The civil rights movement lost torch-bearer John Lewis six months ago, but his legacy was still very much alive yesterday as the Northeastern community remembered how the Georgia congressman’s encouraging words to stir up “good trouble” impacted their lives and their academic research.
Lewis was the focal point of the university’s annual Martin Luther King commemoration, which comes at a time of high political and racial tumult, according to several speakers on the agenda. Lewis, who died at 80 from cancer, was, like his friend King, an advocate of nonviolence who championed racial equality in the Jim Crow South. King would have turned 92 years old last Friday.
“John Lewis’s life and mission exhorted us to be good troublemakers in order to build a society without racism,” said Joseph E. Aoun, Northeastern’s president. “This goal is universal.”
But recent events, including an image seen around the world of a protester storming the U.S. Capitol carrying a Confederate flag, should serve as a reminder that more work needs to be done, said Ted Landsmark, an attorney and distinguished professor of public policy and urban affairs who facilitated a panel discussion with other Northeastern faculty.
“We are experiencing a level of discourse and turmoil around race and social justice in this country that is unprecedented,” said Landsmark, who opened the talk by recalling his own involvement in the civil rights cause in Selma, Alabama.
“I was not one of the marchers,” he said. “I was one of the people in the background preparing sandwiches for the marchers.”
In 1965, Selma was the sight of one of the most famous turning points in the quest for civil rights when Lewis led protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, demanding voting rights. In the ensuing violence that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, Lewis and others were hit with blows by state troopers. Outrage over the incident later led to passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Northeastern third-year student Damian Lee, a Torch Scholar, opened the MLK program with a rendition of the Simon and Garfunkel classic, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Viewers also heard the story of Northeastern undergraduate and Torch Scholar Tyreke Gaston, an aspiring medical doctor.
Northeastern also co-sponsored the 51st Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast in Boston, the oldest MLK event in the nation—reimagining the breakfast as a virtual event that included an extended program of virtual rallies and teach-ins.
At the afternoon event, panelist Nicole Aljoe, an associate professor of English and Africana studies at Northeastern whose research focuses on the slave narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries, said her connection to Lewis’s story revolves around “good trouble,” the phrase he made famous.
“These are terms that are not supposed to go together, but his life has shown the crucial importance of linking these two terms,” she said. The Capitol riots caused her to think more deeply about the relationship between the two words.
“What does it mean to be good as an American, and what does it mean to ‘trouble’?”
For law professor Shalanda Baker, whose work lies at the intersection of climate, energy, and social justice, the civil rights movement transcends popular notions.
“When people think about the civil rights movement, they often think about the right to vote or the right to take up space in the public sphere,” she said, but racism is part of many other systems, including the energy system.
Fellow panelist and law school faculty member Hilary Robinson tied Lewis’s efforts to the work she’s doing in the domains of technology, law, and labor struggle, which were embedded in the struggle for civil rights, she said.
“The labor struggle and capitalism itself were part of what Martin Luther King and John Lewis wanted to scrutinize as they thought about the social distribution of rights by race,” Robinson pointed out. The current system of capitalism reflects the distribution of resources that was set into place by preceding events such as slavery, she added.
Landsmark said students have questioned how the civil rights movement of the 1960s has relevance to them today. He then asked the panelists to cast Lewis’s work forward to 2021, particularly as it relates to an academic environment such as Northeastern’s that is largely global.
“It highlights the fact that freedom is not a given,” said Aljoe.
For Baker, it’s about ongoing solidarity, like the Black Lives Matter marches she saw over the summer in France and Latin America. “We are in this together,” Baker said.
The complete MLK event is available for viewing on the university’s Facebook page.
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