By Kiko Martinez
It was Easter Sunday in 2013 when Dr. Roger Barnes, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at UIW, found himself face to face with the past. It was something he had experienced before. It was an experience he always welcomed.
Sitting in the living room of her small home in Little Rock, Arkansas, and speaking to Barnes, his wife Karin and late Robert Sosa was Elizabeth Eckford. In 1957, at the age of 15, Eckford, who would later be known as one of the “Little Rock Nine,” walked with eight of her black classmates into Central High School, which had recently been desegregated. One of the most famous photos of that incident features Eckford walking in front of the school as an angry, white female student verbally accosts her from behind.
Fifty-six years later, Barnes sat intently in front of Eckford, who was then 71, and listened to her speak about her time as a student at Central and how her life changed growing up in a desegregated South. It wasn’t a conversation he had planned to have that afternoon, but one that confirmed the trips he was taking through the South to retrace specific moments in civil rights history were significant.
Making them with his friend and colleague Robert Sosa made them even more special.
“Our civil rights trips together were great adventures,” Barnes said. “We both lived through the civil rights era, so we remembered all the key moments in history. We thought, ‘If we could, we want to go where it happened.’”
In 2009, Barnes and Sosa began taking trips to prominent locations in civil rights history. They went everywhere together – from Anniston, Alabama, where members of the KKK firebombed a Freedom Riders bus in 1961, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, for the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. In all, they took approximately 15 trips as a duo – trips that would later serve as the basis for a new class at UIW, Social History of the civil rights movement, which Sosa taught until he retired in 2014.
Sosa passed away in early 2018. A fundraiser and director of foundation, corporate and governmental relations, he bequeathed a gift to the University, which created the Robert Sosa Endowed Scholarship to benefit first-generation students, who demonstrate financial need, are in their second year or higher of college, and are majoring in English, sociology, history or theatre arts.
“I remember it was a clear and chilly morning and we were driving through Alabama and Robert said, ‘I really feel like I could teach a course on civil rights,’” Barnes said. “So, I said, ‘Well, why don’t you?’”
The next semester, Barnes added Social History of the Civil Rights Movement to the curriculum as a special topics course. Today, Barnes teaches the class himself.
“Students are curious,” Barnes said. “They admit they don’t know a lot about the civil rights movement. It can be a real eye-opener.”
Each of Barnes’ and Sosa’s trips has been adapted into its own class lesson. Since he has actually visited the locations and spoken to people from the area, Barnes is able to give his students another perspective that the textbooks cannot provide. It’s a chance for him to share his love of the civil rights era and pass on his knowledge, so that the history will never be forgotten.
“Robert and I would always talk about how we lived through one of the most significant periods of American history,” Barnes said. “Since I was in high school, I was interested in that time period. I read newspapers voraciously. I would soak this stuff up.”
When he read novelist William Bradford Huie’s book Three Lives for Mississippi for the first time as a teenager, Barnes swore he would never step foot into the states of Mississippi or Alabama. Once he became a sociologist, however, he wanted to understand the complexities of racism on a meaningful level.
He was able to do that on his trips with Robert and through their conversations with the “real foot soldiers of the civil rights movement” and the “ordinary folk” they would meet during their visits. For example, in Glendora, Mississippi, they met Johnny B. Thomas, the founder of the Emmett Till Intrepid Historic Center. Till was lynched in 1955 at the age of 14 for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman. In Birmingham, Alabama, they spoke to a janitor at the 16th Street Baptist Church who knew the four little girls killed in a blast by the KKK in 1963. At a conference in Tennessee, they met with activist Dr. James Lawson, who extended an invitation to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 to speak to black sanitation workers on strike in Memphis. King was assassinated during that trip.
“We always learned something,” Barnes said. “We walked away with something from everyone we talked to.”
From Sosa, Barnes learned never to second guess one’s curiosity. Sosa’s ability to be polite, candid and fearless made him, Barnes said, a “great traveling companion.”
“He was fantastic,” Barnes said. “Robert would just go right up and knock, ask some questions and inevitably we would be allowed in for what would turn out to be a great conversation. There was always a sense of adventure and excitement on our trips.”