Scholar and international attorney reflects on success of the American civil rights movement

February 25, 2015

James Garrett, Ph.D., J.D., visits the Bernard Kleina civil rights display at the Fr. Michael E. Komechak, O.S.B., Art Gallery at Benedictine University.Lisle, Illinois ~ James Garrett learned the value of snap beans as a youth organizer during the American civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Watching a senior community organizer snap the beans, which are also called string beans and green beans, for hours on the porch of black residents in the deep South not only taught him patience, but also that the movement was about relationship-building.

“Transformation is manufactured in the little things that we do,” Garrett said. “You are building other people so you can build strong communities.”

Garrett spoke February 19 at Benedictine University as an invited guest of the Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies in remembrance of the civil rights movement and celebration of Black History Month.

Born the son of migrant workers in Dallas, Texas, Garrett relayed the too often frightening realities that impacted him and his family personally during heightened moments of racial hatred and intolerance he experienced as a youth.

“There were moments of great terror,” Garrett said. “My father reached a point where he could no longer endure it and moved our family to California.”

Garrett said that several black men in his family were convicted and electrocuted or lynched (by a mob) for raping a white woman they had never seen.

Fannie Rushing, professor of History at Benedictine, said Garrett’s struggle, perseverance and subsequent success was a direct result of the transformative process of the civil rights movement and groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of which Garrett was a member.

“His parents who left the South seeking an escape from the exploitation and violence found new violence in Los Angeles in the form of street gangs,” Rushing said. “They feared that Garrett would end up in jail or worse and so they sent him back South. He ended up in Mississippi at the height of the voter registration drive and became involved with the Congress of Racial Equality, Council of Federated Organizations and the SNCC. The irony of this was that he ended up being arrested more than seven times for trying to register people to vote.”

Rushing said it was civil rights activist Bob Moses, winner of a Mac Arthur Genius Award, War Resisters League Peace Award, and architect of the Mississippi Voter Registration campaign, who was showing Garrett how to do the hard work of canvassing to register voters.

“True to the SNCC philosophy of meeting local people where they are and becoming part of their reality, he (Moses) sat down on the porch with the women shelling peas and spent the afternoon with them, not talking about voting but hearing what they had to say and working with them,” she said.

Garrett became involved as an organizer at the age of 17 following a 1962 visit to Los Angeles by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He became good at organizing and rallying people and earned more responsibility.

“During the movement, you would be given assignments,” he said. “If you can do it and do it really well, the way they glorify you is they give you more to do.”

However, during a prison stay in New Orleans, after he and other era organizers were arrested for protesting racial and social injustices in the area and attempting to get blacks registered to vote, Garrett came to a realization. To achieve higher goals, he not only needed to be involved in doing, he also needed to be well-read and educated like many of the other leaders in the civil rights movement.

“Education and scholarship is profound against the deliberate actions of oppression,” he said.

Garrett earned a juris doctor degree from Golden Gate University and a doctorate from Harvard University. He has been involved with United Nations-sponsored environmental projects designed to promote sustainable energy sources in developing countries.

Garrett traces his path of success in life to those early days of organizing during the turbulent ‘60s.

“The lifetime thesis of the civil rights movement is how to do something that is beneficial,” Garrett said. “Blacks came to believe it was alright to believe in themselves. If someone says, ‘you can do this,’ which is not the programmed thoughts of the era, that opportunity and thought process is life-changing.”

Rushing echoes these sentiments.

“The larger society taught him (Garrett) that he did not have a voice. SNCC and the civil rights movement showed him that he did have a voice and empowered him so that he could achieve the many accomplishments he has made,” Rushing said.

Benedictine University brings diverse speakers to campus to give students and the greater community unique perspectives into historical and current events that help shape the world. For more information about Benedictine and future events, please visit ben.edu/calendar.

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Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls more than 5,000 students in 59 undergraduate and 23 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the seventh consecutive year in 2017. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, admissions@ben.edu or visit ben.edu.

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