Political and social leaders gather to reflect on social justice and activism from 1968 to 2018
In 1968 the Nation was at war, the economy was in crisis, racial and political tensions were high, civil unrest had erupted, and people around the country were mourning the death of two monumental leaders in history.
Fifty years later faculty, students, researchers, and community members from across Baltimore gathered in Turner Auditorium for the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute’s (UHI) Social Determinants of Health Symposium, “1968-2018, Voices of Social Change: Empowered Communities for Health and Social Justice”, to remember the events of 1968, reflect on where we are now, and recommit to improving our communities. “We see this conversation as a dialogue between generations. It is not just about looking backward it is also about looking forward, it is about honoring the past and those who walked before, and it is about learning from the past […] so we are not condemned to repeat it.”, explained UHI director Robert Blum.
The Year Was 1968…
Local and national leaders reflected on what life was like for them during that tumultuous time. Many just beginning their careers, some fighting against the war in Vietnam, others coping with the loss of two American heroes.
|(L to R) Lester Spence, Senator Barbara Mikulski, Kathleen Townsend Kennedy, Congressman Elijah Cummings, and Taylor Branch on the “Reflecting on 1968 within the Context of 2018” panel discussion.|
“They killed my hero”, said Congressman Cummings in reference to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “I believed in King but then my hero was gone, and he was gone through violence, so it was a very difficult time for me.”
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend discussed the career of her father, the late Robert F. Kennedy, and how his death touched the country. “We all thought that train would be three and a half hours and in fact it was about an eight-hour train because spontaneously with no organization and no planning two million people came to stand by the train and to salute my father and they were white people and black people and working men and women” […] “Somebody said on that train what did my father do to be able to attract people from all across this country to come and stand and mourn him?” […] “Part of it is he had enormous physical and moral courage.”
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy left a lasting feeling of loss and devastation around the country but the work they left behind marked a symbolism of hope and equality for all, specifically economic equality.
|(L to R) Marc Steiner and Robert Houston on the “Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City” panel discussion.|
Marc Steiner sat down with photographer Robert Houston to talk about the Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City. The two discussed what it was like coming together with a diverse group of people from all over, marching to Washington, and living in shanty tents for six weeks. “The Poor Peoples campaign was made up of African Americans from all across America, from six different directions across the country […] so rural folks from the south who were Black, Black folks from urban areas especially in the north, Mexican Americans from the west, Puerto Ricans from New York, Appalachian Whites and poor Whites from Chicago, Native Americans from all across the west.” Said Mr. Steiner. Spearheaded by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and taken over by Ralph Abernathy after King’s death, the campaign advocated for poor people of all backgrounds in America and shed light on the economic struggles many were facing during that time. The historical moment lives on through pictures featured in publications and displayed along museum walls. These photos were captured by Mr. Houston.
“For me, this was a major experience of my life, a life-changing experience. I had never met so many different yet similar people in my life. I have never witnessed such unity, such caring.”, said Mr. Houston.
|(L to R) Ralph Moore, Willa Bickham, and Brendan Walsh on the “Anti-War Movement and Role of the Church” panel discussion.|
While the Nation was fighting an economic crisis, American troops were fighting in Vietnam. Ralph Moore, Willa Bickham, and Brendan Walsh discussed the anti-war movement and the role of the Catholic church. Providing context to the acts of Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine, sharing stories about peace activists and the Catholic worker, and explaining why war didn’t benefit anyone in 1968 and why it still isn’t benefitting us in 2018.
“War is not good for anybody’s health”, says Moore. “We are still feeling the effects of prior wars […] all of these have long-lasting impacts, not good impacts” with Mr. Walsh adding on “We have been at war for 222 years and the country has only been here for 242.”
Embracing the Diversity of Activism
Former Black Panther leaders, environmental crusaders, Catholic workers, political leaders, and artists shared how they advocate for their communities, demonstrating the diversity of activism throughout history.
|Dew More Baltimore Youth Poetry Team.|
Dew More Baltimore Youth Poetry team introduced their concept of “artivism”, using spoken word to address and express issues they and their peers face in their communities.
