“I was born and grew up in Selma [Alabama, where the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute is located]. I didn't grow up with an interest in civil rights, not at first,” Charles says. At the time, he says, history textbooks focused on people like white European explorers Christopher Columbus and Juan Ponce de Leon. “Black history was suppressed in the South.”
Charles got involved in civil rights in 1963, when Bernard Lafayette of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to Selma to lead the first mass meeting for voter rights in the South. “He opened our eyes,” Charles says. “He asked us, ‘Why are there separate water fountains when the water comes from the same pipe?’ He challenged us to think about the injustices of the Jim Crow laws.” The Jim Crow laws were segregation laws that kept blacks and whites separate in public places, such as schools and restaurants.
Charles was a part of the marches from Selma to Montgomery. “My family worried about me participating in the mass meetings and the marches. They worried that the Ku Klux Klan would kill me. It wasn't an unreasonable fear. The Klan could do anything it wanted to at the time, and nothing bad would happen to them.”
On Bloody Sunday, Charles suffered two broken ribs. Bloody Sunday was the first attempted march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Marchers were met with violence at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “Sheriff (Jim) Clark's possemen, many of them were KKK members.”
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Seeing people from all over the country and around the world come to visit Selma, Alabama. We've had people come to Selma from as far away as Finland. They've seen the documentary Eyes on the Prize, but seeing Brown Chapel AME and the Edmund Pettus Bridge helps them really learn the history.”
Charles also likes interacting with children, answering them when they ask, “‘Why did they do that to us?’ Children are naturally angry about injustice.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
Coordinating the Selma Jubilee. The Jubilee, which draws about 30,000 people, takes place the weekend of the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
“Lots of preparation goes into this weekend—travel times, reservations, guest speakers.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“I define geography by defining the subjects, elements, and the environment that I'm in. My geographic region is Selma, Alabama. My job is to identify the buildings, places, and events that took place in Selma.”
“I like to start tours by saying, ‘Well, well, well . . . I'll bet you've never been to a tiny little town like Selma.’ It's a good icebreaker. People began to pipe up, saying that they're from small towns, too—like Huntsville, Alabama, or Greensville, South Carolina.
“People come by the busload to Selma. Many who visit us have read books about civil rights and watched documentaries, but most of them have never met an ‘original’—someone who went to the mass meetings, who stood in line at the Dallas County courthouse day after day waiting to register to vote, who marched from Selma to Montgomery to demand equal voting rights.
“If it weren't for Selma, Alabama, the country would definitely be worse off. My tiny town changed the country for the better.”
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST OR MUSEUM ADMINISTRATOR
“Teaching civics is important. We need textbooks that talk about black history. We need after-school programs where we talk about black history. We like to see grandparents teaching their grandkids about where they've been. We encourage parents with young children to share where they’ve been. It can show you where you're going. For example, I couldn't go to the University of Alabama because of George Wallace. He was the governor of Alabama at the time and refused to integrate the schools. But times have changed. My daughter went to the University of Alabama.”
As a museum administrator, Charles says he must not focus entirely on the past. “It is important to know that discrimination is not all in the past. No black people, not the mayor, nobody, is a member of the Selma Country Club. Even though schools are desegregated, there are 'white' high schools and 'black' high schools in Selma. Even today, segregation exists.”
“One of the local high schools has an interesting voting rights lesson plan. They take actual political candidates running for office and print out their biographies and voting records. They ask their students why they want to vote for their candidate. They ask the basic questions. Why do we have voting rights? Why do we have elections?
“It's important to educate young people about voting. It's important to know the facts, to know why you want to vote for a particular candidate. They are teaching students how to best pick the person who will represent them.”
person who organizes and manages the policies, rules, and requirements of an organization.
remembrance of a past event, usually recognized on the day the event happened every year.
(1940-present) civil rights leader.
story of a person's life.
March 7, 1965, when police and supporters violently assaulted peaceful marchers near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
(1446-1506) Italian navigator.
study of the rights and responsibilities of citizens of a nation, state, or other form of government.
civil rights movement
(~1954-1968) process to establish equal rights for all people in the United States, focusing on the rights of African Americans.
to end segregation by race.
(1919-1998) four-term governor of Alabama.
act, phrase, or conversation that eases tension or nervousness between people.
act or behavior that is unfair or discriminates against a group of people.
to combine, unite, or bring together.
(1874-1965) set of laws, rules, and behaviors that enforced segregation between African Americans and whites in the American South.
Juan Ponce de Leon
(1460-1521) Spanish explorer of the Americas.
Ku Klux Klan
terrorist organization formed after the Civil War to suppress the rights of Americans not of northern European descent.
space where valuable works of art, history, or science are kept for public view.
person who is seeking to be elected to public office.
group of people who help a sheriff or other official with law enforcement.
(Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) leading civil rights organization in the U.S. during the 1960s.
to end, prohibit, or not allow certain activities.
geographic and political region in the southeast and south-central parts of the United States, including all the states that supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.
human settlement larger than a village and smaller than a city.
list of the way a politician voted on issues.
issues surrounding the legal right and ability to campaign and cast a vote in political elections.