Gatton Academy hosts Civil Rights leader Charles Neblett
By Elise Swift-Taylor, WKU

Posted on January 6, 2021 6:07 PM


Lifelong Civil Rights activist Dr. Charles Neblett of Russellville was hosted by The Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky on Dec. 1. Neblett was a field secretary for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, a founding member of the Freedom Singers, and traveled coast-to-coast as a singer, speaker, and activist.

After a brief address to Gatton Academy students and staff, he answered student questions over the course of an hourlong virtual visit.

Neblett shared his experiences during the Civil Rights Movement through a candid conversation addressing decades of contemporary issues of racism and inequality the USA continues to reckon in 2020.

The role and responsibility of young people today in standing up to injustice was the evening’s theme.

“Young people have to deal with this,” Neblett told students. “I’m going to be with you, if all I can do is lean up against the gate to hold it open to let you go through. Young people have got to take this thing on your shoulders and run with it.”

Neblett began his journey in the Civil Rights Movement after Emmett Till's murder and the inspiration of Civil Rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. His actions and perseverance paved the way for the founding of the Freedom Singers, a four-person a cappella group that sang and spoke at major Civil Rights events. Their performances included the March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, the march from Selma to Montgomery, gatherings across the segregated South, and at universities and churches nationwide.

Neblett told students about performing at the 1963 March on Washington.

“We looked out on all those people. I was so impressed. It was more people than I had ever seen before,” Neblett said. “Everybody. White. Black. Green. Polka dot. Everybody was there. I looked out over that crowd and those faces. And that crowd let me know that our work hadn’t been in vain.”

There were many highlights of the evening. But, time stood still when Neblett sang a verse of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” to the students.

Gatton Academy Senior Janessa Unseld reflected on the experience. “It was an honor to be present at Dr. Neblett's seminar. He regaled us with awe-inspiring stories of his work on the front lines of black activism. I was taken for an emotional ride as I listened to his triumphs and his tribulations--his fond memories and his tough ones--his wonderful singing voice and his woeful condolences. There was not a second during his recounting where I was not enthralled,” Unseld said.

“It was made very clear that this fight for freedom is far from over, but I left the talk with a smile on my face. It's because I knew that his is our fight, and his words were not just a harrowing tale, but a call to action.”

Neblett has a special connection to The Gatton Academy. He is father to alumna Kesi Neblett (’13).

Established in 2007, The Gatton Academy is Kentucky’s first residential two-year program for gifted and talented junior and seniors. The Gatton Academy’s students enroll as juniors and are full-time WKU students pursuing their interests in advanced science, technology, engineering and mathematical careers. The Gatton Academy has been named to Jay Mathews’ list of top-performing schools with elite students for ten consecutive appearances.

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