Historical Society conference to look at civil rights

2013-09-08T00:35:00Z 2013-09-08T23:06:40Z Historical Society conference to look at civil rightsBy HANNAH JOHNSON | Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune

In September 1957, a 15-year-old boy, along with eight other students, was barred from going to Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., because he was black.

It took President Dwight Eisenhower's deployment of the 101st Airborne Division to force the school system to integrate.

The story of the Little Rock Nine, familiar to many, is now coming to North Dakota. The 15-year-old is Terrence Roberts, who will be the featured speaker at the 25th annual North Dakota Governor's History Conference on Sept. 21.

The theme this year is "Civil Rights and Social Justice." Roberts, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient, will talk about his experiences and the fight for racial equality.

The conference also will have presentations about the role of North Dakota Judge Ronald N. Davies in the Little Rock Nine story, the state of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights here and the speech given by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy to the National Congress of American Indians in Bismarck in 1963.

The speakers, besides Roberts, are Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon, historian Clay Jenkinson, United Tribes Technical College President David Gipp and Carl Oberholtzer, project manager of the Fargo Judge Davies Curriculum Task Force.

The timing of the conference and its subject matter were intentional. It has been a big year for civil rights, both for the country in general and for North Dakota in particular.

It is the 50th anniversary not only of the Kennedy speech in Bismarck, but also of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — remembered now for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

In another civil rights case, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act earlier this year, expanding federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

The conference is being held almost exactly 56 years after Davies, a federal judge, granted an injunction against the Arkansas governor's deployment of the state's National Guard to enforce segregation.

One of the coordinators for the history conference is Erik Holland, the curator of education at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Holland said that as historians, conference organizers were well aware of the anniversaries and commemorations happening this year as they were planning the conference. But he said another factor was even more important in choosing the theme.

As the organizers were talking about the changes in the state, the conversation kept coming back to new immigrants and the challenges facing both them and for current residents, Holland said.

The struggles are related to the experiences of the Native Americans and those of the immigrants arriving in the early 20th century, he said.

"We just felt it was time for a conversation about ‘The Other,'" he said.

It is time for North Dakota to have such conversations, Holland said. The conference may only be for one day, but he hopes it inspires the conversations to continue.

"I see that as important," he said. "My job is to help inspire people to think about their heritage."

Purdon, who will be speaking about the 1963 Kennedy speech, said he is excited about the opportunity to take the more specific issue he's passionate about — ensuring public safety on the reservations — and put it in the larger context of civil rights.

Everyone should be able to agree, Purdon said, that all children deserve equal access to the American Dream, whether that child is from Bismarck, from Standing Rock, whether that child is heterosexual or is gay.

"We're all a part of the same community," he said.

Holland is well aware that such issues spark intense feelings.

"As long as it's civil, I think that conversation needs to happen," he said.

The issue that likely has the most potential for divisiveness, at least in North Dakota, is LGBT rights.

Boschee, the first openly gay legislator in the state, will discuss the state of LGBT rights in North Dakota. He, too, thinks North Dakotans need to be talking about such issues.

"We have to remember that we have diverse families and diverse communities," he said.

That diversity is increasing as more people move into the state. Because of that, "we have to be inclusive intentionally," Boschee said.

Purdon said the main thing he hopes people take away from the conference is "the recognition that civil rights are a North Dakota issue."

The conference usually draws 100-200 people, but Holland said he hopes the timeliness of the topic will draw in more, especially those younger.

The event is free and open to the public, although participants are asked to register at the historical society's website. About 80 have registered already.

The conference will be held at Bismarck State College in the National Energy Center of Excellence, starting at 8 a.m.

On the night before, Sept. 20, a 30-minute film on the role of Davies in the Little Rock Nine saga will premiere in Bismarck at the Sidney J. Lee Auditorium at BSC.

Roberts, who is in the film, will also speak at the event, which starts at 7 p.m.

The film premiered in Fargo in January. Roberts spoke then as well, and the Fargo Theatre was full, Holland said.

The more people can truly listen to each other and learn from one another the better, Holland said.

"I think if we can bring up people with a more open approach to anyone else, I think we're better off for it," he said.

Reach Hannah Johnson at 701-250-8251 or hannah.johnson@bismarcktribune.com.

Copyright 2015 Bismarck Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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