"I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete." - John Lewis, 1940-2020
John Lewis shared those words in his speech as part of the 1963 March on Washington. He was 23 years old, and the youngest speaker to grace the podium that day. As I reflect on his recent passing, my heart is heavy. Lewis was well aware that the "revolution of 1776" did not include the "freedom" of his ancestors. As the son of sharecroppers, and growing up in the Deep South during the era of segregation, he knew as well as anyone that "all" Americans were STILL not "free." Even after organizers cautioned him to "tone down" his speech, Lewis stood boldly on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and made a call to action to all who were in attendance and watching around the country to fight for "true freedom."
Joining Lewis on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement was Rev. Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian. Rev. Vivian was often described as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Field General." He worked very closely with Dr. King throughout the Civil Rights Movement, challenging unjust laws, policies and procedures throughout the Deep South. John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian dedicated their lives to fighting injustice and realizing the "Dream" that Dr. King spoke of on that day in August 1963. On July 17, 2020, they both departed this earth, still on the front lines of the fight for justice. As I reflect on the lives and legacies of John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian, I feel compelled to answer the appeal set forth by Lewis in 1963.
Lewis once attributed his interest in politics as a means to create change. He knew firsthand that the "system" was flawed and racist. It was not designed for "all" individuals to be treated equally or fairly. Therefore, he decided the best way to change it would be from within. As a Georgia State legislator and then as a Congressman for 17 terms beginning in 1986, he fought to end racist and discriminatory policies and laws. He was an ally for women's rights and LGBTQ+ rights and a champion of "freedom." President Barack Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 for his contributions as a "freedom" fighter.
Weeks before the day known as "Bloody Sunday", Rev. C.T. Vivian led a contingent of protestors to Selma, AL to fight for equal voting rights. On the Dallas County courthouse steps, Rev. Vivian was confronted by the Dallas County Sheriff, Jim Clark. Rev. Vivian responded by saying, "You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice." Clark responded by physically assaulting Rev. Vivian. Rev. Vivian was not deterred, and later described the incident by saying, "Everything I am as a minister, as an African American, as a civil rights activist and a struggler for justice for everyone came together in that moment." President Barack Obama presented Rev. C.T. Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 for his tireless efforts to fight injustice.
When people ask me what drew me to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work, I think about Lewis. Like Lewis, I grew up in Alabama. I was born and raised in Birmingham, a city referred to as "Bombingham" during the days of Jim Crow due to the racist violence against Blacks that took place. Though segregation was "over," I still saw the lasting impact of systemic racism and discrimination. I often found myself being reminded that though it was the 1980s and 1990s, many of the attitudes and practices had not changed since Lewis' time. There were still parts of town into which my parents warned me not to travel. I endured racial slurs and micro/macro aggressions throughout my time in school. By the time I reached high school, I had made it a point to be part of change. I helped organize efforts to re-establish a safe space for students of color at my predominantly white high school. When I got to college at an Ivy League predominantly white institution (PWI), I continued to participate in organizations that challenged the "system." My senior thesis was about the effects of "Stereotype Threat" on the achievement of African American students at PWIs. During my doctoral studies, I examined the systemic racism and oppression at PWIs and their impact on students, faculty and staff of color. I was personally invested in this research as it reflected my own experience attending and working for PWIs throughout my entire academic and professional career. I know firsthand the trauma that a student from a marginalized group can experience at a PWI, and that is why I do this work. I view DEI work in academia as John Lewis viewed politics - a way to make change. In the words of John Lewis, I believe we have a "moral obligation to say something" when we see something that is unfair or unjust, and I see this work as making "good trouble."
Today, I'm making an appeal to continue the legacies of John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian by creating an anti-racist society as part of ther "new normal" emerging in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. For me, that begins here at Purnell. I am proud to serve as the first DEI Director in Purnell's history. One of my first initiatives was to work with leadership, staff and students to create a diversity statement. To me, we cannot begin the process of moving forward if we do not explicitly state the type of environment we want Purnell to be. Just as Lewis challenged a nation to realize that the revolution of 1776 is not complete, I challenge our Purnell community to indeed live up to our founding guidelines of: Truthfulness in all Relations, Consideration of Others, and Use of Common Sense. These principles ring hollow if we do not take action to create a truly inclusive, welcoming community. This begins with our institutional DEI plan of action, and it begins with all of us. I propose we make some "good trouble." Will you join me?
Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion