GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — In 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer came to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City to speak out on civil rights issues, decrying the treatment of black people in the South who had been rebuffed in their efforts to register to vote.
On Thursday, a question from a student at a symposium honoring Hamer at Richard Stockton College made it clear that issues of race and inequality have not been resolved.
Keynote speaker and civil rights activist Cornel West challenged students to continue the fight for civil rights for all people at the 10th annual Fannie Lou Hamer Human and Civil Rights Symposium. He called Hamer an American revolutionary who loved America but was willing to question her country if she felt it was not living up to its ideals.
“She didn’t want to be respectable. She wanted respect,” said West, a dynamic speaker whose talk touched on topics ranging from history and philosophy to jazz. He peppered his talk to students with questions: “What does it mean to be human?” “How do you maintain decency in the face of insult?”
And he made clear that, for him, human rights injustices continue and must be challenged.
“A baby killed by a U.S. drone is as precious as one killed (at a school) in Newtown, Conn.,” West said.
The 10th anniversary event included excerpts from previous symposiums and a panel discussion by Stockton professor and Africana Studies Program Coordinator Patricia Reid-Merritt; James Harris, president of the N.J. Chapter of the NAACP; Stockton history professor Michelle McDonald; and Gwendolyn Long Harris, executive director of the Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University.
Gwendolyn Harris said affordable housing and equitable education remain two huge civil rights issues in New Jersey, despite years of litigation. James Harris built on that, noting that New Jersey is one of the most segregated states, with most minorities living in poor, urban neighborhoods.
“We are the second wealthiest state, but there are still deep pockets of race and poverty,” he said.
McDonald, who teaches Caribbean and Latin American studies told students to think globally, citing U.S. relations with Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama as examples of areas where social inequality still exists.
Jose Gutierrez, of Egg Harbor Township, a graduate student in Stockton’s American Studies program, asked the speakers for their opinion of the term “color blindness” and what it means today.
“It is the elephant in the room,” said James Harris, who called it a figment of publicity. “I don’t want to be perceived as anything but black. I just don’t want to be discriminated against because of it.”
Reid-Merritt said the term suggests we don’t see inequality anymore, but it still exists.
West said he thinks people mean well, but by saying they are blind to someone’s color, they are implying there is something wrong with being a different color.
“I think people mean they don’t see the disgust and degradation that used to go with being black,” he said. “But being white was never seen as disgusting.”
Gutierrez said after the event that he asked the question because race is still an issue that comes up frequently in his course work. He said he understands the term is intended to be a rejection of racism, but racism still exists.
Contact Diane D’Amico: