by Dr. Elisabetta Zengaro
Communications Specialist, Division of Community Affairs
To thank employees for their contributions to The University of Alabama, UA hosted an evening of fun, activities and live entertainment for faculty, staff and their families during the inaugural You Make UA Great event, which took place Monday, Oct. 3 on the Quad.
“We are celebrating you because of an impact that you have every day on this campus and whether that’s in a residence hall, whether that’s in a classroom, whether that’s in a cafeteria, or any place on this campus, the way that you invest in our students and invest in our campus is what makes this university special,” said Dr. Stuart Bell, UA president.
The Division of Community Affairs, along with other campus partners, hosted the event.
“He [Dr. Bell] and I both agree that this institution, we’re often in the headlines for some major accomplishment, but it’s not the brick and mortar that does that, it’s the people who work here,” said Dr. Samory Pruitt, vice president for Community Affairs.
The purpose of the event was to show gratitude for all the ways employees contribute to the success of UA and the surrounding community.
“This is a really fun event to celebrate the employees here at the University because everyone here, no matter where you work, works really hard,” said Rebecca Johnson, communications specialist for UA Museums. “Sometimes we are in our own little bubbles, and we don’t know what other departments are out there, what everybody does, so this is a good way to meet other people and get to know everybody else on campus.”
As Johnson emphasized, employees in attendance enjoyed mingling with their colleagues across campus.
“I think it’s very unique for everybody ... to get together and get to know each other in different departments,” said Andrea Thomas, a staff member in facilities and custodial services.
“We are seeing friends and families from all over that we are friends with on campus that we don’t get to see very often,” echoed Lindsey Graham, associate director of operations for Student Account Services.
Attendees were treated to free food from local food truck vendors, games and activities. Local band, Bound and Determined, as well as the Million Dollar Band, provided live music, making for a fun evening for employees to spend with their colleagues and loved ones.
“I’m a remote employee, so it’s time conducive for me to be able to come with my family in the afternoon, get my kids from school and come over and get my husband off work, so I just think it’s great to have a family-friendly event,” said Jackie Harrison, program coordinator for the School of Social Work.
Big Al made a special appearance to pose for photos and mingle with the crowd. In addition to the music and activities, the event featured a resource table fair that showcased on- and off-campus resources available to UA employees and retirees.
“I think it’s a great idea because anytime there’s a large organization like the University, some people get siloed, and they don’t even know everything that’s out there, so having the opportunity to figure out what’s actually on campus, plus the surrounding resources in the community is great,” said Jeff Knox, CEO of YMCA of Tuscaloosa County. The YMCA was also one of the organizations with a table at the resource fair.
“It’s great and to be able to thank the employees because they’re our number one employee campaign,” added Monique Scott, campaign director for United Way of West Alabama.
While the event was geared toward employees, it was also an opportunity for students to share their appreciation for the impact faculty and staff have.
“Thank you for always continuing to put students first and know that we are grateful for you and the work that you put in our programs,” said Madeline Martin, SGA president as she addressed the crowd. “We couldn’t do what we do without what you do for us.”
by Dr. Elisabetta Zengaro
Communications Specialist, Division of Community Affairs
Collegiate athletics rivalries were cast aside when members of the InterCity Leadership Visit group from Athens, Ga., networked with their University of Alabama and Tuscaloosa city counterparts to discuss building town and gown relationships during the Art of Town and Gown Relationships Reception on Aug. 31.
The reception took place at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center in historic downtown Tuscaloosa, where visitors were greeted with live music from the Alabama Blues Project and treats themed around the Crimson Tide.
“Successful town and gown relationships require many conversations with partners across a community and having the opportunity to learn from other college towns about their challenges and opportunities provides those partners with ideas to bring home and adapt to fit the needs of their hometown,” said Alison McCullick, director of Community Relations for the University of Georgia.
The University of Alabama (UA) and University of Georgia are member institutions of the International Town and Gown Association, a global nonprofit association dedicated to college campus and community interests.
McCullick said the idea for the intercity visit came about as the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce worked with Georgia Power to identify communities with major universities that have similar challenges and opportunities.
“Tuscaloosa and Athens and a lot of college communities are on the cusp I think of continued expansive growth, but that growth, if it’s not done strategically, you have winners and losers,” said David Bradley, president and CEO of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce. “Let’s figure out to do it strategically so more people win.”
During the reception, members of UA’s Neighborhood Partnership Committee (NPC) shared how the group was created in 2003 from a mutual effort to address community concerns with university students moving into the city’s historic district.
“I got involved because our president at the time said we have to figure out how to make this work, and I’m so grateful that we were able to get it to work,” said Dr. Samory Pruitt, UA vice president for Community Affairs.
NPC is composed of students, off-campus neighbors, business owners, community leaders, city officials, University police officers, city police, ABC Board officials and University administrators whose mission is to improve the relationships between students, law enforcement and off-campus neighbors.
“We all know the landscape of law enforcement across our country, the difficulty that we’ve been having over the past few years, so it’s been good for me to be a part of bridging the gap between us and, not just the university community, but Tuscaloosa as a whole,” said Daniel Mosely, community relations officer for the UA Police Department and member of NPC. “I really appreciate this opportunity. We all know that with dialogue, a lot of things can be accomplished.”
As Mosely highlighted, working to improve communication among neighbors, business owners, students and law enforcement officials can proactively address issues that are of mutual concern to sustaining town and gown relationships.
“We have to look at something that provides a benefit and incentive to all the groups to let them rise above their own personal economic interests and look at what is best for the university and community as a whole,” said Robert Reynolds, who was part of the initial formation of NPC.
“Community engagement initiatives such as the UA Neighborhood Partnership Committee are extremely valuable and reflect campus and community commitment,” said Dr. Nicole Prewitt, director of programs and partnerships for Community Engagement and member of the Board of Directors for the ITGA. “It has been wonderful to highlight the art of developing relationships among partners in town and gown shared spaces.”
As Bradley mentioned, the visit to Tuscaloosa provided an opportunity for one college town to learn from another through that dialogue.
“There are so many very close similarities between Athens and Tuscaloosa and the University of Georgia and The University of Alabama, so what better way to try to leverage those connections than to get together to learn,” Bradley said.
“It’s been a great experience as a student to hear from leaders across the city, but also on campus and to hear how we can work as a team,” added Madeline Martin, UA SGA president.
