Sunday, January 11, 2015

“Selma” and Dr. Harris

Anna and I went to see “Selma” today—it is a very powerful movie. One of the initial scenes involves the character played by Oprah Winfrey attempting to register to vote at the county courthouse. Whites would get a few easy questions for their voting test, but blacks were given ridiculously difficult questions. Oprah’s first question was to recite the Constitution’s Preamble (which she nailed), the second was an obscure question that she got right, but the final question was impossibly hard—and thus she was denied again.

This scene reminded of my American Government and Constitutional Law classes. I always expected my ConLaw students to stand before the class and recite the Preamble—and despite their initial grumbling each semester, all of them did it. I hope my former students (many of whom have friended me on Facebook) will see this movie, and will remember the night that they—just like Oprah—had to recite the Preamble written by our Founding Fathers.

This “voting test” used by southern states to keep blacks from voting was another part of ConLaw classes, and it was a direct result of the most inspiring teacher I had in college. Her name was Dr. Evelyn Harris, and she had come to Charleston after WWII when her scientist husband (who had worked on the Manhattan Project) landed a job at the Union Carbide. She taught at the University of Charleston for about 60 years with great success, influencing many students along the way. In fact, the late Senator Robert Byrd (who took classes at UC while in the state legislature) always referred to her as his favorite teacher of all.

I had kept in touch with Dr. Harris after graduation, and she was very supportive of my adjunct teaching experience at WVU-Parkersburg. One of my “tricks” was to give AmGov students a “quiz” their first night, composed of questions from the U.S. Citizenship Test. I wanted them to realize how hard those who want to become students must study, and I wanted my students to realize how lucky they were to have been born in the U.S.A.

While on a visit to Charleston, I told Dr. Harris that I was now teaching ConLaw as well, but hated it that I could not give the citizenship test, since many students signing up for ConLaw had already taken my AmGov course, so it would not have the same impact. It was her idea for me to research voting test questions that had been given by southern county clerks to prevent blacks from registering. Luckily, I found some of those questions that had been given in Alabama, and used it as an “extra credit” quiz for my ConLaw classes. Seeing the difficulty of naming the current FBI director or the head of the state’s National Guard (just 2 of the 15 questions on my quiz) gave my students a better idea of what segregation was like in the south.

Thus after seeing this thought-provoking movie today, I’ve been thinking a lot about my favorite teacher. I found a photograph recently of the two of us talking together while on a cruise up the Kanawha River on the sternwheeler P.A.Denny. It may be the only picture I have of the two of us, and I had forgotten all about it. Here we are seeking shade next to the pilot house on the upper deck, as she “talks with her hands” making some sort of point to me.

If any of my former students enjoyed my class, this is the woman they should thank (although she passed away a couple of years ago). I was merely trying to pass along the inspired teaching style that she used to teach me. The noblest way for me to really thank her was to “pay it forward” to future generations. I tried my best to do so, but I still think she was a better teacher than I was.

Although the travels required by my current job preclude me from teaching, I still like to see people become enlightened (just as Dr. Harris did). That is why I’d like to encourage everyone to see the movie “Selma”—it will make you realize just how things were during the 1960s. And Dr. Harris would have loved this movie!

1 comment:

  1. Dave, I always enjoy your posts. I too remember Dr. Harris as a professor at UC. I never had the pleasure of having her as a professor as I was an English major and did not take an elective in poli-sci, which I now regret. I did engage in conversation with her when I would see her on campus. She was always willing to talk to any student who would engage with her. She was truly a brilliant woman. I was looking forward to seeing "Selma" before your recommendation. Now I shall look forward to it even more.