Civil Rights Exhibit Opens Amid Protests

Students protesting University President James W. Wagner’s controversial column about the Three-Fifths Compromise joined members of the Emory and Atlanta communities at the opening of a civil rights exhibit in the Robert W. Woodruff Library Friday evening.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) exhibit, titled “And the Struggle Continues,” chronicles the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contemporaries in achieving desegregation, gaining suffrage and dismantling systematic discrimination in the United States. The event, which began at 6 p.m., included speeches from civil rights leaders who were contemporaries of King.

The exhibit comes to campus at a time when local and national groups are outraged over Wagner’s use of the Three-Fifths Compromise as an example of political compromise in a column for Emory Magazine. The clause was an agreement made between the Northern and Southern states in 1787 and stated that only three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for purposes of taxation and voting representation. Faculty voted to censure Wagner on Wednesday.

At 5:30 p.m. Friday evening, approximately 30 students convened at Asbury Circle with flyers and signs with phrases such as “I am NOT an afterthought“ and “I deserve 5/5 respect.” Protestors consisted of members of the Student Revisioning Committee (SRC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among others.

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The protestors marched silently from Asbury Circle to the exhibit in the Schatten Gallery and Jones Room at Woodruff Library.

“We’re here to show our solidarity against what — at least I personally feel, but I think a lot of us feel — is a shameless co-optation of the legacy of the civil rights movement by James Wagner,” said Patrick Blanchfield, sixth-year Laney Graduate School student.

Both Blanchfield and NAACP members said they did not wish to disrupt the opening of the exhibition.

“We will continue to fight against the systematic disenfranchise and marginalization of students and faculty at Emory and dismantle the culture of apathy and ignorance ingrained in Emory’s community,” said Kayla Hearst, President of Emory’s NAACP.

Upon arriving, the protestors stood in a circle away from the exhibit holding their signs, awaiting the arrival of Wagner.

“As long as they’re respectful of the event, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Rich Mendola, senior vice provost of library services and digital scholarship. “SCLC is in the spirit of protest after all.”

The event itself drew a couple hundred Atlanta residents and Emory community members. As guests began to congregate in the Schatten Gallery in anticipation of the evening’s speakers, the protestors gathered in the back holding their signs high to send their message to Wagner. Wagner’s arrival at 7 p.m. prompted the beginning of the speeches.

“The exhibition raises the question ‘well, just how far have we come?’ and the second question is ‘how far do we have to go?’” Wagner said in his speech.

He answered his own question.

“I personally have a long way to go, and I pledge myself toward working toward that just society that we all seek.”

The atmosphere shifted to admiration with loud applause and hollers of approval as Congressman John Lewis, a venerated member of the African American and Atlanta community,  stepped up to the podium.

“The ideas that the SCLC struggled for and Martin Luther King, Jr. died for are still being debated today in the Congress, in the courts, in legislatures, in the press and at dinner tables around the country,” Lewis said.

Civil rights leader and former President and CEO of SCLC Charles Steele, Jr. described how the SCLC forged a relationship with Emory University in 2005 and how the effort to gain equality endures.

Steele recalled the story of A. Philip Randolf imploring President Franklin Roosevelt to desegregate public services like buses and water fountains, to which Roosevelt replied, “Make me do it.” Steele consequently ended his speech shouting, “I promise you one thing, we’re gonna make you do it.

The idea that modern civil rights leaders have a long way to go to achieve King’s ideal society was a theme of the evening as Dorothy Cotton, SCLC’s educational director, began her speech by singing a line from a song from the civil rights era.

Cotton described her experiences working with King on the Citizenship Education Program, which helped disenfranchised individuals gain the right to vote. Her speech highlighted the individual efforts of civil rights leaders during the movement and charged her audience in a call to action.

“People sometimes talk like they’re waiting for Dr. King to come back and fix things — I want us to think about what do we see that’s not working right, what do you see that’s not working right?” she asked.

At one point, Cotton broke into song and members of the audience joined her. She concluded her speech by discussing the effects of divisions among people.

“[King] taught us what did it mean to love those who hate you,” she said. “Once you get anybody in a category and you measure each group against somebody else we do some weird things.”

Bernard Lafayette, a distinguished scholar-in-residence at the Candler School of Theology, told anecdotes about his experience during the freedom riders movement, which protested segregation on bus systems. He stressed the importance of educating people about the civil rights movement, as he himself teaches a class at Emory.

Lafayette underscored the importance of continuing to strive for equality, referencing the student protestors.

“Yes, the struggle continues. I see some signs back there about the struggle.”

The protestors filtered out of the gallery as the speeches concluded.

— By Rupsha Basu

Photography by Thomas Han

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  • Harry Balzaq

    The sense of entitlement in this country is ridiculous. This story about an article in an alumni magazine that no one reads makes the front page of the New York Times. Yet, Jesse Jackson Jr. was just found to have stolen over $700,000 from his campaign and the news media barely covers it. These protests are just a way to promote an unpopular agenda of more affirmative action and wasteful financial aid at Emory. This should be a lesson on why you shouldn’t be generous in the first place. There are too many ungrateful people out there and when you try to take away something, all hell breaks loose.