Partipants taking in the sights of downtown York, Alabama
Group picture in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama
Networking time in Thomasville, Alabama
Panel discussion in Thomasville, Alabama
Group picture in front of the Safe House Black History Museum in Greensboro, Alabama
Downtown Greensboro, Alabama
Networking time in Carrollton, Alabama
Group picture at the Northport City Hall
by Dr. Elisabetta Zengaro
Communications Specialist, Division of Community Affairs
After a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Division of Community Affairs resumed its New Faculty Community Engagement Tour (NFCET), connecting University faculty, staff, graduate students and community members across various counties in the Black Belt region, Wednesday through Friday, May 11–13.
“What I discovered with these tours, with our work and just with life in general, is that most people want to do things that make life better for someone else,” said Dr. Samory Pruitt, vice president for the Division of Community Affairs. “Our purpose for these tours is part of the mission of The University of Alabama … to seek to improve the quality of life for folks in Alabama and beyond.”
Each day, faculty, staff and graduate students traveled by bus to a new area of the Black Belt and listened to panels of community leaders highlighting areas for collaboration in community-engaged scholarship. On the first day, tour attendees visited Walker, Pickens and Tuscaloosa counties. The second day included stops in Greene, Sumter and Hale counties. The tour concluded on Friday, May 13 with stops in Perry, Clarke and Dallas counties.
The tour began at the historic First United Methodist Church in Jasper, the oldest church in the city and famous for its architectural style. This was also the tour’s first-ever stop in Jasper.
While Walker County experiences similar challenges that rural communities across the nation face, it has emerged as the center of the opioid epidemic in Alabama, providing additional barriers in health and wellness for residents to overcome.
Rachel Puckett, deputy director of Capstone Rural Health Clinic, shared how the Capstone has addressed community needs in health services, elaborating on the relevance and reciprocity of UA community partnerships.
“In 2017, we had a project with University partners that equipped all our clinics with the competency, tools and staffing to serve our patients’ mental health needs,” Puckett said. “From there we were able to build on that model and integrate a medication assisted therapy program, which is a specific treatment program for folks with opioid use disorder into the primary care setting. Our community is the epicenter of the evolving opioid epidemic. It hit us hardest first, and we’re working diligently to be part of the solution … and create a model for our community.”
Healthcare also spearheaded the discussion in Carrollton, in Pickens County. Panelists highlighted the impact of “SMART (School Health Model for Academics Reaching All Transforming Lives) clinics” in improving access to healthcare, but they also stressed the need for more resources to address mental health and the challenges law enforcement officials face in Pickens County.
The first day concluded at City Hall in Northport, where City Administrator Glenda Webb led a discussion on economic growth and initiatives in Northport.
A purpose of the tour is to create meaningful relationships between university personnel and community members, and students participating in the tour expressed their eagerness to engage in this reciprocity.
“I’m on this tour because I want to further my learning opportunities, my learning experiences,” said Anika Ames, a student assistant in the Crossroads Civic Engagement Center. “It doesn’t just stop for me with graduation on Saturday. It continues with experiences like these.”
The first stop of the second day was in Greene County. Attendees gathered in the Robert H. Young Community Center in Eutaw, formerly known as Carver High School, the site of the historic 1965 student boycott and protest that took place during the height of the civil rights movement.
The bulk of the discussion centered on educational initiatives to strengthen the community, a theme that carried forward in other county stops. For example, Lillie Jones-Osborne, district judge for Greene County and chairman of the Greene County Children’s Policy Council, explained how the program “One Book, One Community” unites community members and improves literacy rates as each member of the community reads the same book for a period of time. Dr. Carol Zippert, of the Society of Folk Arts and Culture, added how the Black Belt Folk Roots Festival, which began in Eutaw in 1975, connects the community through art and music.
The group stopped for lunch in York, where panelists encouraged attendees to consider the economic impact of investing their educational skills into rural communities.
“Part of being educated is sharing that knowledge,” said local business owner Jeffrey Artis. “It does no good to put a million dollars in a jar and never spend it to put back into the community. That knowledge that you’re getting at The University of Alabama is that millions of dollars. You have to take it out and invest it to get more back.”
Next, the tour proceeded to Project Horseshoe Farm in Greensboro where Jovita Lewis, Hale County coordinator for cooperative extension, shared the existing partnerships with UA and the Hale County Extension Office.
“We are also in partnership with the UA HomeFirst Program where we’re working with individuals to build their credit in order to purchase a home,” Lewis said. “One of the newest things that I’m involved in with the University is our health science technology camp. It’s out of the College of Nursing. We are presently trying to draw students into that program now.”
Other panelists discussed challenges and areas for growth in Hale County.
“We really want to try and have folks focusing more on what our assets are than what our deficits may be, depending on how you look at it, because our assets are the things that are going to make a difference,” said site coordinator Llevelyn Rhone.
The day concluded with a tour of the Safe House Museum, the home in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought shelter from the Ku Klux Klan during the civil rights movement.
The group began the final day of the tour at the West Perry Volunteer Fire Department in Perry County.
Emefa Butler, one of the site coordinators and founder of C.H.O.I.C.E. (Choosing to Help Others in our Community Excel), informed the group of many areas for university partnerships in Perry County, such as addressing transportation needs for school choice, increasing community involvement with local schools through school-based projects, medical training in rural health, lack of housing, access to recreation and grant writing.
One of the main issues facing rural communities in the Black Belt is the “brain drain” of young adults leaving these communities for opportunities in bigger cities, which panelists at the second stop in Thomasville debated.
At Selma, the group reconvened at the Selma Dallas County Public Library, which was recently renovated to include a new children’s center, designed in part to address pitfalls of virtual learning for county schoolchildren during the pandemic.
“Our job is to bring people together,” said Becky Nichols, library director.
Bringing people together is also a goal of the Black Belt Community Foundation. Daron Harris, public relations director for the Black Belt Community Foundation, informed attendees of the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) Selma, a partnership between the Black Belt Community Foundation and Selma Center for Nonviolence that is funded by the Kellogg Foundation.
Other panelists stressed the importance of collaboration in partnerships, highlighting the many ways they work together to address community needs. “Partnership is how we get work done in the Black Belt,” said Lydia Chatmon, the director of TRHT Selma and the prevention director of Selma AIR, Inc.
The tour concluded with the group walking across Edmund Pettis Bridge and touring the Civil Rights Memorial Park in Selma before boarding the bus back to Tuscaloosa.
“One thing I have learned from these tours and working with the CCBP (Center for Community-Based Partnerships) is that community is how far your reach goes,” said Zahkeira Brown, a CCBP graduate assistant. “It’s not just the people around you.”
