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Celebrating the struggle

By Taylor Sisk, Staff Writer

At the conclusion of the “The Unfinished Work: A conference in honor of Julius L. Chambers,” hosted this week by UNC’s Center for Civil Rights, social-justice activist and lawyer Elaine Jones shared with the audience a few words from a Swahili warrior song: “Life has meaning only in the struggle. Triumph or defeat is in the hands of the Gods. So let us celebrate the struggle!”

These words aptly captured the spirit of the conference held Monday and Tuesday at the Friday Center, at which champions of the civil rights struggle paid tribute to the man who has mentored so many, and then steeled themselves for struggle ahead.

The conference was co-convened by the N.C. Central University School of Law, the North Carolina Justice Center and the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities in Mebane, among others. Chambers – UNC School of Law alumnus, director of the Center for Civil Rights and pioneering civil rights litigator – was recognized for his keen intellect and caring heart. The spirit and force of his work imbued the Friday Center throughout the proceedings and informed every exchange.

Tuesday’s concluding keynote session, titled “The Charge,” was designed to send attendees away with fuel to fire the pursuit of equal rights and opportunity for all, and the panelists delivered. Jones moderated, joined by Lynn Huntley, president of the Southern Education Foundation, and Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Huntley urged a younger generation of civil rights advocates to be mindful of the lessons of those who laid the foundation, pointing out that those who fought in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and early ’70s will soon be gone. “So we’re fighting a major battle against forgetting.”

If, when they pass, we forget Julius Chambers and the colleagues of his generation, she said, “we won’t have that sense of empowerment that comes from knowing not just who you are but whose you are.”
Learn from that legacy, Huntley said, and then translate “it into language and concepts and ways that allow everyone to feel a sense of ownership.”

Education, she stressed, is critical, calling it “the most powerful antidote to poverty and inequality.”
Stevenson agreed with Huntley on the importance of an awareness of those who have come before and of the indispensible role of education in general.

But, he said, “I believe that the real critical challenge that we face is reconciling ourselves to struggle.”
Stevenson believes that in order to advance civil rights in this country, advocates must “position ourselves someplace where it might look hopeless. Because it’s in that dynamic that we find our voice, we find our power.

“I’m here to tell you that I don’t think we’ll complete the unfinished business with ideas in our minds alone. I think to create justice and advance civil rights, those ideas in our heads have to be fueled by some conviction in our hearts.”

“If you get proximate to injustice, if you get proximate to suffering,” Stevenson asserted, it will make you believe there’s nothing to be done but stand with those who are denied their rights. “It will make you think that there is no other choice. And I think that’s what’s essential for advancing this movement.”

He recalled meeting Rosa Parks and enumerating for her the work he hoped to accomplish with the Equal Justice Initiative. Parks stopped him, saying, “‘Mmmp, mmmp, mmmp; that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.’ And she put a finger in my face, and said, ‘And that’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.’
“It’s our courage and our conviction that will ultimately get us there,” Stevenson concluded.

Jones then sent those assembled off to the business at hand, with that admonition, “So let us celebrate the struggle!”

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