CMI hosts Civil Rights Movement panel


Mary Mitchell

Professor De Witt S. Dykes Jr. speaks at CMI’s panel about the civil rights movement in celebration of African American Celebration Month.

The Center for Multicultural Initiatives hosted a panel about the civil rights movement on Monday, Feb. 6 as a part of its African-American Celebration Month. The featured speaker for the panel was Oakland University associate professor of history, De Witt S. Dykes Jr.

The panel’s speaker was originally supposed to be John W. Hardy, a current Detroit Public Schools teacher who was a civil rights activist and was arrested and pistol-whipped for attempting to register several black Mississippi residents to vote. Due to some personal issues that arose a few weeks before the event, Hardy was unable to make it.

Dykes teaches U.S. urban history, gender and family history and African-American history. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Fisk University and his master’s degree at the University of Michigan. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including “Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference” and “Struggles and Triumphs of People of Color in Michigan.”

Dykes primarily spoke on the civil rights movement, specifically touching on the role freedom schools and citizenship schools played at the time and how the movement helped to transform the U.S.

The lecture started off with the discussion of  a problem that arose in Texas. In 1950, the United States Supreme Court ordered the University of Texas School of Law to admit an African-American student for the first time. Texas instead tried to set up a law school at Texas Southern University, a state-supported school for black students.

“What’s so important about this particular decision is that the issue was not whether or not an African-American could get a law-school education, a degree and presumably go on to practice law, but whether or not the African-American would be eligible to be considered for the best in the state offered to whites,” Dykes said.

After speaking on the inequalities of the education system that existed at the time, Dykes went on to talk about how the South started to target African-American school teachers, such as Septima Clark, who were associated with black organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of  Colored People. This, in turn, caused the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to turn its focus to voting rights for African-Americans.

The SCLC helped to set up schools that taught African-American adults to read enough to complete the voting application.

“Many adults had either little education or inadequate education in terms of reading,” Dykes said. “So they had to try to bring the literacy level up to a level where they could read the application for voting, interpret the questions and give reasonable answers . . . to the questions various states used to keep the African-Americans from voting.”

At the end of his speech, Dykes discussed the significance the civil rights movement had on the country.

“The whole movement helped to transform America,” he said. “The United States of America was much better than it ever was at that time. Without the civil rights movement, we might not have the same country that we have today.”

Dykes will speak at another lecture at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15 in Gold Rooms B and C in the Oakland Center. He will be discussing African-Americans in Michigan. This lecture will be a part of the Department of History’s History Comes Alive series.