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University of Memphis sit-in commemoration looks back and forward

NNPA NEWSWIRE — On April 23, 1969, 75 BSA members at the University of Memphis staged a sit-in at then-President Cecil Humphreys’ office because he refused to provide $1,750 to bring U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first black person to be elected from New York to Congress, to speak to the association.

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By Harlan McCarthy, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

Fifty years ago, Carolyn Goodwin-Willett was a young, scared student thrust into the spotlight as a student activist at then-Memphis State University. Now? Goodwin-Willett is proud of her actions as a Black Student Association member that eventually brought about change to what is now the University of Memphis.

Carolyn Goodwin-Willett, David Acey Sr. and James De’Ke Pope shared reflections during a panel discussion moderated by author Shirletta Kinchen (not pictured). (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Carolyn Goodwin-Willett, David Acey Sr. and James De’Ke Pope shared reflections during a panel discussion moderated by author Shirletta Kinchen (not pictured). (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

“I had the opportunity to come back to this campus in 2004 and work on my master’s. Totally different experience from when I was here in 1966. I was a scared student. I was 17 years old and you were going into classrooms where the entire class would look to the other side of the room and you were the only black student in there.

“It was scary. We didn’t have a lot of choices. Most of us were first generation for our family and they were dependent on us.”

Goodwin-Willett and her fellow BSA members from that time were the subject of a April 12 panel discussion on campus that was moderated by Shirletta Kinchen, author of “Black Power in the Bluff City: African American Youth and Student Activism in Memphis,” which is centered around the Black Student Association sit-in and other historical events in Memphis.

“If not for this book or chapter (1969 sit-in chapter of the book), I’m not sure we would understand the accentuality of that experience of history,” said Aram Goudsouzian, chair of UM’s history department.

On April 23, 1969, 75 BSA members at the University of Memphis staged a sit-in at then-President Cecil Humphreys’ office because he refused to provide $1,750 to bring U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first black person to be elected from New York to Congress, to speak to the association.

After the first sit-in, BSA garnered support from the Memphis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Community on the Move for Equality (COME). COME had been active in supporting the 1,300 sanitation strikers the year before.

This plaque, unveiled at the University of Memphis administration building on April 12, commemorates the 1969 sit-in protest that prompted 109 arrests. (Photos: Tyrone P. Easley)

This plaque, unveiled at the University of Memphis administration building on April 12, commemorates the 1969 sit-in protest that prompted 109 arrests. (Photos: Tyrone P. Easley)

Describing his experience at that time, David Acey, the first president of the BSA, said, “I came here in 1965 and it was terrible. My first semester, there were less than 100 students here. We had no participation in any of the social activity here or anything on campus, no football players, no teachers, no workers in the library.”

With help from the outside organizations, the students would stage a second sit-in on April 28, 1969. Similar to the last protest, police were called. This time the students refused to leave and all 109 were charged and jailed. While the charges were eventually dismissed, blacks continued to demand integration upon campus life.

Despite her undergraduate experience being one of fear, Goodwin-Willett said when she looks back, she’s happy for diversity and inclusion that the BSA created.

“I look at the doors we opened when we came here. We opened doors to have a BSA. We opened doors and had the first black professor here. Not only did we open the doors for the black professor but when she came, she held the door open.”

James De’Ke Pope, the second president of BSA, said BSA also helped those in the community voicing their concerns.

“I wanted to establish a relationship with high school students, especially those that mentioned they were interested in Memphis State. We started a summer school for those coming in and had book exchanges.”

In closing the panel discussion, Harry T. Cash III, assistant director of multicultural affairs and Kevyanna Rawls, president of Student Government Association, reflected on the long-lasting impact and influence of the former BSA members.

Cash recognized the members of the sit-in and blacks who have made contributions to the university community. Rawls cited the roles that have been filled by black students on the campus today and encouraged students to continue to fill those rolls.

Black Power in the Bluff City: African American Youth and Student Activism in Memphis can be purchased on Amazon.

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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