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One day of activism in Athens, Ohio

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Michael Brown, Eric Garner and similar stories have recently brought to light some issues America tends to shy away from and forced many Americans to take a good, long look at many of our policies and personal opinions. With the recent events in Ferguson, calls to action have come from all corners of the nation. Such involvement, however, is nothing new for Athens, Ohio.

Current Ohio University president Roderick McDavis recalled in his blog, “Admittedly, I am no stranger to such activism. When I attended Ohio University in the 1960s, I stood with fellow students to protest the Vietnam War and to support the Civil Rights Movement.”

The inspirational activist and leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing on his hotel balcony on April 4, 1968. Racially motivated violence and riots broke out across the country in the days that followed, causing more than 40 deaths in 100 cities.

Three days after King was gunned down in Memphis, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for a national day of mourning. OU students held a somber remembrance event, gathering on the steps of, then, Baker Center where Schoonover currently sits. OU president at the time, Vernon R. Alden, spoke at the event, as did a member of OU’s Black Student Action Committee. McDavis, remembering the events in his blog, said, “I could still feel the numbness that hung in the air and clung to our hearts on that day. I still carry a bit of that grief with me.”

The formal events wrapped up, and many students left the area. Some, however, planted themselves in the intersection and blocked traffic. Initially, those sitting were mostly African-American, but soon they were joined by hundreds of students from all races and backgrounds.

This gathering quickly grew from hundreds to thousands, both students and community members alike blocking the entire intersection where Court St. meets Union St. Nearly half a block in each direction was completely congested.

The Athens Historical Society quotes local photographer Ken Steinhoff as saying, “This was a solemn gathering of whites and blacks; old and young; jocks and hippies; frat boys and radicals.”

The tranquil atmosphere, unfortunately, did not last long. Athens Police Captain Charlie Cochran was less than pleased. Even though the crowd was overwhelmingly peaceful, he started throwing people, specifically black students, out of the intersection. The mood began to shift.

The police and OU Vice President James Whalen were able to come to an agreement with those heading the movement. The decision was that the students would leave the intersection peacefully if they were allowed to remain for a ‘reasonable’ period of time. The mediation was a success, both parties got what they needed and the day ended without major incident.

“Times have changed but today’s themes are strikingly familiar. The opportunity that we have in Athens is that we live in a compassionate community that has the power to bridge cultural divides. We must challenge ourselves to not simply raise our voices, but to make change within ourselves and our communities,” McDavis said.

More reading and photos from Ken Steinhoff of that day:

http://www.capecentralhigh.com/ohio/martin-luther-king-national-day-of-mourning/

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