Participants talking about their poster presentation
Two participants with their poster presentation
Participants posing with their poster and plaque
Participants talking over hors d'oeuvres
Participants checking out other poster presentations
PTLA director, Andrea Ziegler, giving opening remarks
by Sophia Xiong
CCBP Graduate Assistant
On April 7, parents and teachers gathered at the Bryant Conference Center for this year’s Parent Teacher Leadership Academy (PTLA) graduation. After meeting virtually for the entire 2020–2021 academic year, 2021–2022 offered an opportunity to meet in person as well as online.
Andrea Ziegler, director for Community Education, welcomed everyone. “We are delighted to have each of you with us here tonight to celebrate our graduates and their accomplishments. This evening, we are proud to recognize more than one hundred graduates from our four participating districts. Graduates, we are pleased to honor you this evening,” she said.
Ziegler recognized school district superintendents Dr. Wayne Vickers, Alabaster City Schools; Vance Herron, Lamar County School District; Dr. Michael Daria, Tuscaloosa City Schools; and Dr. Keri Johnson, Tuscaloosa County School System.
Dr. Jim McLean, Community Affairs vice president and executive director of the Center for Community-Based Partnerships, gave the opening remarks. “Please let me congratulate this years’ parents and teachers for your achievements. I was especially excited that we could finally be in person again this year. It’s been really nice to see people in these sessions interacting,” said McLean. “This program intends to build the relationship between home and school, and we hope that took place during the year. This is one of the reasons I’ve been so supportive of the program. It really makes a difference.”
In 2020–2021, PTLA began a pilot academy, during which Tuscaloosa City Schools’ Paul W. Bryant High became the first high school to join the program. This year, two more high schools joined: Holt High from Tuscaloosa County School System and Thompson High from Alabaster City Schools.
Jake Peterson, program coordinator for Community Education, announced awards of certificates and plaques. Three school teams were declared Social Media winners. They are Sipsey Valley Middle School, Thompson High School and Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools-Elementary. Twelve school teams’ projects won grants — Arcadia Elementary, Big Sandy Elementary, Central Elementary, Collins-Riverside Intermediate, Creek View Elementary, Davis-Emerson Middle, Hillcrest Middle, Matthews Elementary, Meadow View Elementary, Skyland Elementary, The Alberta School of Performing Arts and Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools-Elementary.
In closing, Dr. Samory Pruitt, Community Affairs vice president, said. “I never miss one of these programs. I always enjoy hearing participants talking about their experiences, what it means to them to use what they learned to help the community and support each other. I also want to thank those superintendents. During the pandemic, we often see signs outside the hospital saying, ‘heroes are here.’ I would say heroes are also in these school buildings. We wouldn’t' be who we are without education. If you all didn’t continue to do your job and give our young generation a good education, the consequences would be devastating. I know it wasn’t easy, but you all did it anyway. I really want to say thank you to the group of teachers and parents who joined PTLA during the pandemic, and to this group of teachers and parents here tonight.”
The Math in Motion grant winner was Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools – Elementary (TMS-E), an ongoing collaboration between TMS-E and UA’s Honors College. Alice Stallworth, 2nd-grade teacher at TMS-E, said, “About two years ago, there was a student who always wanted to be a professional basketball player, and he told everyone that he would grow up to be a professional basketball player. But it only took one time for the students from the Honors College to come, and this student saw them doing a robotic project. After that, this student expressed an interest in engineering. This project really shifted our students’ thinking about what they can accomplish in their lives. And it is so important to lead them to see those entrances at a young age so that these ideas can grow with them.”
Global Café volunteers, language partners, former Fulbright recipients and members of the University community honored Dr. Beverly Hawk during the end-of-the-year celebration.
Vice President for Community Affairs, Dr. Samory Pruitt (left) congratulates Dr. Beverly Hawk (right) on her retirement, thanking her for her commitment to Fulbright opportunities and global community engagement at UA.
by Dr. Elisabetta Zengaro
Communications Specialist, Division of Community Affairs
Global Café recognized its Language Partners and congratulated Dr. Beverly Hawk, director of Global and Community Engagement for the Center for Community-Based Partnerships, on her retirement in an end-of-the-year celebration on Tuesday, April 26, in the Student Community Engagement Center at Capital Hall.
Hawk, who served at UA for 17 years and will retire May 13, was instrumental in helping UA become a top-producing Fulbright institution, with more than 100 Fulbright winners during her tenure, thanks in part to her commitment to Global Café and the Language Partners Program.
“She had a vision for it,” said Dr. Samory Pruitt, vice president for Community Affairs. “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Everything rises and falls on leadership.’ Dr. Hawk, this has risen on your leadership.”
Building friendships through cultural exchange has been the mission of Global Café since Hawk first proposed the café to Pruitt several years ago. The Language Partners Program assists that mission by pairing international community members with native English speakers to aid their conversational skills.
True to its name as a café, the celebration featured refreshments and live music while UA students, faculty, staff and community members bonded through intercultural engagement.
Two graduating students, Shabari Patterson and Catherine Bedore, were recognized with a certificate and carnation pin for assisting the program.
Following acknowledgement of the rest of the Language Partners, several former Fulbright winners thanked Hawk for her dedication and kindness, better known as “Hawkness,” during a video presentation. Several of the students, faculty, staff and community members who participated in Global Café also shared memories and words of gratitude for Hawk and the Global Café program.
“Seeing Dr. Hawk’s passion with us as federal work-study students and also our international students makes me want to come to work every single day, and I really enjoyed my time and my conversations with my language partners,” said Jordan Alexander, an undergraduate student with the Language Partners Program. “Over here we’re building friendships. We’re building memories, and that’s all thanks to Dr. Hawk.”
“We just have the most wonderful students in the world, and that’s why they’re winning so many Fulbrights,” Hawk said, as she looked around the room. “I am just so grateful for the wonderful opportunity that I’ve had to work with you and have people who can create this. When you dream something and you want to create that wonderful thing, it is just great, and I thank you so much.”
The celebration concluded with cake, ice cream and a special visit from Big Al. Hawk received flowers and a commemorative photo album in honor of her vision, which is now a staple of international community engagement at UA.
“For the folks who have participated over the years, those have been recognized this evening, and some that have worked in this before and have come back, we just thank you for buying into an idea that we had and the relationships that have been built as a result of that,” Pruitt said.
To view event photos, visit https://theuniversityofalabama.pixieset.com/thelastgreathurrah/
The University of Alabama Division of Community Affairs will partner with the Hale County Chamber of Commerce to present Toward a More Perfect Economy: The Challenge and Opportunity of Rural Communities, a conversation with Dr. Raphael W. Bostic, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
The event will be presented via Zoom webinar on Wednesday, Sept. 23, from noon–1:00 p.m. CT. Interested individuals are encouraged to register in advance at http://tinyurl.com/HaleCoBostic to receive Zoom login information, as well as to share questions for the panelists. The event will also be available via Facebook Live on the Hale County Chamber of Commerce Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/halecountychamber).
