Doing this work isn’t easy. But each day, time and time again, thousands of us wake up to fight the systems of oppression and injustice for those who aren’t able to. The struggle for freedom has come a long way, but there is still so far to go.
Through Project Pilgrimage, I have journeyed twice to the Deep South to visit historical sites from the Civil Rights Movement and organizations working to improve racial relations today. Not only is the Pilgrimage an amazing opportunity to turn learned history into reality, but it provides a deeper look into issues relevant today.
Prior to my second trip, I wrote a post introducing the Pilgrimage and my feelings on returning. As a young Black woman, I feel it is important that this history is shared and recognized as part of American history. The following is PART 2 of my reflections on new observations and findings since my return. (Read PART 1 here.)
Following Birmingham, Alabama, we headed to Oxford, Mississippi, home to the University of Mississippi (also known as Ole Miss). The University of Mississippi played a critical role during school integration. After years of racial segregation, the University opened its doors to the first African-American student, James Meredith on October 1, 1962. Of course, this was not done without a fight by white supremacists; Meredith’s arrival brought a mob so big onto campus that 31,000 federal troops were called to try to contain it.
In remembrance, there is a statue dedicated to Meredith on campus comprised of Meredith and an archway in front of him with the words “courage, opportunity, perseverance and knowledge,” but there has been some controversy around the statue. Meredith himself is not fond of it and thinks it’s “a ‘supplicant’ to a system of white supremacy” that still exists in our society. And just three years ago in 2014, three students placed a noose and a pre-2003 Georgia flag on the statue of Meredith. I found it contradictory that the statue is placed behind and a distance away from the archway, giving me the impression that integration hasn’t been fully accepted and doesn’t convey what Meredith overcame.
Holding onto the past
The University of Mississippi has a violent past regarding race relations, and tensions still hold strong today. In addition to the Meredith statue, the campus has a Confederate statue, and many buildings are named after past Confederate members. It also doesn’t help that their branding, “Ole Miss,” is a term slaves used to address the wife of the plantation owner. There is debate about completely abolishing the use of “Ole Miss,” but since that won’t happen anytime soon, I think it is important for the University to at least acknowledge its ties with slavery and the history the school has gone through. I’ll say it again: Stories of the past need to be acknowledged.
It was an eye-opening experience touring and observing the dynamics at a university in the South. For an institution that claims to be removing divisive and racially charged symbols to make the campus more welcoming, as a Black woman, I didn’t really feel welcomed. At times I scoff at the lack of diversity at the University of Washington, but it could be worse. I am thankful to go to a school that is so relatively diverse, but there is still room for improvement.
Freedom Summer murders
Next we journeyed to Philadelphia, Mississippi, known for its heavy history as the site where three Freedom Summer volunteers were murdered during the summer of 1964. The victims, James Chaney (21), Andrew Goodman (20) and Michael Schwerner (24) were working with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) to fight for voting rights and increase African-American voter registration. Since two of the victims were white, the atrocities were treated with more urgency and received enormous national attention.
During the search for their bodies, FBI investigators found the remains of eight other African Americans, causing them to stop the investigation, since it only brought negative media attention. Six weeks after the men were murdered, their bodies were finally found – and the murder trials did not formally start until February 1967. Seven members of Mississippi’s Klu Klux Klan (KKK) were found guilty. But it wasn’t until 2005 – nearly 40 years later – that the mastermind behind the murders and a leader of the local KKK, Edgar Ray Killen, was convicted of manslaughter of the three Freedom Summer members.
With such a recent conviction, the town’s healing is ongoing. Imagine having an accused murderer, who most everyone knew was guilty, continue to go about his life as if nothing happened? It is said that the Killen family could oftentimes be heard talking openly about the murders throughout the town. As an outsider coming into this community, I felt so uneasy. It’s difficult to wrap my head around this harsh past and how it still affects the community.
BACK TO ALABAMA
University of Alabama
After learning so much from Mississippi, we made our way to Alabama, first stopping at the University of Alabama, another school that fought hard to hinder the process of integration in academic institutions. On May 19, 1963, two students came to campus in hopes of registering for classes. They were met by Governor George Wallace, who refused to allow them in. His attempts failed when President John F. Kennedy federalized National Guard troops forcing Wallace to allow the students into the university.
