Act justly: the past and present of racial justice in the U.S.

By: Adam Gustine, Kyle Lantz, and Judy Benchaar

April 28, 2020

Earlier this spring, 46 students, faculty, and staff boarded a bus bound for the American South. Their purpose was to retrace the significant moments of the Civil Rights Movement with a specific eye toward applying that learning to the work of racial justice today. Act Justly: Racial Justice and the American Civil Rights Movement was a groundbreaking class—facilitated by the Seminars program here at the Center for Social Concerns—because of both its scope and origins.

Over a year ago, a small group of center staff began to imagine together how to apply our commitments—Catholic Social Tradition (CST) and pedagogy (authentic encounter and community engaged learning)—to the conversations arising from Walk the Walk week, the University sponsored week demonstrating the University’s dedication to working for racial justice. The Seminars program—with its combination of classroom and immersion coursework—seemed like a good fit for exploring another center expression of the campus conversation around race and justice. 

The center also has a long history of engaging the content and implications of Church teaching on issues of justice; and the publication of the USCCB’s letter regarding race, Open Wide Our Hearts, generated more momentum toward an official offering from the center on the issue of racial justice today. In fact, the 2020–2021 theme of the entire center was Act Justly, providing the inspiration for the seminar’s name. 

For this seminar to have the desired impact, some of the normal mode of operation for Seminars would need to be enhanced. Instead of the usual 12–15 participants for a seminar like this, Act Justly created space for nearly 50 participants and storytellers to journey together on a seven day immersion. Experiencing the week on a bus was appropriate since so much of the movement depended upon the transportation and social symbolism of buses. The Freedom Riders took bus trips through the south in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals; many of the 200,000 people who attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took buses to get there; and most famously, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger on December 1, 1955. So being cramped in a bus seemed to be a way of joining in spirit with the many student activists who had championed racial justice during their college years at the expense of their physical safety.

Those participants were shepherded through the collective journey by eight student leaders; a team of incredible, high-capacity students who are each dedicated to embodying racial justice in their lives and communities. The Seminars staff worked with these leaders to develop vision and strategies for building a genuine community of people spanning many campus constituencies. This community would need to be able to wade into the deep and troubled waters of the story of racial injustice in the United States—not just our collective heritage of hate but its modern day expressions as well—all the while helping individuals reflect upon their experience and life stories in a constructive way. The participant stories coming out of this seminar, both classroom and immersion, are evidence that these leaders succeeded in the task set in front of them. 

The immersion took place March 7–13 and followed a rigorous itinerary through four states with scores of stops along the way. The heavy lifting of administration for this immersion was managed by Judy Benchaar, administrative assistant for both the Seminars and Higgins Labor Programs at the center. Preparation included organizing food, lodging, and site arrangements for 50 throughout the journey. Beginning in Memphis, TN the group began its learning at the Lorraine Motel—a flashpoint of history and controversy as the historic site of the assassination of Dr. King—and current home of the National Civil Rights Museum. This opening day left participants with a lot to ponder about both the historical events that took place there and the nature of these sites that have become places of both pilgrimage and tourism. 

One of the days of the immersion was coordinated by Jemar Tisby, a Notre Dame alumnus who moved to the Mississippi Delta after leaving Notre Dame and has stayed there ever since. This day left an indelible imprint on the Act Justly participants as it gave them the opportunity to get their shoes dirty, encountering the face of racial discrimination in Southern rural communities not typically visited by Civil Rights tours. It was here that participants were forced to confront the relative nature of our historical narratives and the way in which local communities are forced to deal with their legacy of violence long after the official historical record is written.

Storytelling was a hallmark of the experience, as participants sat with real life ‘foot soldiers’ of the Civil Rights Movement in Jackson, MS and Selma, AL and wrestled with their stories and reminders to them that the work of civil rights and justice continues today. In Jackson, participants heard from someone who integrated the local school. Their story demonstrated a deep resilience in the face of hatred and violence. In Selma, the group listened to the story of a front line marcher and learned some of the history of the Catholic presence during the push for voting rights. These exemplars of justice left their mark on students, faculty, and staff alike.  

The journey began to wrap up by spending a full day in Montgomery, AL, the destination of the Voting Rights March and the birthplace of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a non-profit legal organization dedicated to exposing how the ugly history of racial violence in America continues to adapt and corrupt our capacity for justice in the United States. EJI was a fitting experience for a seminar immersion designed to bridge our history with present realities. 

While the return to campus and planned learning and action was interrupted by COVID-19, student participants continue to process their learning and are actively applying that work to modern racial injustices, like the private prison industrial complex and the manifestations of racialized aggression on campus experienced by many students of color. 

The Center for Social Concerns and the Seminars program see this as just a start. The work of racial justice—not to mention the work of racial justice education—continues. The Seminars team is working to expand the scope of existing Seminars, notably Realities of Race, to engage other concrete inequities in society. Additionally, plans are in the works to offer a staff and faculty version of this immersion with a particular eye to advocating for racial justice within the campus community and culture. The center is deeply grateful to the other campus partners who collaborated with us to make the Act Justly Seminar a reality: the Department of American Studies, the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, Notre Dame Human Resources—Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Jordan Family Foundation, and the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights.


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