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Recognizing a lesser-known civil rights icon

June 28, 2019

ASU Professor Keith Miller co-authors book detailing activism of Charles Billups

Fifty-six years ago, on a humid Sunday in early May, thousands of African American congregants walked calmly out of the New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and headed toward the city jail.

Two days earlier, on Friday, May 3, 1963, people across the U.S. gazed in horror at images projected on their televisions and printed in newspapers of young black students in Birmingham being attacked by police dogs and pummeled with blasts from firehoses.

When civil rights leaders there saw that city officials were still willing to use violence as a means to end a demonstration, even when the protestors were children, adults who had previously feared losing their jobs or having their homes bombed turned out in droves to participate in the march from New Pilgrim.

Eventually, the crowd reached a barricade of fire trucks and police, where it came to a standstill. Suddenly, they dropped to their knees, one after another, in prayer. In response, the police ordered them all back to the church.

Slowly, a tall, lanky man at the front of the crowd rose to his feet and announced that they would not turn back.

“Turn on the hoses! Turn loose the dogs!” the man told Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety. “We will stay here till we die!”

Connor accepted the man’s proposal and ordered the firefighters to turn on their hoses.

They refused.

Ignoring Connor’s repeated demands, they made way for the crowd to pass. Leading them through what has since been called the second parting of the Red Sea, was the man who had refused to turn back — Charles Billups.

Keith Miller, a professor of English at Arizona State University, called the moment nothing less than “a major pivot in American history,” and one that prompted President John F. Kennedy only a couple of months later to propose what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Tuesday, July 2, marks the 55th anniversary of the enactment of the law, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Yet despite the magnitude of what happened that Sunday in 1963, Billups’ name is not easily recognizable, even to those most familiar with the history of the civil rights movement. Seeking to rectify that, Miller and Billups’ daughter, Rene Billups Baker, co-wrote “My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement,” published earlier this year.

Miller credits Billups’ show of grace and fortitude in the face of hatred and violence as a crucial factor in the success of the New Pilgrim march — as did Martin Luther King Jr., who was in Atlanta that day.

Upon hearing about the march, King described it as “one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story.”

“Martin Luther King, the avatar of nonviolence, said this march showed him the ‘pride and power of nonviolence’ for the first time,” Miller said.

In the book, Billups Baker writes that King and other civil rights leaders trusted her father to lead the New Pilgrim march because “they realized … that he was an exemplar of nonviolence.”

For all the apparent pride Billups Baker takes in sharing her father’s story, it wasn’t until a cancer-related surgery nearly resulted in her death that she began to speak about it publicly, as his last surviving relative and therefore the only one who could. Years before, after her father was murdered in 1968, a crime that remains unsolved, Billups Baker’s mother warned her to never speak of it.

“Over and over my mother kept telling me that I could never talk about my father’s murder to anyone,” Billups Baker writes. “So I didn’t. And I didn’t talk about civil rights either.”

Then, in 2013, she did. And Miller, who had been invited to speak on the subject at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, saw an interview she gave to a local TV station while researching her father ahead of his visit. Immediately, he began calling and emailing Billups Baker, over and over.

Finally, she emailed him back.

Miller met with Billups Baker at her home in Birmingham, where they spoke for hours.

“She was going on about her father and Martin Luther King,” Miller recalls. “It was almost like yesterday to her. I never met anyone who remembers her childhood near as vividly as she did. And she had a lot of trauma, which is one reason she remembered so much.”

While some parts of the story she told Miller were happy memories, like the time King brought her and her sisters ice cream cones as they waited for their father to finish with a strategy meeting, others were grim, like the time her father was severely beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

“I read civil rights literature pretty exhaustively,” Miller said. “There's almost nothing about the trauma the children suffered. … Another thing that’s extremely important about the movement that I don’t think most people understand is that these were ordinary people, blue collar people. Because African American doctors and lawyers didn't want to anger the white majority and risk losing their jobs. So to me, a big lesson of the movement is the power of ordinary people to affect huge change.”

That lesson is something Miller wishes more Americans were taught growing up.

“I think people have been taught American history very badly,” he said. And while he still regards King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” with all due reverence, he believes to focus only on those sort of “beautiful” aspects of the civil rights movement is a mistake.

“It prettifies and falsifies history because it gives people the impression that if you give a beautiful speech, where nobody gets arrested — because it was very peaceable — that that’s how you change the country,” Miller said.

“But that’s not what happened. That’s a sanitized version of history that flatters the white majority. It’s why we still have recurring racism. Because people have not understood the depth, the recalcitrance and the horror of racism throughout American history, from Day 1.”

