civil rights movement.

"From the beginning, our focus was not just to prosecute cases but to find the truth," Sykes said. "We're not disappointed, but we do expect to find a significant number of more cases through the outreach effort, a criminal manhunt to find these people, and go from there."

Few legal tools
"Welcome to my headache," said Deitle, who was handpicked by the current FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, to lead the re-energized civil rights effort.

The government has scant legal tools at its disposal in prosecuting the decades-old deaths because it can use just three federal statutes on the books before 1968, when Congress passed an expansive statute governing civil rights prosecutions.

The pre-1968 statutes apply in homicides only if a victim was killed on federal land; a victim was kidnapped and killed; or if an explosive device was transported across state lines with the intent to injure, according to Paige Fitzgerald, a Justice Department lawyer who played a central role in two of the cold cases that went to trial in recent years.

The FBI looks for room to maneuver within the old statutes. In a Florida killing, for example, an agent was dispatched to secure Global Positioning System coordinates to determine whether the killing occurred on land once belonging to a Native American tribe.

One case has drawn the agency's focused attention because it might be connected to other interstate Ku Klux Klan attacks.

On Dec. 10, 1964, Frank Morris, a shoe store owner in Ferriday, La., woke to the sound of tinkling glass. He emerged from a cot at the back of the burning building with third-degree burns covering his body. Morris survived four days in a hospital, but he wasn't able to name the attackers before he died.

At the time, FBI investigators found a charred finger near the crime scene that did not belong to Morris. Over the years, the finger was lost. But an agent had recorded a fingerprint, which remains in the FBI's files.

"So," Deitle asked one morning last month, "who's missing a finger in Ferriday?"

An undercover agent has been canvassing the town for a fingerless man, and the FBI lab is searching for fingerprint matches. But in the meantime, the case remains unsolved.

In an FBI office in Jackson, Miss., Jenny Williams, a supervisory special agent, has instructed 11 agents working on nearly four dozen cold cases to take nothing for granted -- even reports of the demise of the prime suspects, especially when death certificates are not available.

"We definitely don't take someone's word for it," Williams said. "We'll send people out to a cemetery. We have evidence that's a picture of a tombstone in a cemetery, old small-town family cemeteries."

Special Agent Jeromy Turner walked a 300-headstone cemetery in Yazoo City, Miss., four times looking for a dead man. Relatives insisted that the man was buried in a plot there, but "I never could find him," Turner said. "Finally, I was able to locate a funeral home owner who had the death certificate that showed he was buried in that cemetery, but the family had disowned him." There was no headstone marking his grave.

Among the most promising cases are those in which accomplices have not been prosecuted. That is a central focus in the killing of Louis Allen, a logger and member of the NAACP in Amite County, Miss., who was ambushed in January 1964 after years of threats.

Allen's son Henry and other family members have plastered the community with posters thanking God "for anyone willing to come forward to solve this heinous crime. Anonymity promised." They are offering a $20,000 reward for information.

Deitle, who helped investigate the New York Police Department shooting of immigrant Amadou Diallo 11 years ago, said the FBI effort is one of the last opportunities to investigate the dark alleys of the segregated past.

"If we don't correct history, then who's going to go back through this? Who's going to fix history to make it accurate?" she asked.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Linda Brown graduated from Springfield, Missouri high school

Television station KSPR in Springfield ran a story Thursday about civil rights pioneer Linda Brown of the Brown v. Board of Education case, talking about her graduation from an integrated Springfield, Missouri, high school:

