Tonight: Panelists to discuss 1968 Civil Rights culture in Pittsburgh


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The maelstrom that was 1968 didn't just flicker across the black-and-white televisions of Pittsburgh. It was pulsating with life in the city's black and white communities.

"What happened in Pittsburgh was very much a reflection of what was going on in the rest of the country," said community activist Rick Adams, an assistant vice president at the Community College of Allegheny County. "There was the Pittsburgh teachers strike, and at Westinghouse High School we had a student strike. We went into the office and brought 3,000 students into the auditorium to demand classes in black history and black teachers."

1968 was a turning point for Mr. Adams, much as it was for the rest of the country.

"Labor strife, protests against the war. There was just so much upheaval," he said. "When Dr. King was assassinated, I was just short of my 17th birthday. I became a lifelong activist and I've been involved in community organizing and advocacy and social justice movements since that time."

That time is the focus of "1968: The Year That Rocked America," an exhibit currently at The Heinz History Center in the Strip District. Tonight, the center is hosting a panel discussion, "Civil Rights in Pittsburgh: Lessons from 1968," moderated by Mr. Adams.

The panel discussion will include local civil rights icons Alma Speed Fox, Ralph Proctor and Sala Udin.

"We don't have a large area within the exhibit dedicated to Pittsburgh in the '60s, and I thought it was really important to have this program to bring together these civil rights activists," said curator Emily Ruby, project director for the 1968 exhibit. "A lot of these influential leaders aren't with us anymore, so to get these folks together and expose more people to what was going on with the civil rights movement is really important."

The 1968 exhibit examines in chronological order the 12 months that were "a watershed" in American politics and culture. It is an 8,000-square-foot show full of artifacts, video displays and interactive exhibits.

As Post-Gazette writer Bob Hoover reported when it opened this month, the traveling exhibit added a few local touches upon its arrival in Pittsburgh, including the 1968 set of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," the WQED-TV production that went national that year.

Other elements include:

• A 20-foot Bell UH-1H "Huey" helicopter used in the Vietnam War -- the largest item ever displayed inside a History Center exhibition.

• Video footage from the Rev. Martin Luther King's final public speech and items from King's funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church, including the communion plate, microphone, and program.

• Apollo 8 mission artifacts on loan from the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum, including an astronaut helmet, checklist, and watch, along with a full-size replica of the lunar module.

• Torch from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and a game-used football from Super Bowl II.

• Items from counterculture icons, including Janis Joplin's bellbottom pants and feather boa.

• Interactive stations where you can cast your vote in the 1968 presidential election, test your knowledge of '60s music trivia, or design your own psychedelic album cover.

But those are things you can see and hear and do.

Tonight's forum on civil rights is intended to make you think. And it won't be all fun and games. Some of the stories that will be shared are painful and shameful.

"We want to talk about what happened in '68," Mr. Adams said. "What was the mood and the interactions between Pittsburgh's black and white communities. We've got a lot of territory to cover and each of the panelists has a unique and important story that they can add."

These are not things to be swept under the psychedelic rug.

"Look at just the past year. The issues of race and gender and ethnicity, the conflict around immigration," Mr. Adams said. "Some of the things that are said out of ignorance and hatred and meanness about different groups. This shows that we still have a distance to travel to get to the more perfect union Dr. King talked about."

It was a time not only worth remembering but worth recounting.

"We saw documentaries and newsreels about struggles in the South as they happened," Mr. Adams said. "The passion and the drama. When you're 17, you're too young to be scared. It was exciting, it was invigorating. I'm glad I lived at that time. We believed we could make a difference, and that change was in the air. It made us think. Like, 'You know, things aren't necessarily great here in Pittsburgh.'

"I fret for young people today because they don't have the obvious examples we did."

The forum begins at 6 p.m. Admission is Hyperlink0, and free for members of the Heinz History Center. The exhibit runs through May 12.

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If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and we???ll see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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