Bostic is the 15th president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. In this role he is responsible for all of the bank’s activities, including bank supervision and regulation and payment services. He also serves on the Federal Open Market Committee, the monetary policymaking body of the Federal Reserve System. Prior to joining the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Bostic served as the Judith and John Bedrosian Chair in Governance and the Public Enterprise at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. He graduated from Harvard University in 1987 with a combined major in economics and psychology, and earned his doctorate in economics from Stanford University in 1995.
Additional presenters include Alex Flachsbart, founder and CEO of Opportunity Alabama and a University of Alabama (UA) alumnus; Felecia Lucky, president of the Black Belt Community Foundation, who earned the MBA from UA; and Dr. Josh Pierce, chair of banking and finance at UA’s Culverhouse College of Business. Each will speak briefly about their organizations and how they serve Alabamians.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta serves the Sixth Federal Reserve District, which covers Alabama, Florida and Georgia, and parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. The bank has branches in Birmingham, Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville and New Orleans.
As a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, offices at The University of Alabama have been operating under a limited business model, including offices and centers throughout the Division of Community Affairs. This includes the Center for Community-Based Partnerships, the Student Community Engagement Center, and the Crossroads Civic Engagement Center.
While the initial outbreak required the cancellation of the remaining special events we normally host during the spring semester, it could not slow us from our mission. Knowing that the work we do with and within the community would become increasingly important, we pivoted to deliver the Division’s programs via technology platforms that allowed us to remain connected while maintaining physical distance. And we continued to plan for the future.
Now, as the University prepares for a return to campus in the fall, we continue to press forward — safely — with plans to continue many of our programs online into the fall semester. It’s a new space for a Division that bases its programs and activities on community engagement, but it has presented opportunities for us to explore new ways of doing things that can continue to have a positive impact when we get to the other side of this worldwide pandemic.
We encourage you to follow the University’s updates at healthinfo.ua.edu, and to stay abreast of Community Affairs happenings on our website and on our social media pages.
We wish you good health, and we continue to look forward to the day when we can get back to the work of community engagement on a face-to-face basis.
A nationally renowned civil rights expert was the keynote speaker for the 2019 Realizing the Dream Distinguished Lecture at the Embassy Suites hotel in Tuscaloosa on March 19. The title of his speech was “Honoring the Voting Rights Legacy of the United States Colored Troops.”
This series, now in its 19th year, featured Asa Gordon, retired NASA astrodynamicist and receiver of the 2016 Civil Rights and Social Justice Award in recognition of his promotion of the voting rights legacy post-Civil War, a legacy kept alive by the Sons and Daughters of the United States Colored Troops, of which Gordon is secretary-general.
Gordon gave the audience an inspiring demonstration of specific historical events of African- American Civil War activism. “The reason we have the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments is by virtue of their [black Civil War soldiers’] activism,” said Gordon.
Gordon’s presentation was based on his extensive and detailed knowledge of the history of African-American service during the Civil War, leading to the development of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Gordon, who said he began developing his presentation 10 years ago, has inspired countless audiences ever since and this night was no exception.
Gordon said the idea for the lecture came from his research on Civil Rights activism by African-Americans. “I am not just telling the story of how veterans and warriors helped saved the nation … but how they saved the constitution,” he said.
Gordon is founder and executive director of the Douglass Institute of Government, a Washington, D.C.-based educational think tank.
Gordon also touched on other areas of his social activism, which spans civil actions in regard to democratizing the Electoral College, constitutional penalty for voter disenfranchisement, 14th Amendment right to vote provisions, and neo-Confederate culture in American politics.
After the lecture, Stillman College Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness Dr. Mary Jane Krotzer hosted a question and answer session.
In welcoming attendees, Dr. Isaac McCoy, dean of Stillman’s School of Business, promised the audience exactly what Gordon delivered: “an informed and inspired” evening. Rose Bryant, president of Stillman’s Student Government Association, underscored the importance of institutional cooperation in bringing the event to Tuscaloosa.
“This event shows,” she said, “the power and impact of having three institutions of higher learning — the University of Alabama, the Stillman College, and Shelton State Community College — working together on behalf of the community.” The other community organization comprising the Realizing the Dream Committee is the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The Realizing the Dream program is under the overall direction and supervision of the Division of Community Affairs.
“Once again, the Realizing the Dream Committee has brought us a memorable event in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Vice President of Community Affairs Dr. Samory T. Pruitt. “Our division is privileged to be a part of this important program.”
The Tuscaloosa community gathered at the Embassy Suites Hotel Ballroom on March 27 to engage in dialogue with Julissa Arce, advocate for immigrant rights and education and author of “My (Underground) American Dream.”
The event was part of the Realizing the Dream Distinguished Lecture Series, which celebrates the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hosts for the event are Stillman College, Shelton State Community College, the Tuscaloosa Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and The University of Alabama.
For Arce, her American Dream began at the age of 11 when she accompanied her parents to the United States by plane from Mexico. They had work visas, but when her visa expired she became undocumented and remained so for the next 15 years.
“If you turn on the news you will hear about immigration every day. You will hear about border security and that in order to have border security we have to build a wall,” Arce told the audience of about 100. “Well I came here on a plane, and so I often think about how high this wall would have to be.”
Arce explained that 40 percent of undocumenteds in the United States never crossed the Mexico-United States border or any border illegally, but came here on a visa that later expired. She realized she was undocumented when she was 14 and anticipating returning to Mexico to celebrate her 15thbirthday with a Quinceañera, which in Latin culture marks the transition from childhood to womanhood with a lavish celebration similar to a wedding.
“My mother told me I couldn’t go to Mexico anymore, because my visa had expired and if I went to Mexico I couldn’t come back,” said Arce, who at the time did not understand the full implications of what it meant to be undocumented. “I went to sleep crying because I wasn’t going to have a party.”
For the next several years she learned to hide and live in the shadows of her parents, who had valid visas, and her little brother, who is a U.S. citizen. Still, she completely bought into the American Dream by working and studying hard and staying out of trouble.
In Texas in high school she excelled academically and athletically, but had few college options because with no social security number, she could not qualify. However, Texas passed a law allowing undocumented residents to attend college and qualify for state financial aid.
At 18 Arce thought, “If I could get my hands on enough financial resources I could become an American.” However, she soon realized that money was not the answer. Citizenship is only open to highly skilled workers, children of parents who are citizens, and spouses of Americans. There was no fee she could pay and no line she could stand in to become a citizen.