In 1950, Topeka, Kan. resident Oliver Brown tried to enroll his daughter in an all-white school. She was denied, but that paved the way to the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka.
"[Brown] didn't understand why he had to walk his little daughter by a school to get a to another school to get an education," says Denny Whayne, who knew the Brown family.
Brown lent his name to what became the landmark civil rights. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled separate but equal wasn't equal.
"They didn't have the types of facilities and the types of equipment and books and things," says Wes Pratt, Coordinator of Diversity Outreach and Recruitment at Missouri State University.
Shortly after, Springfield schools were integrated. The city's black high school, Lincoln, had its last graduating class in 1955.
"So the, if the seniors wanted to graduate from Lincoln, they could, then they closed it," says Whayne.
Four years later, Oliver Brown become pastor of a Springfield's Benton Ave. AME Church. His girls entered the Springfield School system.
"Easy to get along with. They didn't try to act better than anybody. They didn't try to put the bourgeois on us because they were involved in the case," says Whayne, who graduated from Central High School in 1963.
Linda Brown graduated from Central in 1961. Her father died in 1961... a month after seeing his daughter graduate from an integrated school.
Brown benefited from the same education as Springfield's white students, and with it, walked into the history books Springfield students now study.
"I think it shows a lot about the school and how it's progressed historically," says Taylor Fairbank, Central High School senior.
"The fact that Linda Brown went here, just shows that Central's diverse background has some support, and we've always been a diverse school," says senior Delanie Cooper.
Central's a school that's proud of its diversity.
"I don't see people in races. I just see them as potential bus friends. I know that sounds really cheesy," laughs Cooper.
And it's proud of its history.
"It's about the history. She was part of history, involved in Central High School. Her family was one of the many families that made it happen, that fought, that fight the good fight, in order to see that everybody was treated equally," says Whayne.
Linda Brown-Thompson now lives back in Topeka, Kan. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
She now tours the country, giving lectures on the case, emphasizing that her family was just one of thirteen involved.

Edgar Ray Killen sues FBI

Eighty-five year old former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen, in prison for the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, is suing the FBI:

Edgar Ray Killen, an 85-year-old former saw mill operator and one-time Baptist preacher, was convicted in 2005 of manslaughter based in part on testimony from a mistrial 40 years ago in Mississippi.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court seeks millions of dollars in damages and a declaration that Killen's rights were violated when the FBI allegedly used a gangster known as "The Grim Reaper" during its investigation.

"Money is secondary, we really just want the truth out," said Robert A. Ratliff of Mobile, Ala., who represents Killen. "What we're looking for is the complete, unredacted FBI file. Stand up and tell us what happened."

Killen has maintained his innocence in the killings. He is serving a 60-year sentence at a prison in central Mississippi.

Ratliff said one of the defense lawyers, the late Clayton Lewis, who represented Killen and several others in a 1967 federal trial was a paid FBI informant.

And, he said, known gangster and killer Gregory Scarpa Sr. was hired by the FBI allegedly for $30,000 to coerce witnesses to tell where the bodies were buried and who put them there.

The FBI has never acknowledged using Scarpa. FBI spokeswoman Deborah Madden had not seen the lawsuit and had no immediate comment.

Killen walked out of federal court in 1967 because the jury couldn't reach a verdict.

Some of the information and testimony from that trial was later used to convict him, when many witnesses were dead and he no longer had the chance to question his accusers, Ratliff said. Some of that testimony was based on information gathered by Lewis and Scarpa, he said.

Stories about Scarpa, who died in 1994, has been the stuff of gangland lore. But in 2007, Scarpa's mistress testified in an unrelated case involving an FBI agent.

Linda Schiro said she came to Mississippi with Scarpa and he once shoved a gun into a Klansman's mouth to get information for the FBI. Her entire testimony during that trial was later questioned, though, and an FBI agent accused of conspiring in a mob murder spree was cleared.

Still, after that trial, New York Supreme Court Justice Gustin Reichbach said he was troubled by Schiro's testimony and referenced the Mississippi Klansman story.

"That a thug like Scarpa would be employed by the federal government to beat witnesses and threaten them at gunpoint to obtain information ... is a shocking demonstration of the government's unacceptable willingness to employ criminality to fight crime," the judge said.

The lawsuit also claims Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who helped prosecute Killen in 2005, was complacent in a "conspiracy of silence" for knowing about the FBI's alleged improper conduct.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Freedom rider dead at 68

(From the Dayton, Ohio, Daily News)

Teacher and veteran civil rights marcher Hellen O’Neal McCray died Wednesday, Feb. 24. She was 68.
A Yellow Springs resident since 1966, she taught English and literature at Wilberforce University. She also taught school in Springfield for 29 years.
As a college student, she was jailed in Mississippi as a Freedom Rider in 1961, the first of four arrests for her civil rights work, which included several years with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The Freedom Rides were a series of demonstrations in which volunteers, many of them college students, rode buses into the segregated South to test civil rights law.
She is among the Freedom Riders featured in a documentary, “Freedom Riders: The Children Shall Lead,” produced by The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.
She was born in Clarksdale, Miss., and attended Immaculate Conception School, Myrtle Hall Colored School and Holy Rosary School in Lafayette, La., according to her biography for the online African American HistoryMakers Website.
In a 2007 interview, she said, “One of the things I find really frightfully lacking, especially in the young, is that they really don’t know much about the story of the ’60s. It was a time in American history that changed a whole way of living, and they know about Dr. Martin Luther King and that’s about it,” she said. “Young people have no history because the history has not been taught.”
Of Black History Month, she said she’s often disappointed.
“Although I think their lives should be celebrated, we celebrate the same three or four people every year. There is no depth to what we know about or teach about the civil rights movement.”
Funeral arrangements are pending at Porter-Qualls Funeral Home, Xenia.

