Ithaca College professor preserves Civil Rights history and connects students to the past

James Rada had an idea - to record the voices of everyday people who participated in the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963. Rather than focusing on notable figures from the Civil Rights movement, the Ithaca College professor and documentarian interviewed the foot soldiers, people who drove, hitchhiked and walked to the march and for the opportunity to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak.

"We know many of the big names from that day. They've been interviewed, they've been profiled, they have their own historians. But the strength of the March on Washington, the strength of democracy, is not that one individual… it's those 250,000 people," Rada says.

 

To Professor Rada, the importance of the march is in history and community.

 

One of those people, Nathaniel Exum, participated in protests before the March, and he embraced King's work because other approaches weren't moving fast enough. In August 1963, he was eager to attend the March and see change in action. Exum still follows that philosophy today, saying, "If you participate, if you're able to get out and make people aware that changes can happen for the better and for all human beings, not just for one specific group, then we all will benefit from that change."

 


Nathaniel Exum, who attended the March on Washington, describes a memorable moment as an activist.

 

Rada also hoped to connect the marchers, many of whom were college students at the time, with college students of today. Last March, he took a group from Ithaca College's Park Scholar Program to Washington, D.C. to help him interview. The students met the marchers, asked questions and recorded interviews, learning history and job skills in tandem.

One of those students, Kristin Leffler, took the trip. "By doing all these interviews, it really painted a picture of what this march was. It really helped to make history come alive for all of us. I think for our generation, it's really important to see how the civil rights movement has progressed and to be able to hear these people stories and then compare it to where we are today. It was really powerful," Leffler says.

On August 28th, the nation will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march. Throughout the week, Rada's documentary, Meet Me at Equality: The People's March on Washington, will premiere on public broadcasting stations throughout the country.

For Rada, it only gets better. On August 24th, he will return to Washington, D.C. with more Ithaca College students to record interviews on the National Mall for NBC News. This time, they will preserve history as it happens.


Rada's documentary, Meet Me at Equality: The People's March on Washington, premieres on WSKG TV on Friday, August 30th at 10:00pm.

 

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