Yet, the finance major was undeterred and determined to work on Wall Street, and the summer after her junior year, she was accepted as an intern at Goldman Sachs and 10 weeks later offered a full-time job.
“However, after the initial excitement, the reality set in that it didn’t matter how hard I worked, I was still undocumented. The only choice that I could make was to buy a fake green card and a fake social security card,” she said. “I don’t say this as a source of pride, because I wish every day that I didn’t have to do that. It would have been so much easier to fill out an application, pay a fine and get my papers the right way.”
Every day for the next several years, she was constantly looking over her shoulder. When her father, who had moved back to Mexico, became ill and died, she could not go to Mexico to see him or attend his funeral, which led her to finally confide in her boyfriend that she was undocumented.
“A few weeks after I told him this, we were sitting in my apartment and he said, ‘Why don’t we get married?’ Don’t propose to your significant other that way,” she said. “It changed my life, but it still took five years and $20,000. We had resources and we were able to hire lawyers who could walk us through the case. However, many people who hire lawyers are defrauded.”
She said after beginning her journey to become a citizen, she realized she needed to do more to help others who were undocumented, which led her to found the Ascend Educational Fund to help other young people in similar circumstances.
“My story has a really great ending. I’m standing before you today. My book has become a Washington Post bestseller and is currently being developed into a television series with America Ferrera” (an American actress and director born in Los Angeles to Honduran parents), Arce said. “That is an amazing ending to this journey that I have been on, but there are still millions of people who are walking in the shoes I walked in for so long and their stories are not any different than mine. They work hard and they stay out of trouble.”
She said anti-immigrant rhetoric has caused people to think of undocumented immigrants as criminals, but that is not the case for the majority of people who come here searching for a better life and their own American Dream.
People tell her all that time she should have been in jail for lack of documentation, she said. “Things could have turned out a different way. Life is not straightforward and people are faced with very difficult choices and decisions.”
After the speech there was a question and answer session and a book signing.
“I am a moderator for a Sustained Dialogue class and I had never had a conversation about immigration,” said Beau Devaul, a senior at UA majoring in finance and economics, who said he was inspired by Arce’s story. “When I think about Dr. King he was about equality for all and I was happy to see that the series is inclusive of everybody.”
Dr. Samory Pruitt, UA’s vice president of community affairs, has been a part of the series since its inception. “I give the committee a lot of credit. They look at the theme we have and try to make sure the speakers enlighten our community on a wide array of social justice themes, not just black and white issues,” Pruitt said.
Marcelle Peters, a UA senior who is president of the University’s National Association of Hispanic Journalists and vice president of the Hispanic-Latino Association, said she first saw Arce on CNN discussing her book. “I though her American dream was particularly inspiring and suggested to the committee we bring her here,” said Peters, a second-generation Mexican-American citizen who will be the first in her family to graduate from college. “When I saw she had written a book and was an executive at Goldman Sachs, I thought we definitely need her to come and speak.”
“I worked with immigration with U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby’s office for years,” said Melissia Davis, a Stillman alumna and current member of its Board of Trustees. People looking for that American Dream still have to overcome difficult obstacles, she said.
It is a real honor tonight to be here with you. I really appreciate all of you being here because before we were coming down, we were watching television news and they announced that the national championship trophy was going to be on display in Tuscaloosa, and you can have your picture made with it at Target.
My lovely wife Louise, who is here with me tonight, looked at me and said, “Oh Lord, nobody’s going to show up.” Which was really her polite way of saying “I’d rather have something else to do in Tuscaloosa tonight.”
I would like to mention one regret that I have tonight is that some dear friends are not able to be here. Many of you may have known Becky and Melford Espy, long time and dear friends of mine. Both passed away a few years ago. Becky taught me social studies in the seventh grade and Mel was a counselor in high school when I was a student, and I owe them a lot, and I miss them and I know if they had been able to be here tonight, they would be here on the front row beaming proudly for someone they helped raised back in Fairfield, Alabama.
I’m also especially glad to be here tonight because you are honoring one of my dear friends and heroes, Bill Baxley. You will hear more about Baxley, but truly in 1970, when I was just 16 and he was only 28 years old, he was elected as Alabama’s Attorney General. I’m absolutely convinced that in 1978 if this state had elected him governor, we would be a far different state today.
I do quickly want to make one correction in your program though, because the program says that Bill was best known for his work in prosecuting the Chambliss case, which was the other 16th Street bombing case. He’s actually known very well for that, but what he’s best known for is something that is connected to the case. You see, when Bill, a great politician when he was in office, used to get all this mail he would answer all this mail. But during the investigation and trial of that case, he got a lot hate mail.
You can imagine in the early 70’s the kind of hate mail that came into his office. One in particular came in from Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Edward R. Fields, who was the National States Rights Party president from Atlanta. Bill showed me a copy of it, and it was awful. I mean, it was a three-page diatribe about how bad an individual Bill Baxley is, called him everything under the sun, including a disgrace to his race for prosecuting these “good white Anglo-Saxon Christian men.” But like all the great politicians, Bill responds to his letters, and this is what he wrote: “My response to your letter of February 19, 1976, is — kiss my ass.” True story folks, true story.
Bill and I travel together a lot, talking about the prosecutions of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing cases. I have been fortunate enough not only to travel with Bill, but also to travel throughout the state and country lecturing on those cases and the history behind them. Dr. Mullins and I were talking about this a moment ago. I have always been fascinated to see how important it is for people to learn about what happened in Birmingham in 1963, and how we came to prosecute two former Klansmen almost forty years later.
Folks seem to want to touch a piece of history, which I truly believe is history that is not adequately taught in our schools today. You see, people know the big picture, they know the events, they know about Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. they know and have heard about the Freedom Riders in 1961, they know about the children’s march and in 1963 the fire hoses and the dogs and the stand in the school house door in Tuscaloosa and the march on Washington, and yes, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
But for my legal team, as prosecutors, we had to connect all those events, connect the dots, if you will, to explain why it came to past that the 16th Street Baptist Church was targeted for a Klan bomb, and maybe even children targeted for death. So, let me explain just briefly about that.
In 1954, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision declared that separate schools are unequal schools, and the schools should desegregate with all deliberate speed. I don’t have to tell you the history of the “separate but equal” doctrine in schools in this country. But desegregation didn’t happen with all deliberate speed; it took decades. And in 1957, Fred Shuttlesworth decided to enroll his children in all-black Phillips High School in Birmingham, but he was met with a mob of white people and beaten. He and his wife were both beaten and chased up and down the sidewalks. One of the people in that crowd was an individual named Bobby Cherry. He felt so compelled to violence to stop school desegregation, that he would beat up a man of the cloth, a man of faith, Fred Shuttlesworth.
