Civil rights addressed at book discussion

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Christopher Lehman, ethnic studies professor, led a discussion of his newest book, “Power, Politics and the Decline of the Civil Rights Movement,” Thursday morning in the Miller Center that sparked conversation about contemporary issues around civil rights.
Just after 9 a.m., faculty, staff and students took their seats around the table. Lalita Subrahmanyan, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, said that they put on the ‘Conversations with Campus Authors’ discussions to “celebrate” SCSU faculty for their scholarly work.
She then followed by reading a poem to those in attendance, and had everybody go around the table for introductions. Subrahmanyan introduced Lehman and welcomed him back for his third book discussion.
Lehman, sitting at the head of the table with a copy of his book and photocopied documents in front of him, began by asking, “How many of you around the table are free, American citizens?”
Lehman began by recounting the historical periods and events—focusing on the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—that determined who was free or not, and what citizenship was.
Lehman then led with a broad overview of the Civil Rights Movement and its rise to national scale.
Touching on major points of the era, Lehman narrowed broad areas and widely known events of the movement down to the fine details of what strung organizations and people together throughout the period. This included the major sit-ins and riots that influenced the direction of the Civil Rights Movement.
Bringing forth recollections from ‘movement veterans’ and information obtained from unclassified FBI counterintelligence documents, he continued diving deeper and deeper into what he believed caused the decline of the Civil Rights Movement. While he spoke and shared passages from his book, Lehman passed around the photocopied documents.
As Lehman talked about his book, he gave brief intervals to allow for discussion and concluded sharing his findings just after 10 a.m., giving the rest of time for an open discussion about the book.
At which point, Adrece Thighman-Nabe, associate director of Admissions, asked Lehman what he thinks would happen to the United States if we turned our back on civil rights.
“I feel worried,” he replied. “The voting rights act of 1965 was gutted last year.”
He said that the criteria for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was considered “outdated,” and added that “the ‘Voter ID’ is limiting and early voting is being attacked.”
“What scares me the most is the dismantling of the voting rights act,” said Ellyn Bartges, the equity and access officer at SCSU. With the recent elections demonstrating the worst “gerrymandering effect to date,” she said that it’s only going to get worse.
“The participation in voting is one of the most important ways that students support and express their views and hold back attempts to make changes that will take decades to unravel,” she said.
“To have any retreat from the promise that we’ve had is troubling,” Lehman said.
Malcolm Nazareth, professor of ethnic and women’s studies, said that there have been numerous “turning back” moments in U.S. history.
“We are in a really tough situation right now,” he said. “I’m thinking that basically, where we are right now … we are turning back.”
There are more and more things happening now, and “we don’t find the youth able to do major movements, because they are stuck with student debt, there’s no employment, there’s no future after college,” or one of the many struggles that younger generations are facing, he said.
With a gap between the generation that participated in the Civil Rights Movement and today’s generation, Jacquilline Nagila, with Multicultural Student Services, said that older generations aren’t setting an example for upcoming generations, especially when they are expected to make desired changes.
Lehman agreed that it is up to older generations to teach and show the way for younger generations to take a stand against injustice and organize.
Lehman said that he’s shown examples of writing that he’s sent to organizations, places of business and cities, including the city of St. Cloud, to address issues revolving around Civil Rights and racism to his classes. To show his students that taking action against racism or other breaches of civil rights doesn’t always mean a rally or a protest, Lehman shared during the discussion that a former students shared in class how her manager asked all of the employees to “spy” on Native American customers that came into the store.
Upon hearing this, Lehman sat down and wrote a letter to her place of work and addressed the issue through writing. Coming into class one day, she told Lehman that the manager called a meeting with all of the employees and asked that they no longer keep a watchful eye on Native American customers.
He shared that he allows his students to take the same type of action through writing to address issues like these for extra credit in his classes.
“The people that would lead the sit-ins were college students,” he said. “They were kids that made a difference because they were committed to change.”
The discussion concluded just after 11 a.m., with Subrahmanyan and Lehman thanking the audience for attending the discussion. Faculty, staff and students, including Blaine Kasianov, third-year accounting major at SCSU, returned the thanks for sharing his findings.
Kasianov said that he came to the discussion, because he was interested to see and meet one of “SCSUs most prolific authors.”
“It’s an opportunity to expand your opportunity on what you’re learning,” he said. He said that it’s important for students to “get out and understand what you’re going to school for,” because not only does it benefit the students, but it benefits the entire community as a whole.