    • James Wagner

      Dear Harry –

      Thank you so much for your perceptive and open-hearted words. It’s support from people like you that gets me out of bed in the morning.

      Best,

      James

      P.S. I’m getting a sense from your comments RE: Jesse Jackson, entitlement, ungrateful people, affirmative action, and wasteful financial aid that you might have some thoughts on race relations in this country, but I can’t quite put a finger on them – your analysis is subtle and your prose nuanced. Maybe you could write my next piece in the Emory Report for me?

      • Bravo!

        This is perhaps the most masterful dismissal of a racist troll that I have ever seen in the comments section of a Wheel article. Bravo!

  • White guilt

    I feel awful about Wagner’s column. I think that Emory needs to apologize to the African-american community in Atlanta by having a huge affirmative action bake sale at a future Wonderful Wednesdays. Black people only have to pay 3/5s as much as white people to show the benefits of affirmative action at Emory. Everyone in Atlanta is invited to participate.

    • James Wagner

      Dear WG –

      Reading your letter, I realize that my column may in some inexplicable and entirely unanticipatable way have activated certain ambigious racial animosities simmering in some segments of our culture. This is utterly surprising to me, especially since in my piece I didn’t mention race or racism or even African Americans as such at all. Moreover, I ran it by Vice President Gary Hauk and I don’t recall him raising those issues with me, either.

      Be that as it may, I thank you for your fulsome support and the charming scenario you suggest!

      Yours,

      James Wagner

      PS. If you are an alumnus, please give!

  • J Wheezy

    We need to have a real protest during Dooly’s week. Get Al Sharpton, Kanye West, Mos Def and Cornell West to make guest appearances. Who’s down with that?

    • James Wagner

      Dear J Wheezy –

      Is there any chance your name might be James? This would be a lovely coincidence! We have so much in common. If I were there I would clasp your arm and squeeze it vigorously in an avuncular and yet clearly dominant way, smile my trademark winning grin.

      Thank you for your letter of support. I’m not sure who those people are, but I certainly don’t like protests and would encourage you not to have one unless we can localize it in a free speech zone or unless you give us plenty of notice to lock down campus ahead of time.

      I wonder if perhaps you might like funding for your event. Honestly, you might as well since we’ll certainly issue a release saying it was a university-organized forum in any event, maybe even crop some photos we take to cut out the photos and publish in a press release. So you might as well just take the money, it makes it easier. It always does.

      My I’m being candid. I realize I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because you’re named James too – I feel like we’re brothers. Of course, I don’t mean that in a racial way, I mean, I mean I don’t mean it like guys who high-five each other and are like, Hey, brother! You know the way those people say it to each other, you know what I mean? The way Kanye and Cornell West might call each other brother. Wait are those two related? Do they perform together? This isn’t helping. OK I mean – OK Gary Hauk would tell me to rein it in here so, yes, I mean, I feel brotherly affection for you, not quite like I did towards my fraternity brothers, nor as I currently do towards stalwart chums like Emory Board of Trustees Chair Benjamin F Johnson the III, Esq., but in a warm, beneficent, tolerating kind of way. Actually the warmth may just be this Bourbon – it’s a excellent, really smokey, with notes of peat, some spice. It must have been in quite the quite the cask.

      But where was I? Ah! That’s right, that’s where I was. Thanking you for your support, and addressing the possibility of your friends coming to campus. They absolutely should visit! We do great campus tours here indeed, and your friends definitely should dine at any of the fine new offerings at the Emory Pointe development just by the CDC. So yes I’m certain they’ll have a grand time on campus and by then all the controversy will have died down. It will be late Spring, everyone will have moved on to other things, and the Commission on the Improvement of Relations Between the Races that I will have nobly and bravely called for will be nearing prime time for quietly defunding. By the way I have to remember to ask Gary to come up with a better name for that Commission, I don’t think the one I’ve come up sounds right somehow but I can’t put my finger on it. Any it will be a capital time to visit.

      James, this bourbon is as thick as molasses and body to match. Oh James, it’s been another one of those just-more-than-slightly-half-of-a-fifth sundowners for you, hasn’t it been? Another evening on the West veranda watching the sun go down reflected in Candler Lake. But it’s just so lovely here surveying the cold sky and rocking back and forth, so warm. The swans are gone but I can see cranes on the horizon. The construction kind, of course. On a clear day I can see the workers as they build the new medical school building, neon vests and hard hats through a break in the trees and past the fence on Haygood Drive. Yesterday morning they were hammering rebar into a foundation between some new landscaping features. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting away, hitting away. It’s a bustling place, my campus, full of movement and money and forgetting.

      I can’t wait to forget last week. I’m already nearly there. If you squint your eyes just a little bit more in the half-light of dusk it gets fuzzier and older and it could be any time, really, two weeks ago, last year, a hundred fifty, more.

      Thank you again for your support.

      J.W.

  • Andy R.

    Controversy aside, the SCLC exhibit is fantastic.

  • Elizabeth Hennig

    “James Wagner” is a genius.

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  • http://www.uJXyXjAcjtuJXyXjAcjt.com/uJXyXjAcjtuJXyXjAcjt Octavio Trimbach

    Excellent collection, Eric, appreciate it. Bookmarked and shared :)

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