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‘Addressing the Soul Sickness of Racism’ lectures highlight women civil rights leaders

| Friday, January 21, 2022

The Center for Spirituality and the Division for Equity and Inclusion began the three-part lecture series, “Addressing the Soul Sickness of Racism,” on Thursday evening in the Carroll Auditorium at Saint Mary’s College. The series kicked off with a lecture by the director of Indiana University of South Bend’s (IUSB) Civil Rights Heritage Center, Darryl Heller, discussing the history of civil rights. 

Heller opened with a discussion regarding the decontextualization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. He called critics ”out of step with King’s dream.” 

Heller said critics who focus solely on the section of the speech that concerns dreams for the future fail to recognize the context of the speech.

“Omitted is the earlier part of King’s speech where he states that the reason they’re in the Capitol was to cash a check,” Heller said. 

This check Heller referred to was a promise from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that all men would be guaranteed certain unalienable rights.

“America has given the Negro people a bad check,” Heller said. “Sixty years after King spoke, we are still waiting for that check to clear.” 

Heller then went on to reference Danielle Sered’s book “Until We Reckon.“ 

“One fundamental thing that requires reckoning is the history of slavery and oppression that produced our current society,” he said. 

He stated that society must reckon with the past in order to understand the present and dream of a better future. In order to discuss the history of the civil rights movement, Heller decided to highlight women who he said laid the groundwork for the movement.

To introduce these women, Heller played the song, “Ella’s Song.”  Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote the song for Ella Baker, who, as Heller explains, “was arguably the most significant, under-recognized leader of the movement that gave birth to Dr. King.” 

Baker became the highest ranking female employee in the NAACP when she was named the NAACP national director of branches in 1943. However, she resigned in 1944 due to her frustration with the NAACP’s top-down structure. 

Baker believed that the movement was to grow from the bottom, Heller said.

This belief was realized once she became the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. Her strategy, called the crusade for citizenship, placed the spotlight on local leadership, he said. 

Her morals were demonstrated again when she helped assist the students leading lunch counter sit-ins, Heller said.

“She guided and supported them to chart their own oath, recognizing that their energy and courage needed to be soft directed,” he said. 

From Baker’s meeting with the students, The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was created. 

Due to her work, Baker was asked to be the keynote speaker at the nominating committee for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was a political party organized to support Black political candidates. 

Two days before the convention, three young civil rights activists were found murdered in a dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. 

Baker’s speech became a eulogy for these young men, declaring, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Heller described her speech as “both mournful and militant.” 

Heller continued his lecture by highlighting activist Rosa Parks. Her work included the founding of the NAACP Youth Council and organizing a protest at the Montgomery Public Library in order to end the exclusion of black people from the library. 

Her arrest on Dec. 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat was part of her long track record of prominent activism within the civil rights movement. 

The next Black woman highlighted was Claudette Colvin. As a teenager, she was arrested before Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat. She was placed under indefinite probation under her parents’ care following her trial. 

The charges remained on Colvin’s record until 2021. 

There was discussion of a bus boycott following Colvin’s arrest. However, as Heller discussed, the conclusion was made that at the time “she was too young and too dark to build the citywide movement around.” 

The final two women mentioned were Mary Fair Burks and Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. 

Burks founded the Women’s Political Council in 1946, with the mission “to inspire negros to live above mediocrity, to elevate their thinking…and in general to improve their status as a group” before Robinson took it over in 1950. 

Some of Robinson and the Women’s Political Council’s most prominent work came following the arrest of Parks. 

Robinson and the Women’s Political Council printed off 50,000 flyers reporting that a Black woman had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat. They asked for all Black people to stay off the buses Monday, launching the bus boycott. 

Heller completed his lecture by professing that “without these and countless nameless others, the legacy of Dr. King would not be our inspiration…That march was but one more step in the longer and larger march of the civil rights movement.” 

Heller concluded the entirety of his lecture with a reminder that the movement towards justice for all is not complete. 

“The civil rights movement is more than a march and a speech.”, Heller said. “It is the daily activity that we all do. Sit down one day, not today, because we still have a long way to go.”

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