Then you have the 1961 freedom riders, and Bull Connor allows the Klan to have their way with the freedom riders. Police officers didn’t show up at the Greyhound bus station for some 20 minutes. But because of what happened to the freedom riders, Birmingham business leaders decided to change the form of government. It took them a while to get a change, but all of a sudden in the fall of 1962 the Birmingham city government changed from a three-member commission that included Bull Connor, to a mayor and city council. So they had an election. But at the same time, Reverend Shuttlesworth was in Atlanta talking to Dr. King to come to Birmingham to desegregate the most segregated city in America.
And the children’s marches took place just after the election. Bull Connor lost the mayor’s race but he stayed in the office. When all the marches were settled, and you’ve seen the pictures of the fire hoses and the dogs and the kids streaming out of schools to participate. When that was resolved with modest change to Birmingham, the Klan was not happy. And they responded the the only way the Klan knew how to respond and that was with violence.
A.D. King’s house was bombed shortly thereafter. The Klan was seeing their segregated way of life sliding away and they didn’t like it. In the children’s marches, it wasn’t just the children who were the symbols of the movement, but also the 16th Street Baptist Church, because that’s where they would meet. So now the Klan was unhappy and guess what: The 16th Street Baptist Church and the children were the symbols of the movement. The stand in the school house door made them angrier. They never dreamed that George Wallace would actually step aside. They didn’t know that it was just a charade all staged for his political career. Later that summer, bombs continued to blow up in Birmingham. Arthur Shores’ home was bombed twice.
In August was the “I Have a Dream” speech, and everyone thought that things were looking up.
It was a positive atmosphere, but in Birmingham the desegregation of Birmingham city schools was about to take place. Court ordered the desegregation of Birmingham city schools. Five days before the bombing of the church, young men and women walked into elementary and junior high schools to desegregate the Birmingham schools for the first time. And Birmingham was on edge.
Because so much violence over the years had occurred as a result of school desegregation, I don’t think it was coincidence that five days later the marquee outside the church was advertising a youth worship service that targeted the youth, and the children were coming to that church together again. That’s the weekend that it was targeted for a bombing. So the jury understood it, and the jury got it.
And it’s only by connecting the dots of history that people come to fully understand what was happening in this state and in this country. It’s only by connecting the dots today that we can measure how far we have come as a society, how far we have come to realize Dr. King’s dream that he so eloquently talked about on the mall in Washington.
Now certainly as has been discussed earlier, we had made enormous strides in race relations and equality, in civil rights and in human rights. Legally mandated social, racial segregation in Alabama and the South had been dismantled. The field of education had seen huge improvements. While just under 26 percent of black adults age 25 and older had completed four years of high school in 1964, the percentage had increased to 85 percent by 2012. The number of African-American college undergraduates has increased 10-fold since 1964. Infant mortality in the black community has dropped dramatically, although I think we still have a ways to go in Alabama.
African-Americans have come to occupy positions of power and influence from boardrooms to the State House and the White House. But it’s very easy, and especially at events like this, to talk about how far we have come, to mix and mingle and to pose for pictures and celebrate. We should celebrate, congratulate ourselves on our success. But it’s real easy to never have the conversations that we must have about race in this country, never even trying to connect the dots about what is happening in this state and in this country that is eroding the true fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.
A few years ago, I was struck by the final passages of an editorial in the Anniston Star following the death of Bobby Frank Cherry, one of the individuals I prosecuted. He’d died in an Alabama prison where he had been in since the conviction. The Star wrote: “Cherry represented the banality of evil in a time when it was more common than we like to admit. It is easy to look back on those times and see the militant racial hatred that consumed him had no place in a civil society then and certainly does not now. It’s much more difficult to confront the shadows of racism and prejudice that surround us in the present. It comes in subtle forms. There is rarely a fuse that gets lit. It’s more of a slow burn. But make no mistake, its flames are just as consuming as those that raged inside Bobby Frank Cherry.”
Like so many Americans, I believed with the election of Barack Obama we had finally moved past so much of our racial divides, not necessarily a completely post-racial world or whatever that term is. But we have really moved beyond having race so prominent in our everyday lives. Not that we have eliminated racism, but that race would not be as dominant a factor as it had been, at least in my lifetime. I remember on a really remarkable occasion on the night of election in 2008 I had gone to the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, which was the site of the beating of Nat King Cole in the fifties. It was the site of the Dixiecrat Convention in 1948, but on that night in November, it was the site of a victory party with the election of Barack Obama. And it was a raucous occasion, to say the least.
And I stayed and I enjoyed it, and it was awesome and as I am leaving, the party is still going on. I walk across a street, and I meet a friend that I had known for a while who’s been around in Alabama politics a long time, Billy Joe Camp. And I talk to Billy Joe, and we talked about that night, how exciting it was, and I say, “Well, I got to go to another party.” As I walked away I turned because it struck me as he also walked toward that party that I was just watching the former press secretary to the late Governor George Wallace going to a victory party for the first black president of the United States.
So, yeah, folks, we have come a long way.
But if there is one thing I have learned from Bill Baxley (and it’s a lot more than that): You kind of just tell things like it is, And unfortunately the election of President Obama appears what I hoped to have been a watershed was simply a high-water mark rather than lasting change, because with his election and since his election we have seen a consistent and disturbing erosion of civil rights in this country. It is everywhere and racial bigotry and prejudice are continuing to rise; you all know it.
As we sit here tonight, you all know it. It’s not necessarily talked about as much as it should be, but it needs to be, and frankly, it is being talked about more. We have economic disparity and the wealth gap is growing. Our schools tend to be more segregated today than they’ve ever been in the last fifty years. Law enforcement and the criminal justice system continue to struggle with racial issues. We have seen it all too often in the last couple of years where unarmed young black men are killed by police. And I’m not trying to dis the police because they do an incredible job, but there’s got to be some change. There’s got to be some change in the way we do things.
The access to the ballot box by minorities is getting harder and harder. Through various state laws, whether it’s voter ID laws or others, access to the most fundamental freedom that we have, the freedom to vote, is being challenged every day, and especially in a state like Alabama where we have a budget crisis and all of a sudden it seems to be used to close the ID-getting places, the Department of Motor Vehicle offices in the Black Belt, where Democratic voters happen to be.
