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Davis: Murders hastened civil rights

Icon reminds Pacific crowd freedom summer deaths sparked change


by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Angela Davis, a 1960s civil rights activist-turned-author and lecturer, spoke at Pacific University Friday. She reminded the audience the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer is coming in June.Sometime during the night of June 21, 1964, civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered — shot at close range — by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement officers.

The three had been working on the “Freedom Summer” campaign, speaker and former Black Panther Angela Davis told a rapt crowd in Pacific University’s Stoller Center Friday. They’d been trying to end the state’s system of rigid segregation.

Chaney was black. Goodman and Schwerner were white.

Before that, the media “paid little attention” to the persecution of black voters in the southern states, said Davis, a retired professor with the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“While the events that summer got national attention, there were a large number of black activists who felt the media had reacted only because northern white students were killed,” she said. “When they went to look for the bodies of the men, they found many more that no one had been looking for.”

Walking to the podium with a broad smile to address a sold-out audience of students and community members, Davis paused to speak somberly of two university students — Ayan Osman and Kiden Dilla, who lost their lives in a traffic accident earlier this month — and offered her condolences to the students’ families.

Pacific student Namitha Lukose said she came to the lecture because she felt that Davis’s message regarding people of all races has transcended generations.

“My family is from India. Davis’s activism paved the road for many in the United States, including those from countries like India,” Lukose said.

Sierra Briano of Forest Grove said she grew up during the civil rights movement and had read stories of Davis’s struggles.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to be in the presence of a person who has endured more than many of us can imagine,” she said.

Davis focused on the upcoming 50th anniversary of “Freedom Summer,” which she said was the first time volunteers from across the U.S. descended on a state to risk their lives for a universal cause: desegregation.

It was an attempt to register as many black voters as possible in Mississippi, which had the lowest percentage of black voters in the country, she said.

The movement also set up “freedom” schools, houses and community centers in small towns throughout the state to aid the black population.

Many volunteers were attacked almost as soon as the campaign started. The violence led to arrests — with the homes of many black families getting burned to the ground — and public attacks.

Davis said she hopes to “get students involved in activism again” and to teach people to not get caught up in a “network of guilt and color blindness.”

She’d like people from all walks of life to “understand that it is acceptable to talk about their history ... to not fear speaking about the slavery that happened 160 years ago in the United States and to take seriously the adage that personal is political.”

Davis lauded contemporary black authors, such as Toni Morrison, Gail Jones and Nina Simone, for encouraging women to eschew traditional masculine ideologies and find their own voices. “Now, more than ever, we need to incorporate a feminist approach to activism,” she said.

She also mentioned the book, “The New Jim Crow,” which describes dramatic racial inequities in the nation’s current prison system.

After the lecture, Erica Fuller asked Davis how to get people involved in activism and to employ the feminist approach.

“Organizing and being creative in new ways of getting people together will help,” Davis responded. “There are no guarantees for results when it comes to creating a social movement — but you must act as if change were possible [and] prepare yourself should it happen.

“Self-care, meditation and yoga are also important. This is something that I wish I had learned when I was younger.”