Yesterday, amid still-high snow drifts and high gusts of ice cold wind, Goodwin College held a panel discussion on Civil Rights and the 50th Anniversary of the "I Have A Dream" speech in conjunction with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, warming hearts and minds with the importance of this history. Booker T. DeVaughn, President Emeritus of Three Rivers Community College and Co-Chair of Connecticut's Civil War Commemoration Commission, gave the keynote, highlighting moments of the Civil Rights Movement such as Rosa Parks refusing to leave her seat after the driver of the bus moved the Whites Only sign into the "no man's land" area where she was sitting. Drawing from Taylor Branch's "Parting the Waters", he paid special attention to personal moments of Martin Luther King, Jr's early life, including his experience of integration working as a young man in Connecticut's tobacco fields, moments that helped shape him as a civil rights leader.
The thing that struck me the most in the panel discussion following Dr. DeVaughn's remarks was how quickly the conversation shifted to how each individual can stand up against injustice when we see it, both in our own lives and through supporting causes online. Katharine Kane, Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, noted that historical sites like the Stowe Center and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee allow visitors a personal experience of this history, while student Shelton Watkins talked about how he still sees and experiences injustice as a young person, even on a subliminal level. Dr. DeVaughn highlighted examples as diverse as the landmark decision in Sheff v. O'Neill, and Al Sharpton's National Action Network and their push to secure voting rights, as ways that individuals can challenge systemic injustice. Fittingly, the best comment came from a member of the audience, who reminded all of us that enslavement is enslavement of the mind, and that reading and critical thinking, as well as historical perspective, are needed to realize true freedom.
I've always believed that Martin Luther King, Jr. was trying to establish a framework for empowerment of the individual to fight systemic injustice - the last book he wrote, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community" speaks to the local community organizing he was engaged in before he was assassinated - and the discussion yesterday, focusing on what we can do now to confront the injustice we experience, now, was very much in keeping with the nonviolence philosophy of being the change you want to see. Wonderfully inspiring, wrapping past and present into the hope of a better future, the discussion ended, sending all of us through cold Connecticut winds to our cars, destined for our neighborhoods, destined for home, destined for change.