By Molly Ashline, Staff Writer
Published in print Feb. 11, 2015
UNCG’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) gathered impactful civil rights leaders from the Greensboro area last week to talk about the past, present and future of the civil rights movement. The panelists were Joyce Johnson, Monica Walker and Derick Smith.
Johnson works at the Beloved Community Center, Walker is the diversity officer for Guilford County schools and Smith is a professor of political science at N.C. A&T University.
Johnson and Smith serve as the labor chair and the action chair for the state NAACP, respectively.
NAACP President Ty Johnson introduced the panelists. Following introductions, Vice President Mariah Governor asked the panelists a series of questions. The floor was then opened up to questions from the audience.
Many questions focused on activism. When one audience member asked about how to combat the diminishing sense of urgency associated with the modern civil rights movement, Smith was quick to point out that major improvements still need to be made.
“The movement never ended. We should never speak of the civil rights movement in the past tense. It’s a constant movement, and it always needs to be addressed,” Smith said.
This attitude was repeatedly expressed as the panelists encouraged the students present to learn and be active in their communities.
“We’re here…out of a conviction that this generation is going to go even further than we were able to go,” Johnson told student audience members.
Walker echoed this sentiment, saying, “My hope is that we’re on the verge of another movement for change, and the pivot of change in this country has always been you all.”
The panelists also acknowledged their efforts during the 1960s and subsequent decades. One of the major challenges the panelists faced in their youth was the restricted access to education.
“I attended the University of Alabama…it was the most conscious-waking experience I had of being one of few black students on a predominately white campus and recognizing the urgency of what that meant, surviving it, and the making sense of it and reacting to it,” said Walker, who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in Mobile, Ala.
“We came to understand that the very foundations of education…are racist,” Johnson said.
Johnson graduated from Duke University in 1968; there were only six African-American students in her graduating class.
The panelists’ argument for self-education, something they alluded to frequently, may be, in part, due to their strained relationship with the education system.
“You don’t have to believe me. You’re a student. You should be intellectually curious, and you should go and find out. Study to know,” Walker told students in the room.
“You’ve got to study, and I don’t mean for a grade. When we were in school, we had the academic curriculum, but we had study groups all the time. We were teaching each other,” Johnson said in agreement.
Still, all three panelists were candid about their views on race; however, they expressed their views in different ways.
“What most of us don’t see, is that while [racism] is oppressing us, it’s lifting up [whites]…the authenticity then of our relationships is our ability to talk about race,” said Walker, who focused many of her comments on institutional racism.
Smith, on the other hand, commented on the language used to talk about race, saying, “I prefer ‘black’ because for me it was the only reference to us that we grabbed ahold of and used for empowerment, and we were discouraged from using it.”
In contrast to the other panelists, Johnson commented on her spiritual connection to race.
“I think there’s spirit in everything. That was a point of maturity for me. I’ve always been to church and really identified the ’50s and ’60s with the children of Israel and their struggle and how they were set free, but they had to do a lot. I think that is very important, particularly when you can see the long road as opposed to just this particular battle,” she said.
Because of the panelists’ experience with the civil rights movement, many attendees were also curious about how the panelists viewed the current tensions between police and African-Americans.
“When we look across this country and start to tally up the lives, the unjust brutality…the primary target has been black men,” Walker asserted.
She continued, saying, “To be pro-black and say black lives matter is not to say any others don’t matter.”
This led the discussion to the topic of justice and what it means in society.
Walker argues that “justice removes all the predictions.”
“It’s when we can no longer predict who’s going to populate our jails, when we can no longer predict who’s going to be hungry and go to sleep without food. It’s when we can no longer predict who’s going to die younger or live sicker,” Walker concluded.