I promised Louise I wouldn’t get too political. If I do she’ll throw a cheesecake at me. And in the case of Shelby County vs. Holder, the Supreme Court of the United States stripped the Voting Rights Act of a critical provision used by the Justice Department to ferret out voting rights abuses before they take effect. And then across college campuses, from one end of the country to the other, minority students are once again finding their voices, rising up to express their concern and frustration with racism that they are experiencing on their campuses.
Right here in Tuscaloosa, one of your honorees tonight, the second African-American to be elected SGA president at the University, has felt compelled to participate in a video to shine a light on the problems that he sees. Now those problems are not being sufficiently taught at the University of Alabama and other places. They’re not happening just in this state, but other places where parents and teachers and ministers are not doing the job of teaching people about justice and truth and reconciliation.
Now, the last thing I need to do tonight is to give you some kind of laundry list of things that have happened in this country over the last few years. You instinctively know what I’m talking about: the erosion of civil rights and the rise of bigotry. What I hope you will do, not just tonight, but every day, is to connect the dots of what you see and hear going on around you, from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery to Washington, D.C. to see what is happening in Alabama and throughout the country, and connect the dots to what you know in your hearts is happening.
I believe that the rhetoric of our political figures fans the flames of bigotry and prejudice. We have seen that history in this state, and sometimes in today’s world, I think they fan those flames even when they don’t intend to. You know, George Wallace never used the “N” word in public but he fanned the flames of hate and bigotry with code words and fear. In those days, the hate was directed toward the black community and the involvement of the federal government. But in part as a result of our ever-growing diversity in this state and country, today’s rhetoric seems to be directed at much broader and much more diverse segments of our population: African-Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community, Muslims. If you don’t look like them, talk like them, or worship like them, lot of people just hate them, and we’ve got to work on that, we’ve got to do something, and make no mistake: Today’s politicians, in my view, are taking a page from the playbooks of the past, in which leaders continue to resist the growing movement of civil and human rights in the state and in this country.
You remember from your old civic lessons the terms “nullification” and “interposition” used by Southern politicians to attempt to override acts of Congress and the decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Well today, we have a State Chief Justice who believes that his views of morality override decisions of the United States Supreme Court, and he tells probate judges throughout Alabama “just ignore the law, they are wrong, so just ignore them.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is a problem, and if you don’t think that’s a throw-back to the civil rights era, look and compare the two.
In this state, we are in a fiscal crisis; we’ve been that way for couple of years through lot of reasons, and I’m not going to just blame the folks in Montgomery now. This has been building up a long time. But even today we spend thousands, tens of thousands of dollars, on legal fees defending an indefensible immigration bill that was simply attempted to override the constitutional authority of the United States government. Everyone agrees that our immigration system is badly flawed, but when a sponsor of that bill seems to conflate the term “illegals” with the term “Mexicans” we got a problem.
And at this point, there is just not much need for me to go into that hateful rhetoric we are hearing from Donald Trump. Republicans from one end of the country to the other are doing that for me. You’ve heard it and you’ve seen it. But I will say this, I am concerned about one aspect after I hear this from some of the political commentators who were talking about Trump’s rhetoric, and even though they will note the criticism, they then come back and say “Well, Mr. Trump seems to be just tapping in to what so many people believe.” That is true; people believe that way. You see it in the turnout that he has. That’s the sad part, that there are people that actually still believe that and applaud him. You know our political leaders need to lead, our political leaders need to be more like Bill Baxley who took a chance on the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing case in the 1970s, who took a chance cleaning up the environment in Birmingham, going against big business in the seventies when it wasn’t popular. Our leaders need to lead. When there are fundamental wrongs in the minds of folks, they need to be the ones to lead the change and translate it into public policy.
Chris Christy, the governor of New Jersey, said at the Republican convention a few years ago, “Leaders should not just follow polls, leaders need to move polls.” I wish Governor Christy, and the others on that stage, would follow his advice. And we need to demand more of our candidates and our elected officials. They need to know that Dr. King’s dream is not just for rich white guys in this country. Dr. King’s dream encompassed everybody of all races, all religions, all ages, all sexual orientations. You name it, it encompassed everybody.
There are a couple of areas specifically that I would like to talk about just briefly that I’m working on that concern me, that I believe are a function of some problems that we’ve got both in race and civil rights and civil justice, areas that I think are desperate for change in which I also believe that there is some opportunity for bipartisan support. The first is with the payday lending practices in the state, outrageous interest rates of over 450 percent in most instances. Think about that, you’ve probably got credit cards, you have loans, you have credit cards that you complain about 20 percent — but 450 percent! That law was changed in 2003 to change the usury laws that allow these people to charge these outrageous rates, make millions of dollars on the backs of the poor and the working class families in the state.
Last year they started keeping some tabs on these loans. In a 10-week period, 450,000 of those loans were taken out by your neighbors in the State of Alabama. Think about that, we are a state of about four million people and 450,000 of those loans were taken out in a ten-week period, and these are not loans for people that are trying to feed a gambling habit, or drug habit, or even for emergencies like their car was broken down or their child was sick. These are loans the studies show that are taken out by people who are just trying to meet everyday expenses. Now, a bill is going to be introduced in the Legislature again — one was introduced last year that never got the light of day — for Alabama to end this practice, to cap the interest rates at around 36 percent, which is still high, but what an improvement if we could do it.
So please contact your state legislators, contact your representatives, ask them to do something positive for the poor and the working-class folks in this state. And when you do, remember this, and we had a program about this at our church in Birmingham at Canterbury the other day. Remember when you are complaining about the payday lenders, remember that there are victims of payday lenders, these people taking out those loans, because think about it: If 450,000 people have to take out those loans to meet everyday expenses, what does that really say about our state and what does it say about the leadership in our state who don’t seem to care as much for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses.
I told them the other night, I want to work hard to knock payday lending vultures off, but it’s kind of like picking off that vulture that’s beginning to pick on a wounded rabbit. You can shoot that vulture, but if you walk away from the wounded victim, you’ve really not accomplished an awful lot. So we need to work to make sure we do that.
The second area is in criminal justice reform. Recently, I have been working with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School with about 150 law enforcement leaders and prosecutors from all 50 states, calling for changes in our criminal justice system through an initiative called the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.
Today, the most civilized country in the world has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world prisoners, we spend $80 billion annually to lock people up, and in so many cases it’s simply just not necessary. Unnecessary incarceration hurts our communities in so, so many ways.
