Two of the founding fathers of the modern civil rights movement capped off Constitution Day festivities at MTSU with lessons from the past for the benefit of future generations.
The Revs. C.T. Vivian and James Lawson Jr. made their points in a panel discussion called “No Voice, No Choice: The Voting Rights Act at 50” before a packed house of nearly 1,000 inside MTSU’s Tucker Theatre.
With MTSU public history doctoral student Aleia Brown as moderator, topics ranged from the unfulfilled promise of the U.S. Constitution to the impact of income inequality on social justice movements.
“Our Constitution … is the most daring document ever written in human history, because it was written in the midst of a world system that was largely top-down,” said Lawson.
As for the present day, Lawson faults the intellectual community with failing to create a climate that would foster more progressive social change.
He also blamed what he called four main types of “spiritual wickedness” for the stagnation: racism, sexism, violence and what Lawson referred to as “plantation capitalism.”
Vivian also attacked the chasm between the economic elite and the rest of the country.
“My fear right now is that the billionaires of this nation … are going to make it seem as though we have a democracy, where, in fact, that is in doubt,” said Vivian.
In response to a question about the Black Lives Matter movement and its involvement in public events that’s often characterized as “disruption,” Lawson observed that disruption is a legitimate nonviolent tactic. He cautioned that it works best, however, when it is part of an overall strategic plan.
“We have too much activism in the United States and too little visionary, strategic thinking,” Lawson said.
“They (Black Lives Matter organizers and participants) will be coopted by the Democratic Party. They will be given jobs to run the presidential campaign in 2016 so that the evolvement or emergence of Black Lives Matter as an effective movement of change will be temporarily halted.”
Both activists bemoaned Americans’ lack of risk-taking today compared with the 20th century demonstrators who were jailed, beaten and, in many cases, murdered as they struggled to eliminate barriers to the ballot box.
Vivian observed that, after all that effort and terrible cost, most eligible Americans don’t even exercise their right to vote.
“Having the ticket in your pocket won’t get it if you don’t use it,” he said.
The 91-year-old Vivian participated in his first civil rights sit-in in 1947 in Peoria, Illinois. He helped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was a veteran of the Freedom Rides.
Lawson, 86, served a 14-month prison term, instead of taking a student or minister’s deferment, after he refused to report for the draft in 1951. He also organized the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 during his divinity studies at Vanderbilt University, was a Freedom Rider and was part of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches.
Event moderator Brown, who is in residency as a visiting scholar at Michigan State University’s MSU Museum, formerly was a curator at the National Afro-American Museum in Wilberforce, Ohio. She also is part of a national group leading a web blog and Twitter chats on museum responses to the Ferguson, Missouri, protest movement.
The MTSU forum concluded two days of public readings of segments of the U.S. Constitution in various locations around campus in celebration of the nation’s foundational legal document.
Sponsors for “No Voice, No Voice” include MTSU’s American Democracy Project, the Center for Historic Preservation, the College of Liberal Arts, the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies, the College of Media and Entertainment, the University Honors College, the Jennings A. Jones Chair of Excellence in Free Enterprise, the Office of the University Provost and the League of Women Voters of Murfreesboro/Rutherford County.
— Gina K. Logue (firstname.lastname@example.org)