In Selma, Alabama, on March 7, over 100 people crowded a single small alley perpendicular to Broad Street, pressing against a police barricade to see a screen projecting President Barack Obama’s speech from the Edmund Pettus Bridge — the very same bridge where, 50 years ago, civil rights activists marching for equal access to voting polls were met with billy clubs, horses’ hooves and tear gas from the Alabama State Police. Now, in 2015, the tens of thousands of people who gathered in Selma to hear their president speak wore T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like, “I can’t breathe,” “Black Lives Matter” and, in the case of some of the older people, “I was there.”
The streets were barricaded for several blocks around the bridge, and only the first 20,000 who arrived that morning and those with tickets were allowed onto Broad Street. That did not deter the thousands without tickets from coming as close as the police would allow. Secret Service agents were stationed on the rooftops, observing the gathered masses through binoculars.
Inside the secured area where the president delivered his speech, a group of six Ithaca College students, considered NBC affiliates and equipped with official press badges and bright yellow caps to help them find one another, worked to capture every moment of the speech and the audience’s reactions. Their work appeared in the network’s weekend-long coverage of the 50th anniversary events. In addition, the team offered livestreaming throughout the weekend. The team included Candace King, Sara McCloskey, Kelli Kyle, Ciara Lucas, Tiarra Braddock and Hannah Basciano.
This is the second time James Rada, associate professor of journalism, has facilitated a partnership between NBC and students. The first collaboration was in 2013 for the 50th anniversary events for the March on Washington.
On March 6, the student team covered a children’s march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on March 7 the president’s speech and on March 8 the Bloody Sunday commemoration march across the bridge, which drew more than 70,000 people, according to estimates from the Alabama State Troopers.
McCloskey, a senior journalism major, said she had never seen the president speak live before. She said she moved back and forth between the press lines near the president and an area further out near the crowd.
“It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime experience until when we’re in the industry actually, but at a college level this is something I find very extraordinary,” McCloskey said. “It was just really, really busy. It’s very hard to simulate that kind of thing in a newsroom on campus or in a classroom.”
Basciano, a sophomore documentary studies and production major, said some of her footage made it into the March 7 nightly news.
“It was crazy because I didn’t think any of my footage was on, because we didn’t actually get to see the broadcast,” Basciano said. “But then, when we got back to the hotel and I watched it I was like, ‘Oh, I took that!’”
When Rada asked her if she would like to come, sophomore journalism major Braddock said yes before even thinking about money or logistics.
“For me to get the opportunity to go down there and cover it for NBC, but also a chance to be in such a historical time was amazing,” Braddock said. “I don’t know anywhere or anytime or how I would ever get this experience to go down to a historical place and learn and meet people who are a part of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Throughout the weekend, there was one side street in Selma that was closed off, its parking spaces full of vans adorned with large satellites. This was the makeshift media center, where journalists gathered to process their work and send it off to their networks.
After spending two hours filming and interviewing people on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the Sunday march, the team reported back to the media center and turned in their work to Janelle Richards, an associate producer with NBC News. While waiting outside on the front steps of the media center to hear from Richards about their footage, Rada said coming to Selma gave his students more than just experience in the field.
“On the social level, they’ve had the chance to drive through Selma and see a whole different view of the world, of America, so many things that won’t make it to TV but is still going on down here and why we needed a civil rights movement 50 years ago,” Rada said. “They’ve been able to really get an incredible insight that they’ll be able to carry with them for the rest of their lives.”
Braddock said one of her most memorable interviews was with a high school student who told her what Selma was like on a normal day.
“He basically told us there’s still segregated schools within Selma,” Braddock said. “Not … forced by the government, but the majority of white kids go to prep school, and the majority of African-American students go to public school, so there’s still that divide.”
King, a senior journalism major, covered both the March on Washington and Selma anniversaries. She has also previously had an internship at NBC.
“This experience was more than a journalistic endeavor,” King said in an email. “Coming to Selma meant retracing the steps of the foot soldiers who martyred on my behalf so I can have the rights that I have today. It was important for me to remind myself that these freedoms were not restored by moral obligation, but they were taken back by the people for the people. And still, there is unfinished business. The inequalities that we examine in this country today are merely structural reproductions of the violent ideologies that existed then and continue to exist now.”
On March 8, NBC published a piece by King online, titled “Of Selma’s Past and Future: Young Activists Marching Forward.” Her writing details the extensive youth involvement in the 50th Anniversary events and how much work still lies ahead in achieving equality and justice.
Richards said NBC can trust Ithaca College students because they are hard working, honest in their reporting and open to mentorship.
“This weekend working with students from Ithaca was absolutely incredible,” Richards said. “They’re fast, they’re flexible and they’re enthusiastic. I could tell that they love journalism and that they’re passionate about it and they wanted to be here, and honestly, that made all the difference.”
The students’ flexibility played an important role during the weekend — when the Sunday march was nearly cancelled due to overwhelming numbers, and then started a couple hours early, all of the reporters needed to adjust quickly. Braddock said the constantly changing atmosphere taught her how to think on her feet.
“When I report for ICTV Newswatch 16, I usually have three questions that I’ll ask my interviewees … I come in with a plan knowing what I’m going to do,” Braddock said. “It taught me how to feed off what the person was saying and develop strong questions within a matter of a minute.”
Braddock said this helped her realize her knack for thinking of meaningful interview questions on the spot. This experience helped everyone on the team figure out what they were really good at, she said. Kyle, a sophomore journalism major, led the charge on social media, and her tweets about Sunday’s march were used in a Buzzfeed News article.
Rada said being in Selma during this important time and doing meaningful work with students was the most important part of the weekend for him.
“This is why I became a journalist, this is why I got into documentary,” Rada said. “Getting to share that, not only reflect personally myself, but getting to share it with these future journalists, future citizens, future members of society — this is real.”