Now, let’s make no mistake, I’m all for law and order. I have been a prosecutor at two different times in my life. I defend people, but I’m all about the rule of law and order, but I also know there is just simply a lot of unnecessary incarceration that puts people away and treats them like animals. And when you do that, it hurts the communities by furthering racial disparities. It exacerbates the economic impact in inequality of communities. It fuels recidivism and hinders the economic development in communities that need it the most.
Today, and I know you’ve heard these statistics, today, one in three black men will end up in incarcerated at some point in their life; 60% of prisoners reentering society face long term unemployment. With restricted economic opportunities, criminal activities increase. The Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration have put forth a series of proposals that I hope will be given a good look by law enforcement and state legislators and members of Congress.
I won’t go into all of them, but they are talking about engaging communities, we are talking about alternatives to our arrests, alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, not the violent offenders. And I want to make sure, as I said a minute ago about my history, these 150 folks are not some bleeding hearts here. They are tough on crime law-enforcement officers who have spent their careers in law enforcement and protecting the communities and when you are a foot soldier for law enforcement, you learn a lot about what’s going on the streets, so these are well reasoned. Being tough on crime and being smart on crime are not incompatible.
This morning, as I was getting ready to go to work, I saw the news about the rise in the homicides in Tuscaloosa, something that bothers everyone. And when you are trying to talk about reducing crime through changes in the system, it’s hard when you know there are certain statistics out there that seem fly in the face of what you are saying. But I will tell you that studies will show that there is not necessarily the same correlation between locking people up and throwing away the key and reducing the crime. But what I saw this morning, I thought was important. I saw your police chief on the TV, discussing the rise of homicides in Tuscaloosa. But rather than simply giving the tough guy law and order speech, he talked about community involvement, he talked about engagement of the community, and education of both the community and the leaders of this community. That is exactly the type of approach that can have long-term effects and you should be proud of your chief for articulating those in the media.
So, ladies and gentlemen, you know I know our theme is “Realizing the Dream,” and so many dreams have been realized, but we have so, so far to go. For me, I go back to the case that will forever define me. And I think forever defines Bill, because it is more than for us than just simply about history. You know, when a child is killed, scores of other lives are shattered. The loss of those four young girls at the church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the two boys who died later that day from gun fire in Birmingham created a deep crater of remorse in 1963. It woke up the conscience of America, the conscience of the president, the conscience of Congress.
But around that well of grief, something incredible has grown. Lives have been saved and countless more, mine among them, have been enriched. The blast of 16th Street Baptist Church shook us out of a stupor. It was easy to see that things had to change. It was an alarm to warn about the creep of a smothering darkness that only could be repelled by fundamental change in America.
I have learned much from the bombing investigation and trials, from people like Bill, people like Mary Jolley, Cleo, my colleague at Alabama. I’ve learned a lot about my city in Birmingham, my state and my country, the law, our people, good and bad, the dangerous absurdity of racial prejudice and the terrorism facilitated by divisiveness.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was exactly what the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was, an act of terrorism, before that word was really a part of our vocabulary as it is today. In the years since the trials, I have started to realize that we are repeating many of the same mistakes from a half century ago. Sometimes that connection is only evident if you are prepared to look past the mask of dog whistle politics, the posturing of about economics or expose those hiding behind religion and political bluster. At other times, it hits like a sledge hammer, as with the Charleston church shootings in June of 2015.
The Charleston church shootings raised an interesting piece, something I want to share, because as we’ve talked about politicians and their words, we know words have meanings, whether you say it or not, the words have meaning. Well, the symbols have meanings too, and it took the deaths of nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina for people to wake up and realize that the Confederate battle flag has no place in this society.
And I want to show you something real quick. For any of you out there, whoever are talking to someone who said that I don’t necessarily agree with taking down the flag because it’s really a symbol of history, it’s a symbol of Southern heritage. Despite the fact the heritage is Confederate heritage, which seceded from the United States of America, tell them to call me and let me show them this picture, this advertisement from this magazine called the “Thunderbolt.” It was the newspaper of the National States’ Rights party run by Bill’s pen pal friend Ed Fields. On the back, this is in June of 1965, you can see this, an ad where you can order Confederate battle flags. This is 1965 and the ad says, “Fly the Confederate Battle Flag.” The Confederate flag is no longer a sectional emblem. It is now the symbol of the white race and white supremacy. Fly it on on your car and on your house. So folks, this is not new that this has become a symbol of hate, and thank goodness Governor Bentley and others have begun to bring that down.
Despite my instincts as a lawyer, somewhat as of a political junky, to declare that I have the answers for anything, I cannot profess at all to have the absolute remedies for the enormous ills that we see. However, the richest part of those girls who died, the richest part of their gift to me has been an awakening that has connected me to my own personal prejudice, strengths and weaknesses, a very humbling reality check, and now an invigorating journey toward a greater self awareness that might not solve the world’s problems, but hopefully won’t contribute to them.
Indeed, and I told Bill this in our talks, I feel like I have grown more in the last 15 years, than I did in my first 45. Searching for winning solutions to these recurring problems like most everyone else — politicians, street protesters, blog writers, anonymous internet experts, academics — everyone wants to hit a home run or win a national championship. But perhaps it’s more productive to take the long view, exactly the way Coach Sabin and the Tide Football team did recently.
It’s the kind of approach that we took in tackling the four decades-old cold case in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. I longed for the big hit, the one big thing to put everything in order, to put it to rest, but truth and resolution weren’t going to be established that way. The details had to be linked, the dots had to be connected, and the game contested one play at a time with everyone doing their part until the very end.
Power teams like the Crimson Tide realize that excelling at small ball — solid blocking and tackling, accurate pass routes, sticking with your plan — wins the game, not the fluke or the last second heroics. It’s not as sexy, it’s not necessarily going to produce a fair result every time. But just as we have witnessed, it’s an especially useful strategy when the whole team buys into the concept. You are playing for a winning season, not just for the glory of an occasional spectacular victory.
So in considering this unique moment today, considering our unique moment in history, a time when we cannot ignore our past and perhaps tumble backwards toward the abyss, or truly embrace its lessons and take a step away from the lingering dangers, the choice for me is clear, in my personal life, my hopes for this country, my hopes for my family, my children, my grandchildren … my hopes for this country is to play the small ball, get the little things right. And hopefully others, just like everyone in this room, will also join the team. As a team we can win, as a team we can defeat the prejudice that we know is going to exist regardless of what we do. That’s the goal. And at the end of the day, we are all in this together. We are all in this together, and our state is becoming more diverse, and if we don’t remember the lessons of history, we will be doomed to repeat them.
So thank you for allowing me to be here tonight, thank you for this event, for your celebration, and for your courage and for your look forward to recognizing where we are and where we’re headed. Thank you very much.