Moments in Memory: Students interpret the upheaval of the 1960s as told through newspapers

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The trio talked about the impact of the 1960s on America as if they lived it. The moon landing, assassinations, the Vietnam War and protests. At the mention of Dr. Martin Luther King's murder in Memphis, one begins to rattle off the facts surrounding why King was in Memphis.

The three are not old enough to have been alive in the 1960s or old enough to have heard first-hand stories from their families. They are not, in fact, old at all.

Meet 17-year-old Eden Muina, 18-year-old Jewel Okoronkwo and 18-year-old Ben Sprayberry. The three are members of the Georgia state champion academic decathlon team at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe. In late April, the team competed in the national championships in Minnesota.

Academic decathlon teams from across the country spent nine months studying a single area of focus leading to regional, state and national competitions. This year's focus was the 1960s, and the three spent more than 600 hours studying the momentous decade in American history.

Muina, Okoronkwo and Sprayberry looked at photocopies of the Chattanooga Daily Times and the Chattanooga News-Free Press coverage of a few key events from the decade Friday morning. Here is what the youthful subject matter experts had to say.

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The 1963 "March on Washington" occurred on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963. The afternoon News-Free Press (7 cents) reported, "OVER 100,000 MARCH ON CAPITAL." By the next morning, the scope of the march had escalated as the Daily Times reported,

"200,000 MARCH IN WASHINGTON

IN ORDERLY CIVIL RIGHTS BID;

KENNEDY SEE GAIN FOR NEGRO"

Muina says she would have been "one living in a hippie commune, to be honest, out in the woods," had she lived the 1960s. She sees the headline and speaks of several different protests that were not peaceful, including the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

"I don't think they had as much freedom back then because of the way people reacted to a protest," said Muina. "The '60s set up a domino effect to what is happening today, and to me it's not a good thing. The counterculture, the protests were focused then. Today, protests have gotten to the point of being petty. We have serious problems with climate change and the environment, and people are over here fighting about gender roles and feminism."

Sprayberry, who will attend Mercer, moved quickly to the news in both papers regarding stories on the first day of school. "10 City Elementary Schools Integrated; Avondale Has Only 'Heavy' Negro Roll" was the News-Free Press headline. "Opening Peaceful For City Schools; 10 Desegregated" was the Daily Times headline.

"The way history is taught makes you feel detached, but looking at these tangible newspapers you can say, 'Here, on this day, this is when things started to get better,'" said Sprayberry. "The difference between today and the '60s is that people are intolerant. In the '60s, people would campaign for change, and their view would be respected. Today, anyone who has even a slightly different view feel like they have to get into a fight about it."

"The newspapers give you a direct connection to where I live, and it helps me understand even better," said Okoronkwo, who will attend Emory. "It makes it more real and not just people in a textbook."

The News-Free Press story written by J.B. Collins said 10 of the 33 city of Chattanooga elementary schools "were quietly integrated through the first four grades today in the second of a seven-year court-ordered desegregation program." The report went on to describe the "racial mixing" at various schools. It reported that Superintendent Bennie Carmichael did a phone canvass of all schools and said that, "eight white schools had enrolled 418 Negro pupils. Two Negro schools had enrolled six white pupils."

"I know the language used in the '60s, but sometimes, I will be looking at my black friends and think, 'Man, 40-50 years ago the life that I am living today was impossible for a lot of people,'" said Okoronkwo. "By really studying history as a black person - not just what you get in a textbook - you start looking at the reasons why certain things happened. Why I am connected to it. There were so many important events in the '60s and when you study them all, I can better understand what black people were going through."

King was killed at 7:01 EST on Thursday, April 4, 1968, as he stood on a balcony in Memphis. By 1968, the Chattanooga Daily Times was just the Chattanooga Times (10 cents). In the few hours after the shooting before the morning paper was released to the pressroom, the editors pulled together three stories and pictures that covered seven of the eight columns on the top half of the front page.

"King Assassinated By Sniper In Memphis;

Guard Called Up There And In Nashville;

LBJ Speaks against Violence, Delays Trip"

By Friday afternoon, editors at the News-Free Press (10 cents) had moved beyond the actual shooting to violence across the country and Tennessee. "VIOLENCE FLARES IN 30 CITIES" was the banner headline. The front page had nine stories and four pictures on King, including two local stories. "Moves Taken to Prevent Violence Here" was one and the other was an interview by editor Julius Parker with Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington.

"He was not the first, but he was the main black individual who was able to progress black people's needs and progress what they really felt," said Okoronkwo. "He was so eloquent, so good with a pen, and a great speaker. He could make people listen when they weren't listening."

Muina shakes her head at the headlines about King's shooting. She recounts details of two sanitation workers being crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck and the sanitation worker strike that brought King to Memphis.

"No one cared about what was going on with these workers," she said, "but King cared."

The three students read the editorials on King's death from the ideologically liberal Chattanooga Times and the ideologically conservative News-Free Press, immediately connecting the opinions to the divisions in the country. The last newspapers reviewed were from May 5, 1970, and covered the shootings at Kent State, the first major incident carrying over from the 1960s.

"The more you learn about the '60s, the more you can see just how polarized everything was, just not as visible as it is today," said Sprayberry. "You can see the cause and effect of it all. When you study five pages in history, you see the important events. But when you look deeper, you can see how it became a boiling pot of many different events. Politics changed. Technology changed. TVs became a relevant technology and we were inventing microwaves. What took place was like the country coming out of a cocoon for the first time."

The Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe trio of academic decathletes knew enough about the decade of the 1960s to win the Georgia title and hold their own against elite charter and magnet schools from California and Texas. Before leaving high school, the three Panthers had moved from bullet points to analysis.

"When I started, the '60s was a bulleted list of important events; you take the test and move on," said Okoronkwo. "Then, you look at the 1950s to see what came before and everything felt the same. People were sheltered, put into little boxes. You can see why it all blew up in the '60s and why they were bursting with so much energy. They were tired of everything being the same."