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You never know what good things can occur when the paths of two individuals cross.
Such is the case of Southwest Minnesota State University History Professor Dr. Jeff Kolnick and longtime civil rights leader Dr. Leslie McLemore.
The two met when they attended a civil rights institute 20 years ago at Harvard University, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). McLemore, a Civil Rights icon who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in the ’60s, connected with Kolnick, who was in his sixth year at SMSU.
That initial meeting would lead the two to found, with three others, the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer.
On April 20, Kolnick and McLemore will receive Fannie Lou Hamer Humanitarian Awards honoring their roles in creating the institute. Joining them will be other co-founders: Martin Bennett, instructor emeritus of American history at Santa Rosa Junior College; Dr. Michelle Deardorff, professor and department head, political science & public service at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga; and Thandekile Ruth Mason Mvusi, founder and CEO of the History Lesson Project.
The institute is named for Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi civil rights leader who was instrumental in forming the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in the ’60s. The institute’s mission is to promote positive social change by examining the tools and experiences of those who struggle to create, expand, and sustain civil rights, social justice and citizenship. Its vision is to nurture a generation of young people who believe in the promise of American democracy and have the tools and confidence to participate in it.
Over the course of their 20 years the Hamer Institute has been awarded 10 NEH grants to conduct summer workshops, three of them multi-week summer institutes for high school and college and university faculty and seven, one-week sessions that focused on a landmark event in American history. “For example, we did one called ‘From Freedom Summer to the Memphis Sanitation Strike,’” explained Kolnick. “We took multiple field trips to the area around the Mississippi Delta with several cohorts of community college faculty and high school teachers.”
The Institute also secured a five year Teaching American History grant from the U.S. Department of Education, where they worked with a cohort of Jackson, Miss. public school teachers on how to improve the teaching of U.S. history. As part of the Hamer Institute, Kolnick was also twice invited to Bucharest, Romania to work with scholars from the University of Bucharest and the Romanian Department of Education on how best to develop a public school curriculum consistent with democratic forms of government in the aftermath of Communism.
“About 30 years ago, historians started studying the Civil Rights Movement in local places,” said Kolnick. “What made the movement successful were the mini-movements all across the U.S., south and north. It was clear that black people were organizing nationally, and in places you or I have never heard of. In 1962, after registering to vote, Mrs. Hamer and her family were kicked off the plantation where they had worked for many years. From there she moved to Ruleville, Miss., which became an active movements community. Despite her prominence, few people know anything about Ruleville’s significance. Most people have heard about movement activity in Birmingham, but few know the story of the thousands of rural places that also made crucial contributions to the story of American democracy. What became clear to white supremacists is that black people in rural villages, small towns, and big cities were no longer afraid. It used to be that when black folk challenged their subordination, you’d burn a cross or commit a violent act of terrorism, and that would be the end of it. The Civil Rights Movement worked to help hundreds of thousands of black people overcome fear and challenge white supremacy wherever it existed.”
Kolnick came to SMSU in 1992. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from UCLA, and his Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Davis.
Kolnick, along with McLemore and John Dittmer, recently had a book published, “Freedom Summer: A Brief History with Documents.” It is a book about the summer of 1964 in Mississippi and the coalition of civil rights organizations that spread out into black communities across the state to organize a grassroots voter registration movement that challenged the Jim Crow system of segregation. It is published by Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, a college publisher specializing in the humanities.
“The book is designed for classroom instruction,” said Kolnick. “The ‘Bedford Series’ specializes in shorter and inexpensive publications. It is one of the most successful series for US history courses. The books are widely assigned, from community colleges to research universities. Leslie McLemore, John Dittmer and I have been involved with this for a while now. We wanted the story told to as many people as possible, and this is the best vehicle to do that.”
The Fannie Lou Hamer Institute has been a passion of his for 20 years, and Kolnick has been instrumental in bringing to SMSU influential civil rights leaders to speak to the university community for many years. McLemore has been on campus several times, the most recent in 2013, when he joined Kolnick and John Dittmer to speak about the Kennedy Administration and Civil Rights.
How did the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute come about? As Kolnick explained, both he and McLemore were both fellows at an NEH Summer Institute at Harvard University. “They broke us into five small groups, and each group had to come up with a project. I was in Leslie’s group, and we decided to recreate for teachers and students in Mississippi what we experienced at Harvard. Leslie is a formidable person. He had the ability, and connections, to do that. Each of us who helped found the Hamer Institute played a key role in its success, and over the years, we have hosted most of the founders on campus.”
This year’s summer institute will be held June 11 through June 30. You can apply for or learn about this summer’s institute by clicking here. In past years, faculty members from several Minnesota State system institutions have participated, including faculty from St. Cloud State, Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Anoka Ramsey, and Minnesota West. “We are very close with the faculty at Minnesota West and have partnered on programing for nearly 20 years. For example, we collaborated with the good folk at Minnesota West on bringing Freedom Rider Joan Browning to both campuses in January,” said Kolnick.
“When we first started this, we were self-funded. Since then, we’ve received financial support from the NEH, and several other places, including SMSU. I’m very honored and humbled to be a part of the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute. Over the years, it’s done a lot of good.”
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