Friday, February 19, 2010

In speech to students, John Lewis advocates "good trouble"

In a speech at a North Carolina college, civil rights pioneer John Lewis rekindled the spirit of the movement. From the Charlotte Observer:

John Lewis knew he was talking to students, so he came to Charlotte's Central Piedmont Community College on Thursday with a simple prod.

His generation of students, he told them, "got in the way and got in trouble - but good trouble."

Against their parents' wishes, they sat at "whites-only" lunch counters in Southern dime stores asking for service and refusing to leave until they got it. They rode buses into the Deep South to test a Supreme Court ban on segregated bus stations. They marched to vote.

Many were beaten, and some died for it.

Much good came from their "trouble-making" - segregated restrooms, hotels, theaters and restaurants were banned after the 1964 Civil Rights Act; literacy tests and poll taxes were outlawed by the Voting Rights Act a year later.

"When people are not treated right, you have an obligation to do something about it," said Lewis, the 12-term U.S. House member from Georgia and civil rights warrior who walked arm-in-arm with the movement's titans.

" ... So get in the way, get in trouble - but good trouble."

Remembering Jimmie Lee Jackson

A Huffington Post article remembers Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose murder helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

About a hundred had exited the church when they heard the voice of Sheriff T.O. Harris, amplified over a loudspeaker: "This is an unlawful assembly. You are hereby ordered to disperse. Go home or go back in the church."

James Dobynes, a church minister, called out: "May we pray before we go back?"
Harris did not respond. Suddenly, all the streetlights went out. Within seconds, reporters began to hear wood cracking against bone, thudding into flesh, people screaming. Using their clubs, two state troopers began beating the minister, who had gone to his knees to pray and now cried out: "Jesus! Oh, Jesus! Have mercy. Jesus!"

Local thugs joined in the melee, attacking churchgoers as well as reporters and photographers. NBC reporter Richard Valeriani was clubbed and suffered a bloody head wound. Someone slugged UPI photographer Pete Fisher while others took his camera and smashed it on the ground. Other photographers had their cameras sprayed with black paint. As a result, not one photo of this bloody police riot was taken. (Many years later, artist Jonathan Frost created a series of paintings based on historical accounts of the riot and events that followed.)

The church's doorway was jammed. People could not go back; so, they began to run, seeking refuge in a neighboring funeral parlor, homes and other buildings close to the church. Jimmie Lee tried to shepherd his mother and 82-year-old grandfather to safety, but a trooper knocked the older man to the ground. Jimmie Lee picked him up and carried him into Mack's Cafe, where a dozen or more people had sought sanctuary. On Col. Lingo's orders, state troopers charged into the cafe and began swinging their clubs, smashing the light fixtures, spewing glass throughout the room until all that was left was one bare bulb in a far corner.

One trooper knocked Viola Jackson to the floor. When Jimmie Lee sprang forward to shield his mother, the trooper grabbed Jackson and pushed him into a cigarette machine. Without warning, a second trooper, James Bonard Fowler, drew his revolver and shot Jackson twice in the abdomen. The powder burns on Jackson's torso indicated the unarmed man had been shot at point-blank range.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Civil rights pioneer speaks in Dallas

Civil rights pioneer Rev. James Lawson, who trained the original Freedom Riders, spoke in Dallas over the weekend, according to an article in the Dallas Morning News:

By WENDY HUNDLEY / The Dallas Morning News

One of the key architects of the nonviolent civil rights struggle is bringing his message of faith and peace to North Texas.

Violence "is the No. 1 enemy of the human race," the Rev. James Lawson told the congregation at St. Luke Community United Methodist Church on Sunday after he was introduced as a "living legend."

