02/14/2006

Professor Uses Civil Rights Memorial as Teaching Tool

Steve Messer, a history professor at Taylor University, made the 10-hour drive from Upland, Ind., to the Civil Rights Memorial Center four times recently, with two more trips scheduled later this month.

Students and faculty at the interdenominational Christian college piled into the university's blue van and joined Messer on a civil rights tour of the South, with stops in Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery.

Messer, a Southern Poverty Law Center donor since 1992, leads the weekend trips as a sabbatical project funded by the university. On Saturday, he brought another group.

As a teacher of African-American history, Messer is familiar with the events that define the modern Civil Rights Movement. But returning to the Civil Rights Memorial, he again finds himself overwhelmed by the stories of 40 ordinary people who lost their lives and helped to change a nation.

"I know the history and I teach it, and it's still so compelling, so powerful," he said.

Looking out the window overlooking the Memorial, with the Southern Poverty Law Center across the street, Messer stressed the importance of showing his students and colleagues that the struggle for civil rights continues today.

He showed his first group the Intelligence Project's map of active hate groups around the United States, including 12 in their own state of Indiana.

Messer showed a group of education majors the wealth of information available through the Center's Teaching Tolerance program.

"After we toured the Center, they all carried out boxes full of materials," said Messer. "It was a great opportunity for them."

For many students and faculty, the tight security required at the Civil Rights Memorial Center and around the Southern Poverty Law Center offices illustrated the continued struggle. The melted clock displayed at the entrance to the CRMC, a relic from arsonists' torching of the Center's office in 1983, is a sign that fighting hate crimes is still dangerous work.

"The students became uncomfortable, but it's a great teaching moment," said Messer. "It shows them that the movement isn't over.

"I read the Center's reports and understand the courage required of the SPLC staff to continue their work," said Messer. "Given some of the challenges facing them, they always seem so upbeat.

"That comes from commitment," he said.

Messer, who will return to Montgomery over the next two weekends, is committed as well.

Through his trips to Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery, Messer hopes to bring the lessons of the Civil Rights Memorial Center back to Taylor University, a conservative school where an atmosphere of intolerance toward gays and lesbians still exists.

Messer is working alongside the Center in teaching tolerance and fighting injustice, one vanload at a time.