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Lecture identifies young women as agents of change in civil rights movement

| Monday, November 3, 2014

Associate professor of Educational Policy Studies and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago Dr. David Stovall addressed students, faculty and South Bend community members in a lecture titled “Re-envisioning Justice: Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and the Current Struggle for Human Dignity” on Friday afternoon in Stapleton Lounge.

The lecture was co-sponsored by the Saint Mary’s Office of Civic and Social Engagement, the Notre Dame College of Arts and Letters Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, Multicultural Student Programs and Services, Africana Studies, Center for Social Concerns, Gender Studies, Department of History, the Kroc Institute and the Rooney Center for American Democracy as a part of Women in Civil Rights Lecture series.

Stovall said Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer’s work during the civil rights movement often goes unrecognized and is overshadowed by the work of men. Historical oversight of this kind is not unique to these two young activists, Stovall said. Civil rights analysis has overlooked the work of women and young people in the last 700 years.

“In history there are often moments where we do not recognize the centrality of two particular groups — women and young people,” Stovall said.

Stovall said the notion that slavery is an oppression of the past must be challenged as civil rights are examined today.

Stovall said although Hamer is mostly known for saying “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” her legacy eclipses that single quote. He said Hamer received a sixth grade education because she had to work on a plantation, and she challenged the idea of justice.

“Hamer asked the difficult questions and was often met with the consequences,” Stovall said.

Stovall said the term social justice is often misconstrued as a synonym for “helping.” Picking up garbage is not an example of social justice, he said.

“Justice has to be determined by the people who are experiencing the injustice,” he said. “When we have those people identify the injustice, we have to ask a different set of questions, and those questions are mean and unrelenting.”

Stovall referred to the 13th Amendment which declares, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

“What does this sound like? It sounds like prison to me,” he said

Stovall said he understands incarceration as an extension of slavery, as more people of African descent are in prison today than were in slavery in 1850.

Seventy percent of all people incarcerated are convicted for non-violent drug offenses, Stovall said. He said the 13th Amendment was far from a cure-all, and other regulations must lead the nation’s populous towards equality.

Stovall said distractions, like a black president, may hinder the progress of civil rights.

“There’s a difference between individual accomplishment and collective progress,” he said.

Stovall said young people’s commitment to the cause requires asking the difficult questions of perpetuity like Hamer.

Stovall said Baker focused on the responsibility and ability young people have to act and react to contemporary and pressing issues.

“Baker said we are the ones we have been waiting for,” Stovall said. “She said getting people in the street for the March on Washington is only part of the solution. What’s more important is what you do the next day.

“In the arc of history we are always looking for the next person to stand in front. We want somebody to be the representative, but work starts on the ground.”

Stovall said Hamer and Baker were prophetic.

“They said the struggle is ongoing, and the only way to engage it is to identify the injustice to work with others to improve the condition,” he said. “We talk about struggle not to depress us, but because the more we know, the less we can be manipulated. The project of justice is to end perpetual manipulation.”

Stovall said the social justice needs experts and young people constitute the experts of the “right now.”

“I don’t see you all as the future,” Stovall said. “You’re the ‘right now.’”

“You are experts of right now. How are you using your expertise?”

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About Haleigh Ehmsen

A senior at Saint Mary's, Haleigh is majoring in Communication Studies and English Literature & Writing. She serves as the Saint Mary's editor and enjoys coffee, guacamole and good books.

Contact Haleigh