Top photo: President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law as Martin Luther King Jr. looks on. Photo courtesy Pixabay

First-gen students have a field day with math and science

Students meet researchers who are developing futuristic technology at the Biodesign Institute

July 1, 2019

Google “Dr. Joaquin Bustoz,” and you can find a link to “Apreciación – In Memory of Dr. Joaquin Bustoz, Purveyor of Science and Equal Rights,” a song written by Russell Latterman, a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin.

Latterman was one of the countless students whose lives were changed significantly by their connection to Bustoz, both while he was teaching at Arizona State University and even now after his death. William Graves is a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery and associate professor in the Physics Department at ASU. Download Full Image

Last week, 76 students in ASU’s Joaquin Bustoz Math-Science Honors Program crowded the auditorium at the Biodesign Institute, eager to visit the Beus Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser (CXFEL) Lab. They got an insider’s look at the high-powered, “Star Wars”-like instrument that will enable scientists to see and understand the mysterious, microscopic world of proteins.

William Graves, a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery and associate professor in the Physics Department, welcomed the students to the “vault” in the lower level of Biodesign C.

“We want the students to engage and ask questions,” Graves said. “Students here at ASU have the opportunity to work alongside researchers on real-world, cutting-edge science. In fact, student participation is key to making our science successful at the university.” 

Graves was joined by Biodesign’s Mark Holl, associate director of technology development, and Marc Messerschmidt, who is also an associate research professor at the School of Molecular Sciences.

Graves himself is an example of getting into science from a nontraditional entry point.

“When I was 20, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I had a real thing for singular, high-spec cars, so I spent 10 years tinkering around with Ferraris during the day and taking physics courses in the evening. I soon realized that I really liked elaborate machines with complex mechanisms,” he said. “Then I got a new job through friends and started working as a technician at a particle accelerator — a job that involved even more complex mechanisms. My passion for the physics of beams led me rapidly to a PhD so that I could spend even more time working on complex machines.” 

Professor Bustoz died in a car accident in 2003, but his legacy lives on in the 3,000-plus students who have completed the summer program, an experience designed “to provide a successful university experience for students who are underrepresented in the mathematics and science fields and to enhance their prospects for future academic success. Special consideration is given to students who are first-generation college-bound and students representing diverse backgrounds from high schools throughout Arizona, including rural communities and the Navajo Nation.”

The Bustoz program is offered by ASU’s Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center.

Students live on the Tempe campus while enrolled in a university-level mathematics course for college credit. They attend class six hours per day, with ample homework, quizzes, tests and tutoring. Students conduct research and present posters at a closing symposium. Tuition, room and board, textbooks and classroom expenses are provided.

Josiah Miles, a member of the Navajo Nation and spring graduate from Ganado High School, is also attending his second summer session. By the end of this session, he expects to have earned seven college credits.

“It is both tough and challenging because there is homework every night, but the program also connects you to what you can do with it in the future,” Miles said. Miles plans to begin studies in astrobiology and bio-geosciences at ASU this fall.

Andre Perry II, a graduate from the Cibola High School, is attending his first Bustoz program summer session. He said the program “really teaches you to discipline yourself and manage your time wisely.” Andre will be joining the ASU freshman class this fall to study astrophysics.

Cindy Barragan Romero, Bustoz program manager, confirms that the program is intense.

“The students are immersed in lectures, homework and daily tutoring from 9 to 5 for up to eight weeks in the summer,” she said. She considers the field trips “a well-deserved break that allows them to see what they can do with the content they are learning. It teaches them that there is a lot of opportunity out there.”

Bustoz’s obituary explained that his “defining characteristic was his passion not only for the field of mathematics, but also for helping talented minority students achieve their full potential. He recognized the hard work and long study required to achieve an understanding of mathematics and sciences, and he taught his students how to rise to the challenge of mastering those demanding fields of study.”

According to the Mathematical Association of America website, Bustoz, a Tempe native, was born to farmworkers who were also valued Tempe School District employees — so much so that the school district honored his parents by naming a school after them. Bustoz earned his doctorate in mathematics at Arizona State University in 1968. Although he spent seven years away as a faculty member at University of Cincinnati and a Fulbright lecturer in Colombia, he returned to ASU as a professor of mathematics in 1976. Bustoz took pride in his Tempe roots and dedicated years of community service to the underserved communities. In 1985, he launched the Summer Math-Science program for high school students.  For his efforts, President Bill Clinton honored him in 1996 with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. Additionally, ASU presented him with the Wexler and Alumni Association service award. The Mathematical Association of America memorialized Bustoz in a dedicated biography, noting his dedication to increasing minority participation in math-related degrees and his intense commitment to working with Navajo and Pima Reservation students and teachers.

Christine Lewis

PhD candidate and science writer, Biodesign Institute Center for Applied Structural Discovery and the School of Molecular Sciences