Lawson, 81, who is pastor emeritus at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, is in Dallas to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-ins that helped spark the student movement to end segregation and racism.

Lawson, who will give the keynote address at 7 p.m. today at the Black Academy of Arts & Letters, began studying Gandhi's principles of nonviolent resistance in the 1950s in India.

He brought those teachings to the civil rights movement when he was asked by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – who shared his philosophy of passive resistance – to join the struggle in the South.

Activists trained by Lawson launched a series of sit-ins to challenge segregation in Nashville, Tenn., restaurants and cafes. These young civil rights workers went on to organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which played a key role in the Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington and other key events.

Lawson has paid a price for his beliefs.

He served 13 months in prison because he refused to report for the draft during the Korean War.

In 1960, he was expelled from Vanderbilt University in Nashville because of his work with the civil rights movement. Lawson now serves as a Distinguished University Professor at Vanderbilt.

Although Lawson has come under fire for critical remarks he has made about Christianity and the U.S., he steered away from current politics Sunday, only questioning U.S. resources devoted to the military.

"Why do we need 800 military bases in 300 countries?" said Lawson, who has opposed the war in Iraq.

The civil rights pioneer continues to train the next generation of nonviolent activists, but he looks back on the success of the civil rights struggle with pride.

"Dallas had 'White' and 'Colored' signs all over the county," he told St. Luke parishioners. "Those signs are gone," Lawson said. "They came down because some people determined it was shameful to have them."

Lowery admitted to the hospital

Civil rights pioneer Joseph Lowery was admitted to the hospital this weekend, according to published reports.

Lowery, 88, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is in the intensive care unit at Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, Ga.

Lessons to learn from Jackie Robinson

Sunday would have been Jackie Robinson's 91st birthday. The following article was featured on Associated Content:

Jackie Robinson has a birthday today. According to his official website, the Jackie Robinson birthday was in Cairo, Georgia on January 31, 1919, 91 years ago today. The Jackie Robinson birthday is a time to ponder the effect this man had on the Civil Rights struggle in this country. He didn't live to see the many advances for people of color, but without him and other courageous folks, what would've been accomplished?

Jackie Robinson died in 1972 at the age of just 53 years old due to heart and diabetes issues, according to his Wikipedia biography. Can you imagine the cross this man had to bear in 1947 being the first African American player to play in the modern era of Major League Baseball? Think of the pressures, the abuse by opposing ballplayers and fans that he had to put up with in a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect in many parts of the United States. The Jackie Robinson birthday of January 31 should inspire us to think about standing up for what we believe in, even if that means people will not be happy with our stands.

When it comes to sports milestones, Jackie Robinson never got to see a black man become the full-time manager of a Major League Baseball club, which would happen when one of his own contemporaries, Frank Robinson, got the job with the Cleveland Indians in 1975. The Hall of Famer never got to see Bill Lucas named the first black general manager in Major League Baseball history in 1976, according to the Atlanta Braves website here. This man never got to see a black quarterback lead a team to a Super Bowl victory, as Doug Williams led the Washington Redskins to a 42-10 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII January 31, 1988, on what would've been his 69th birthday. Jackie Robinson never got to see the first African American coach a team to a Super Bowl championship, which Tony Dungy did in Super Bowl XLI in February of 2007 for the Indianapolis Colts. The Jackie Robinson birthday should be remembered as a man's lifetime greatly spent having to defend his own race from the assumptions that they didn't have the mental abilities to lead men on the field and from the sidelines.

And as for matters of a more significant nature, the Brooklyn Dodger never got to see the historic event of Barack Obama being elected president of the United States in 2008. Jackie Robinson wasn't alive to see this historical event, but nonetheless, he's been there in spirit as people have struggled for equality. Many of us wish for things to be better and work for their fruition to come about. Yet we may not see those things come to pass during our lifetimes, but our efforts still help pave the way for others to see those advancements made.

January 31, the Jackie Robinson birthday, is a time to really ponder what it means to push forward against the odds and let the advancements sought after come as they may. His birth comes a day before Black History Month commences, too.

Today marks 50th anniversary of Freedom Rides

Today's Los Angeles Times features an article on the 50-year anniversary of the first of the Freedom Rides:


The "sixties" were born on Feb. 1, 1960, 50 years ago this week, when four African American college students staged the first sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Since then, the mythology of the '60s has dominated the idea of youthful activism.

