Exploring civil rights through music and culture

The upbeat sounds and distinct local flavor of Go-Go music provide a unique lens for Gettysburg College students to explore connections between civil rights history and today’s urban experience.

Over spring break, a dozen students from the Eisenhower Institute’s Inside Civil Rights program visited Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. It’s a historically Black urban neighborhood that became the heart of conflict pitting gentrification against artistic expression. From this, a contemporary civil rights movement was born.

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Before exploring the neighborhood, students gained insight from a panel of scholars and activists who discussed the culture clash that led to protests and ultimately DC’s mayor declaring Go-Go the official music of the nation’s capital. It started with a business known for playing uniquely local sounds throughout the neighborhood. Black residents saw it as a celebration of culture. Neighbors in expensive new condos nearby considered the loud music a nuisance.

Tiari Ramsey '22, a senior Africana Studies major, says a meaningful conversation with a man dancing in the streets convinced her otherwise. “Go-Go music makes people happy,” Ramsey says. The “call and response” style of this genre makes it particularly engaging. The idea is for people to not just listen but get involved in creating a joyful atmosphere. Ramsey adds: “Music is solidarity. It was used to unify the community.”

Not everyone agrees. Neighbors complained. Police showed up. Demonstrations began. Author and advocate Ronald Moten shared with students how this sparked the #DontMuteDC campaign.  

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Photojournalist Dee Dwyer added visual perspective. The native Washingtonian documents city culture by capturing images of historic African-American communities. Dwyer has been dubbed the “visual voice for the people.” Her work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Vogue and other national and international publications.

Award-winning scholar Dr. Nathalie Hopkinson of Howard University helped students understand the connection to larger issues of cultural identity and the African Diaspora. Hopkinson is an Associate Professor of Communication, Culture and Media Studies at Howard University. 

“Inside Civil Rights: Exploring America’s Cities” is led by Gettysburg College Professors Tyeshia Redden and Scott Hancock. Hancock is an historian who focuses on the African-American experience. His seminar discussions laid the foundation for Redden to delve into this case study of modern social change.

"It's my aim to expose students to the realities of oppression and the impact of local empowerment,” Redden says. “I hope they reflect on their own potential as changemakers."

To help students discover Shaw’s rich history on their own, Redden created a scavenger hunt to identify significant sites as they toured the neighborhood.

“It was just a different experience,” Ramsey adds. “It’s Interesting how you can tie things that happened not that long ago to things happening in the present.”

That’s the goal: encouraging students to see different perspectives, connect the dots and, if inspired, to follow a different beat.

By Tracie Potts
Photos courtesy of Tracie Potts
Posted: 03/30/22