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Benedictine civil rights conference: Black history is American history

March 8, 2016

Conference reviews lessons learned from America’s civil rights movement, discusses commonalities with today’s race-based social crusades

Lisle, Illinois ~ Holding hands and arm-in-arm, a group that included the young, old, black, white, Latino, Catholic and Muslim sang from the slave-derived spiritual and civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

It wasn’t a Charleston, S.C., labor rally in 1945 or a Greenwood, Miss., protest in 1963, but a civil rights conference at Benedictine University in 2016.

Against the backdrop of the University’s art gallery, whose walls were adorned with African art and an exhibition of Cuban photography, a small group gathered on February 25 to reflect upon the importance of the American civil rights movement and its relevance today in a country roiled with racial strife or indifference.

Benedictine University, in conjunction with Roosevelt University, held the event to honor Black History Month with the conference, “Come, Let Us Build a New World Together: 50 Years after the Mississippi Summer Project,” which featured a series of discussions with civil rights leaders, films and music.

The previous day’s inclement weather didn’t keep some attendees from arriving for the event as early as 1:00 a.m. that morning.

Original members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in the 1960s in the fight for voting rights, traveled to Benedictine from around the country to share their stories and lessons from the Mississippi Summer Project, Freedom Schools and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and discuss the civil rights movement’s ramifications and connections with contemporary struggles in endangered communities.

John Hardy, one of the founders of the SNCC and a retired Detroit Public Schools teacher and special consultant for civil rights with the Detroit Historical Society, presented a “Freedom Riders Slideshow.” He shared his personal experiences as a Freedom Rider who rode interstate buses to challenge segregation in the South, his participation in lunch counter sit-ins, protest marches and boycotts, and his efforts to teach nonviolent principles for community organizing.

During his discussion, Hardy recounted a time he decided to engage in peaceful civil disobedience and participate in a sit-in at a whites-only diner in Mississippi. He and about a dozen other blacks were thrown in jail and his mother lost her job when her boss found out she supported her son’s actions.

However, this frightening experience only fueled Hardy’s resolve to fight for equal treatment under the law for every citizen.

Vince Gaddis, Ph.D., professor of History at Benedictine University, provided a historical connection between the civil rights movement and today’s protests for equitable treatment. He compared the tragic deaths of people like Emmett Till – a 14-year-old black teen brutally beaten and murdered by two white men for flirting with a white woman in 1955 – to recent racially polarized deaths in America involving white police officers killing black citizens that spurred intense protests and riots in some cities.

Organizers emphasized the purpose of the conference was to engage citizens in dialogue, reflect on those challenges to injustice that have already been overcome, and call for a unified effort by all citizens to challenge today’s injustices wherever they may be.

“Recent events have shown us that there is still a dire need to enrich people’s lives with knowledge of the African-American experience and lessen tensions,” said Fannie Rushing, professor of History, who helped organized the conference.

Rushing said the conference aimed to provide a better understanding of the civil rights movement and the contributions of the SNCC, which included intergenerational organizing; a commitment to participatory democracy; promoting respect and support for local leadership and gender equality; and emphasizing that the impact on world-wide movements for social justice lessons is not just a reflection of black history in America, but also is American and world history with lessons to be learned from the civil rights movement in relationship to today’s youth movements which aim to build a new world together.

Events such as the civil rights conference reflect Benedictine University’s values-based education and its commitment to providing programming that helps shape future leaders cognizant of higher education’s role in promoting universal values, such as respect for the other, volunteering, community involvement and responsible citizenship.


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 nearly 10,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 19 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among “America’s Top Colleges” for the fifth consecutive year in 2015, and the University’s Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain’s Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area.

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