BCC civil rights speaker urges social change at local level

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PITTSFIELD — The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963 didn't happen overnight.

The march — which included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech — was an effort that culminated after decades' worth of attempts to get support from the federal government, and represented multiple activist organizations fighting for labor equality and civil liberties for African-Americans.

The work began "a long time before the cameras got there," said Whitney Battle-Baptiste, activist, associate professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

During her keynote speech at last Wednesday's forum, "Civil Rights Movement: Then and Now," held in partnership with the NAACP Berkshire Branch at Berkshire Community College, Battle-Baptiste urged listeners to rethink the context behind that day.

She said that, while many people choose to remember the lines about little children holding hands, they should not forget the beginning of King's speech: "... When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. ... Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"

The problem is, said Battle-Baptiste, that African Americans are still fighting for that check to be validated.

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"Why do I keep going back to the civil rights movement? We can't look forward because that check still has insufficient funds. I'm just going to keep coming back to that, because it's about the language, it's about our actions, it's about the ways in which we engage and ask our nation, 'How do we create social change?'" she said. "For me, the civil rights era, technically, it never really ended."

As a professor, Battle-Baptiste said students still are experiencing a knowledge gap about how past actions, such as the lead up to the 1960s civil rights era, affect current social inequities, like education, wage and quality-of-life gaps between workers because of race.

"Why don't they know about the civil rights movement? Because we test, we don't teach," she said.

Students aren't the only ones who are suffering from a lack of knowledge in civics. Battle-Baptiste argued that not nearly enough American citizens appreciate and exercise their rights and liberties.

"We're not reading our laws. We're not engaged in local government. We don't know what our state statutes are," she said. "Understanding the ideas behind how we interact with each other on the local level helps us to understand how we can begin to deposit towards those insufficient funds."

Battle-Baptiste said more people should pay attention to who's representing them in local governments, and what policies, practices and values they're really representing.

"It's language. It is our actions. It is how we understand ourselves in relationship to others, and it's about acting locally, understanding globally ... because without our neighborhoods, without our cities, without our communities, then we are really waiting for the Electoral College to tell us what else to do. We have to engage and revive our democracy," she said.


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