“[with] Poetry, if you can grab someone’s attention then you can keep their attention and if you turn their pain into something pretty, you can have them actually get it, instead of yelling at someone until they actually change.”, said youth poet and activist Keyma Flight.
|(L to R) Destiny Watford, Bishop Douglas Miles, Durre Smith, and Eddie Conway on the “Baltimore Political and Social Activism: 1968 and 2018” panel discussion.|
Activists of 1968 and activists of 2018 shared their perspectives on the political climate of Baltimore during the Baltimore Political and Social Activism: 1968 and 2018 Panel. With the older generation citing the differences they see in 2018 than they did in 1968, including Bishop Douglas Miles, a Baltimore pastor and community advocate, who cited three major differences between 1968 and 2018. The quality and level of education in this country, the presence and role of the black church, and the lack of strong political leadership on the national, federal, and local levels.
Youth environmental activist Destiny Watford weighed in, “What 2015 showed me was just how deeply the webs of our injustices across the city, which are usually hidden by this invisible veil that hides the injustices we face all over, was lifted.” “I began to see (different) ways to organize and to think critically about how we can connect to the injustices that we are all facing together and doing it in a way that is really powerful.”
|Ericka Huggins and Katrina-Bell McDonald on the “Women’s in Social and Political Activism” panel discussion.|
Katrina Bell-McDonald, associate professor of Sociology and co-director of the Center for Africana Studies, reunited with former Black Panther Leader and human rights advocate Ericka Huggins after thirty years to discuss the role of women in social and political activism since 1968.
“Women of the movements, all the way through, were the ones who held every single movement.”, said Huggins. “Right there on Martin’s arm was Coretta. […] She was the intellect of a lot. But do we know that? No, because we see her as a grieving widow, and so was I. […] It doesn’t take much to know women have been written out of the movements, so there is no role for us, we are the movement.”
Ms. Huggins also discussed the work of the Black Panther Party, the portrayal of the party in society, the contributions women made to the party, the importance of breaking down silos, and encouraged women to take care of themselves and bond with other women to help heal.
Congressman Cummings also shared a word of encouragement for the activists in the room to leave with. “I would encourage activists to make sure that every single child gets a good education and I really mean that. If you got an education, it makes a world a difference and we all have to fight for that.”
Where Are We Now?
While speakers remembered the historical events that happened between 1968 and 2018, such as the Baltimore riots in ‘68 and the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, many of them took the opportunity to reflect on the state of Baltimore and the country in 2018 and expressed concerns about how we are addressing issues such as poverty and racism.
|Author and historian Taylor Branch on the “Reflecting on 1968 within the Context of 2018” panel discussion.|
“So, in my view we are still stuck 50 years later in a country that is blessed by the student activism and black-led movement that set all this in to motion but we are cursed by a politics that denies all of those blessings and that still shies away from all but the most superficial engagement with the race issue in the United States.” said historian and author Taylor Branch.
Hopes for the Future
In addition, many expressed ideas for how communities can move forward and shared action steps people should take to help change the political climate of today. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend commemorated the work of her father and encouraged others to follow his lead, “What we need I think out of our politics today is a love for one another, a respect for one another, and sense of dignity for each person rather than to condemn those with who we disagree.”
Many credited young people as being the torch that will carry the flames of justice and advocacy and help shape the political decisions in years to come.
|Baltimore School for the Arts Students singing songs of the civil rights movement.|
“The new leadership that is coming up in our political world maybe will change that, that’s why I love this younger generation”, said Marc Steiner. “The younger generation is giving me more hope than I had in a long time, people in their teens and 20s and 30s.”
Former Baltimore Black Panther leader and founder of the Tubman House here in Baltimore, Eddie Conway echoed the same sentiments. “Nothing changes in societies throughout history without young people engaging. It’s always been young people, even when the black panther party started it was young people. […] Young people are the engines of change because they’re the ones that will inherit the future and if young people don’t engage they will end up in predicaments where they don’t have control.”
Imani West, Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute