‘The day I became an organizer for social justice’: One teacher’s story

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Forty-nine years ago today,a day known throughout the world as Bloody Sunday, about 600 courageous people began to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery. They were demonstrating for African American voting rights, to commemorate the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot three weeks earlier by a state trooper while trying to protect his mother at a civil rights demonstration, and for equality and freedom. On the outskirts of Selma, after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were brutally assaulted by heavily armed state troopers and deputies.

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The excerpt below, which is from an article published in the Camel City Dispatch, in Winston Salem, NC, was written by Tripp Jeffers, a teacher at Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy in Camel City and a National Education Association director for North Carolina. While the article is not about Bloody Sunday, it speaks to that same inextinguishable quality of the human spirit that animated the Selma marchers.

As the state of North Carolina boils with political and social activism over the various damaging bills passed by the state legislature last year, and various groups including mine, the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), organize for change, I paused to reflect on precisely where I picked up this bug. When did I first learn to organize people toward a cause and why?

In college I organized, alongside others – protests against tuition hikes, leading the charge for the recognition of the Friends of Lesbians and Gays (FLAG) on a very conservative campus, and spearheading Grass Roots Organizing Workshops (GROW) – but that wasn’t the moment either.

And then something clicked. I made a connection to an experience 25 years ago that has always defined me, but until now, I was unaware of exactly how much.

I became an activist and an organizer at about 5 pm on July 13, 1989, at the impressionable age of 17. That summer was the third I had spent with a United Methodist domestic mission group called Salkahatchie Summer Service Project which, at about a dozen sites all over the impoverished state of South Carolina, brought youth together for a week to work on dilapidated houses of poor rural families, often providing renovations from the structural to the cosmetic.

TOWN HALL
Tripp Jeffers

When we arrived at the Saluda County Swim and Tennis Club, the clear glistening water seemed to call to our aching bodies, but instead of diving right in, we were asked to wait as our counselors conversed with the lifeguard who had barely scratched the surface of his twenties. A few sparse billowy clouds released a spray of drizzle, the sun still shining, and to our disappointment the counselors directed us to reload the buses. The weather didn’t really warrant such an abrupt departure, but we complied. Yet as the church buses lurched forward and the gravel of the club’s parking lot ground beneath their wheels, one of our ministers thrust her thin upper body through the window and with fist raised began singing “We Shall Overcome.” I personally thought that maybe she had lost her mind.

When we returned to Saluda High School where we were housed, sleeping on the floor of the gym and showering in the PE locker rooms, we were told at the after-dinner vespers that we didn’t leave the pool because of a few raindrops. Instead, we left because we had been told that three African-American members of our youth group were not allowed inside, because the facility was for “whites only.”

My heart dropped completely, as it does still today when I recall it. I remember 80 teenagers crying, hugging, feeling helpless. I saw three good friends hurt, victimized.

We could have swallowed hard and wallowed in the despair of the moment, but instead we chose to act. We spent the remainder of the evening planning and organizing our response. Our strength lay in our geographic diversity, that we converged on this battleground from every corner of the state, and upon return to our homes we could advocate from various towns and counties. It was the day I became an activist, and our activism worked.

To read Jeffers’ article in its entirety, go here.

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