Today, there is a clock tower dedicated to the two students, Vivian Malone and James Hood (along with Autherine Lucy, U of A’s first Black student) across Foster Auditorium, the athletics arena for Women’s Basketball and Volleyball. The tower’s location is in a pretty desolate part of campus and requires some searching for, which makes you wonder how the university prioritizes this piece of history.
The current University of Alabama student body is 80% white, 11.2% Black/African American, 4.1% Hispanic/Latino, 1.2% Asian and .4% American Indian/Alaskan Native. As you can imagine, being a student of color on a predominantly white campus with such a harsh history of oppression is not easy – and racism continues today. A few students of color told us about their experiences at U of A, and it was absolutely shocking. Racial epithets are not unheard of on campus, and Confederate flags still wave at tailgates during the anticipated arrival of football season.
At the University of Washington, running into micro-aggressions is common – but to have your fellow classmates explicitly go out of their way to be that ignorant is something I haven’t witnessed. This makes it hard for me to comprehend the hatred people can show but doesn’t deny the fact that this hatred is not only experienced in the South.
Selma: Bloody Sunday & Jubilee
Our last pilgrimage destination was Selma, one of my favorite places to go, but a city with ongoing struggles. With the 2014 release of the Hollywood movie Selma, media has painted an attractive image of the city but fails to show the brokenness. Selma is the eighth most violent city in America. Its unemployment rate is nearly twice the national average, and 36% of residents – including 60% of children – live in poverty. Yet the city has a persistent will to revive. There is high awareness of inequities, and people make sure to stand up for their rights.
Each year, the pilgrimage is planned to coincide with the first Sunday in March, known as Bloody Sunday because on March 7, 1965, there was a brutal attack on hundreds of Black foot soldiers as they peacefully marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge for equal voting rights. Each year they do an annual bridge crossing known as Jubilee. Not only do they pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives, they also hold workshops and events teaching about social justice.
Reliving the past
This year’s Jubilee was especially important. In addition to reenacting the original march, people also gathered to march for ongoing full voting rights for all. Alabama currently has a discriminatory photo ID law, which requires voters to present one of seven identification options. It’s extremely difficult to obtain valid identification in Alabama, especially for people of color – and specifically for Blacks and Latinos.
Nationally, only 8% of voting age White citizens lack a government-issued ID, compared to 25% of African Americans and 16% of Latinos. This law is discriminatory through the lack of access to Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) offices. The state of Alabama has closed 31 DMV offices or created very specific office hours that make it difficult for any working citizen to obtain an ID. On the surface, this may look like coincidence – but if you dig a little deeper, you can see the target on people of color.
Since learning about the struggle to gain voting rights, I have taken my privilege to vote very seriously. Prior to my participation in the march, I was not too familiar with the voter ID law, but it is systems like these that reinforce racism. It is no accident that Alabama’s Governor decided to close 31 drivers licensing offices after repeated warnings by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF). It is so important to recognize the discrimination in these coded actions.
Again, I think about my home state of Washington. While strict photo ID isn’t required, our state does not offer voting at the polls, only by mail. How does this affect people with unstable housing situations? While maybe not directly racist, this system is definitely classist – and people of color often make up a high percentage of lower socioeconomic groups, which makes them more likely to experience class discrimination.
RETURN TO SEATTLE
Since being back home, my motivation has only deepened to move my career in the direction of racial justice. The theme of education really stood out to me during my time in the South. Children are the future. If we teach younger generations about race and include histories of people of color in American history – and if differences are acknowledged – I believe we will progress as a nation.
Also, it’s so crucial to acknowledge that racism doesn’t just exist in red states in the South. Seattle – and the state of Washington in general – may be viewed as progressive, but we still lack equality for all. The Seattle Public School District has the fifth largest achievement gap between Black and White kids in the U.S. Housing deeds still contain racially restrictive covenants that perpetuate segregation in neighborhoods. Plus, if you look to eastern Washington, the majority of counties vote conservatively.
It is so easy to become comfortable with our current situations, but I think in order for our country to improve race relations, it will require being uncomfortable. I know we all can’t be radical activists, but we can start by advocating for equal human rights for everyone. I encourage you to look at the bills going through legislation where you live and contact your representatives if you find something discriminatory.
Educate yourself. Educate others. Many small actions like these can create a big impact.