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Activists share stories to begin MLK?celebration

Alicia Smith | Thursday, January 15, 2009

Saint Mary’s College Multicultural Services and Student Programs hosted a discussion panel Wednesday in order to begin the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

The panelists’ discussion focused on the importance of nonviolent protest and community organizations.

The panelists included Paula Crisostomo, who is portrayed in the movie “The Walkout,” opening in March 2009, Joanne Bland, co-founder and former director of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma, Ala., Lynn Coleman, Assistant to the Mayor of South Bend, and Gladys Muhammad, Associate Director of the South Bend Heritage Foundation.

Monica Tetzlaff, facilitator and director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend (IUSB), led the discussion by asking the panelists questions.

Saint Mary’s Assistant Professor of History, Amanda Littauer, gave a brief presentation about the struggles of African American women who fought for civil rights at the start of the program.

Part of the presentation included a showing of he trailer for the film “The Walkout,” based on Cristomo’s story. In 1986, she led a walkout involving Mexican-American students in five East Los Angeles high schools protesting their substandard education.

Another film clip, “Bridge to Freedom,” described the voting rights and segregation in Selma, Ala. in the 1960s. African Americans did not have the right to vote in 1965 in Selma, and faced discrimination.

After the clips, the panelists responded to a series of questions, describing how they became involved in nonviolent protests and community organizations.

“As a child, you’ve got to do what your parents do,” Bland said. “[My] grandmother joined an organization called the Dallas County Voters League.”

Crisostomo followed in the footsteps of her parents. Her mother was a community activist.

“She started taking me with her to her club meetings and her P.T.A. meetings, and then she started introducing me to people who were also active. Pretty soon I was part of a youth group, and in the beginning we just wanted to do something to better our community,” she explained.

Coleman grew up in South Bend. Unlike Crisostomo and Bland, his parents were never involved in activism, but he felt drawn to the career path.

“Oftentimes, you don’t get a chance to choose your career. Your career chooses you,” he said.

Muhammad also grew up in South Bend, but saw the violence against the Civil Rights movement on television growing up.

“My father, he brought us to South Bend because he didn’t want us to grow up under the Jim Crow Laws,” she said. “I remember during the ’60s when they were marching with Dr. Martin Luther King […] when they were putting the water hoses on people. I got so angry […] I wanted to knock the television set on to the floor”

Her father taught Muhammad that violence was not the answer.

“My father began to tell me, ‘You can’t beat them like that. You’ve go to turn the other cheek.’ I learned the non-violent social change.”

Bland told the audience the activists were fighting for a different kind of freedom.

“Abraham Lincoln had signed a paper that said we were free, and we were not on the plantation anymore. There were other things that we still didn’t have, that that paper that he signed didn’t bring. I had that understanding as early as I can remember,” she said.

Panelists challenged students to graduate and promote nonviolent protests. Crisostomo also encouraged students to talk to everyone around them,

“We were talking to everyone. We were taking our demands and on a road show. We were everywhere talking to people.”

The panelists agreed that their actions have had an impact on the world today.

“Obama,” Bland said. “He and Hilary [Clinton] are poster children for the history that I live. I’m very, very proud that one of them was elected. I’m even more proud that it was him.”