Venturing into the “deep south” of the United States as a civil rights worker in the summer of 1965 was life-changing for Richard Hutch, then a New York college boy.
Dr Hutch , now an honorary research Associate Professor at The University of Queensland, volunteered as a 19-year-old to assist African Americans to register to vote.
He will share the story of that summer at a public lecture on 29 May, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War.
The Summer Community Organisation and Political Education (SCOPE) project – sponsored by Martin Luther King Jr – was a voter-registration civil rights initiative that helped bring about passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
It has been described as the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by the US Congress.
Dr Hutch is an alumnus of Gettysburg College , Pennsylvania. His UQ address will mark 50 years since the start of the SCOPE project and the Selma to Montgomery marches.
After news spread in 1963/64 of the racial segregation still rife in America’s southern states, Dr Hutch watched from afar as African Americans tried to register to vote.
“They were driven back violently as police set attack dogs on them, and fire brigades dispersed them with water hoses and cannons,” Dr Hutch said.
“I knew something needed to be done.
“In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said ‘all men are created equal’, but a century on nothing seemed to have changed and this kind of behaviour was still happening.”
Not long afterwards, recruiters came to Gettysburg College from Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to gather white northern college students to join the civil rights movement in the south – to work on voter registration, community organisation and political education.
“Myself and a few others decided then and there that our consciences wouldn’t allow us to sit home and simply talk about our studies, football, or our college fraternities,” Dr Hutch said.
“We became part of a small group of budding social activists on campus and were soon on our way into the deep south for the summer of 1965.”
Dr Hutch joined 70 volunteers from across America in a civil rights worker training program at an “all-negro college” in Atlanta, Georgia.
“It was here that I met ‘The King’ himself – Martin Luther King Jr,” Dr Hutch said.
“He shook my hand, remembered my name and personally thanked me for becoming part of the movement – a moment I will never forget.”
After training in the philosophy and techniques of non-violence and mobilising communities for action, Dr Hutch was transported to various counties before a three-month post in Barbour County, Alabama.
It was here that he and his fellow comrades experienced violence firsthand and were met with much resistance towards their cause, including some being shot at and beaten.
“That summer, and the death of Martin Luther King Jr three years later changed my life profoundly,” Dr Hutch said.
“It led directly to my future academic career researching the history of religion and the nature of human integrity and moral development.”