Speaker series, new course spark dialogue on civil rights

DURHAM, N.C. – High achieving high school students often are labeled geeks or nerds -- far from cool. But does this phenomenon have anything to do with race?

“New Perspectives on Civil Rights”At Duke University, students in Robert Korstad’s public policy class “New Perspectives on Civil Rights” are tackling issues such as this. The new course is designed to link the history of the civil rights movement with past and present public policies, while also creating forums in which to discuss civil rights issues.

To extend this dialogue to the community, Korstad organized a companion series of six biweekly public lectures, beginning Feb. 6, that features scholars, activists and administrators engaged in equity battles in housing, criminal justice, education and other areas.

“This class is the most influential I’ve taken at Duke so far,” said sophomore Jessica Wirth, a public policy and history major. “There are so many different voices here. Listening to them helps me see where my world view is limited.”

Robert KorstadKorstad, an associate professor of public policy studies and history and a faculty member in the Terry Sanford Institute for Public Policy’s Hart Leadership Program, said he wants young people to understand the background of current-day questions regarding race.

“There is an historical dimension to a lot of ongoing inequalities that many people are unaware of,” he said. “They didn’t grow up with Jim Crow laws, and they have a hard time conceptualizing what that disadvantage was like and how it continues. I’m trying to offer readings and provide an environment where students can discuss the complexities associated with civil rights. It’s usually difficult to do, but the classroom ought to be a place you can do that.”

In class and through an online discussion forum, students already have questioned assumptions about the so-called “cool-pose culture.” Can academic underachievement can be attributed to cultural norms – for example, black students who fear that doing well in school will earn them the label of  “acting white” -- or has it more to do with the way schools and society are structured?

“New Perspectives on Civil Rights” Wirth, who looks forward to attending all six guest lectures, hopes they will give her a deeper understanding of civil rights issues. “I hope they’ll also help me see how these issues are interconnected,” she said. “I hope to see true themes come to light and develop a thesis that I can take with me as I continue to study public policy.”

The lectures comprise the Charles S. Murphy Colloquium, and they are free and open to the public. Named for the man who served as White House Counsel during the Truman administration, the Charles S. Murphy Colloquium addresses interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on law, history and social sciences.

Lectures series:

February 6:  Housing Policy and Civil Rights
Helena Cunningham, senior vice president and managing director of the National Housing Partnership Foundation’s affordable housing programs, Gulf Coast Region, Baton Rouge, La. 

February 20:  Employment and Civil Rights
The Rev. John Mendez,, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, NC.

March 6:  Health Disparities and Civil Rights
David Barton Smith, professor of risk, insurance, and healthcare management, Fox School of Business, Temple University.

March 27:  Education and Civil Rights
Jack Boger, dean, University of North Carolina Law School; Adam Stein, nationally recognized civil rights attorney, Ferguson, Stein, Chambers, Gresham & Sumter, P.A.; and Julius Chambers, director, UNC Law School’s Center for Civil Rights.

April 10:  Political Engagement and the Voting Rights Act
Julie Fernandes, senior policy analyst/special counsel, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. 

April 24: Criminal Justice and Civil Rights
Heather Thompson, professor of history, University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

All lectures will begin at 5 p.m. at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University. For directions and parking information, see www.sanford.duke.edu/about/location.php.

For more information, contact Rachel Seidman at 613-7305, rfs6@duke.edu.