Of the three big events of the early civil rights movement -- the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott and the sit-ins -- the sit-ins have always been the least understood and, yet, the most important for today's young activists.

We forget how troubled the civil rights movement was in January 1960. It was six years after Brown, but fewer than 1 in 100 black students in the South attended an integrated school. And during the four years after the end of the bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. struggled to build on that victory. Many worried that the civil rights movement had ground to a halt. Then Greensboro changed everything.

In the time before Twitter, the rapid spread of the sit-ins was shocking. The first sit-in was an impulsive act, led by college students. They spread to Nashville, Atlanta, Miami, Durham, N.C., and Little Rock, Ark. -- more than 70 cities and towns in eight weeks. By summer, more than 50,000 people had taken part in one.

At the time, this was not just the largest black protest against segregation ever; it was the largest outburst of civil disobedience in American history. The sit-ins rewrote the rules of protest. They were remarkably egalitarian: Everyone participated; everyone was in equal danger. And they went viral because they were easy to copy. All one needed for a sit-in was some friends and a commitment to a few simple principles of nonviolent protest.

Most important, the sit-ins were designed to highlight the immorality of segregation by forcing Southern policemen to arrest polite, well-dressed college students sitting quietly just trying to order a shake or a burger. The students believed deeply in Thoreau's idea that the only place for a just person in an unjust society is jail.

The contrast with King's early efforts was stark. He had worked hard during the bus boycott to prevent arrests. To his thinking, only protests that remained within the bounds of the law could win the war against Jim Crow. The NAACP similarly believed in the power of the courts to end school segregation. But such efforts were so bureaucratic that ordinary African Americans often felt more like observers than participants.

To their African American contemporaries, the college students seemed the unlikeliest group to revive the civil rights movement. Just three years earlier, E. Franklin Frazier, the eminent black sociologist, had condemned them for believing that "money and conspicuous consumption are more important than knowledge." What did Frazier miss?

He failed to see how the comfort of postwar affluence and popular culture bred agitation and activism as easily as it did indifference and apathy. The sit-ins owed more to Little Richard and Levi's than to Jesus and the Bible.

Youth culture in the '50s often made it seem that generation mattered more than race. After all, weren't African American couples sharing the dance floor with white ones on the hit teen show "American Bandstand"? Yet, in their everyday lives, black teens still felt the sting of segregation. The first thing the Greensboro Four did before starting their sit-in at Woolworth's was to purchase some school supplies at the store. If their money was good enough for pencils, why weren't they good enough to have a seat at the counter?

To many Americans, the sit-ins were unnerving. In a 1961 Gallup Poll, 57% of those who responded said the protests hurt the civil rights movement. Black elders such as King and NAACP head Roy Wilkins tried to control the sit-ins by co-opting the students as junior partners.

The students instead formed their own organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC soon emerged as the most dynamic, creative and influential civil rights organization in the '60s. It produced a generation of black leaders, including John Lewis, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael, Marion Barry and dozens of others.

SNCC took the movement to the most violent reaches of the Deep South. Its aggressive tactics -- the courting of arrests and the willingness to risk beatings -- forced the confrontation with racial segregation that compelled congressional intervention. The great milestones of the movement -- the freedom rides, Freedom Summer, Selma, Birmingham -- grew from the tactical innovation of the sit-ins. King may have stirred the nation's soul with the movement's poetry, but SNCC moved it to action with the prose of its grass-roots organizing.

Fifty years later, my students tend to see SNCC's members as mythic figures, a "greatest generation" of activists whose achievements they cannot equal. But I remind them of what they have in common with the SNCC generation. Both have been condemned by adults for their materialism, pop culture and assumed political apathy. Both grew up in a period of relative prosperity that left them comfortable but also unsatisfied. Both came of age when new forms of communication -- TV then, the Internet now -- unsettled politics.

There are many lessons from the sit-ins relevant to the lives of today's young people. Before it was a bumper sticker, SNCC lived out the true meaning of "think globally, act locally." But the most important lesson is to stop looking at the '60s as the manual for modern activism. What made the sit-ins so powerful is how they broke away from the prevailing wisdom to create a new model for change. Look forward, not back, I tell them. It's not your parents' movement anymore.

Andrew B. Lewis is the author of "The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation."