Social justice advocates find common ground

The Claremont Colleges have produced leaders in politics, industry, medicine, science and the arts for well over 100 years. And the quaint, leafy, progressive town with an abundance of retirement living options has long been a preferred later-life destination for many of these same folks.

Perhaps no duo represents this distinctly Claremont yin-yang of youth and experience better than Myrlie Evers-Williams and Amanda Hollis-Brusky.

Ms. Evers-Williams, 84, has lived in Claremont since 1967. She was widowed after her first husband, Civil Rights pioneer Medgar Evers, was assassinated on the couple’s front porch in Jackson, Mississippi on June 12, 1963. A proud, articulate and self-confessed, “old-schooler,” she herself became a Civil Rights firebrand after her husband’s death.

In the years following, Ms. Evers-Williams continued his push for equal voting rights. She also raised the couple’s three children, graduated from Pomona College with a degree in sociology, led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), authored or edited several books and articles, worked in the petroleum industry and, on January 21, 2013, delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

In 1994, Ms. Evers-Williams marked another milestone in her lifelong pledge for justice when, after two 1964 trials with all white juries delivered hung verdicts, she finally saw to it that aging white supremacist and Klansman Byron De La Beck was convicted for the murder of her late husband, and sentenced to life in prison.

Ms. Evers-Williams, who is undeniably still full of fire, will appear at her alma mater, Pomona College, this Sunday, February 25, for the inaugural Payton Distinguished Lectureship. The 2 p.m. discussion will take place at Bridges Auditorium, 450 N. College Way, with the Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr. and will be moderated by Lorn Foster. A community reception will follow.

If Ms. Evers-Williams represents the top branch in the City of Trees’ accomplished citizenry, Amanda Hollis-Brusky is a bough on the rise. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Boston University in 2003, and her master’s and PhD from UC Berkeley in 2005 and 2010, respectively.

Ms. Hollis-Brusky, 37, a Claremont resident since 2011, is an associate professor of politics at Pomona College, an author, activist and mother. She is by any measure “one to watch” in the increasingly overlapping worlds of academia and politics.

An expert on the Supreme Court, she published her first book, Ideas with Consequences: The Federalist Society and the Conservative Counterrevolution, in 2015. It won the American Political Science Association’s 2016 C. Herman Pritchett Award for the best book on law and courts written by a political scientist.

Her second effort, Higher Counsel: Training the Conservative Christian Legal Movement (co-authored with Joshua C. Wilson) is in progress. The co-authors were recently awarded a three-year National Science Foundation grant for the project. All of this, and much more, she’s accomplished before turning 40. And along with her academic and creative pursuits, she’s a “very committed, very open feminist.”

“It started with the birth of my two daughters,” Ms. Hollis-Brusky said. “There’s something about wanting them to interact a certain way with the world, where you become acutely aware of the way the world interacts with them, and how the world has interacted with you.”

Getting these women from vastly different backgrounds—Ms. Evers-Williams was born in 1933 in segregated Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Ms. Hollis-Brusky in Marshfield, Massachusetts in 1981—together for a conversation provides an afternoon of erudite, passionate, first-hand insight into the struggle for racial, social and sexual justice in modern America.

What follows is the COURIER’s Q and A joint interview with the women. Their responses have been edited for brevity, clarity and cohesion.

COURIER: What sparked your activism, and how has that initial motivation changed over time?

Ms. Evers-Williams: “That position of being in the forefront did not come until the night my husband was shot down at our doorstep. One of the last things that Medgar said to me was, ‘You take care of my children.’ The second was, ‘Keep the fight going.’ I told him that night that I would take care of our children, but for the fight, I don’t know. And his answer to me was, ‘You must.’ That’s really when my activism started—the night he was shot in the back at our doorstep. That changed my life forever. That’s when I became an activist, because I was determined that he would not be forgotten.”

Ms. Hollis-Brusky: “I grew up in a very apolitical family. My parents rarely talked about politics. My earliest political memories were of the first Iraq war, just watching it on television, and hearing murmurings here and there. But I didn’t feel intimately connected to politics through college [at UC Berkeley]. I was always learning, and I was always interested in what people thought, but I was probably a little too deferential to the authority figures around me. I wasn’t taught to think critically, to ask the right questions, until much later. When I started to find my way in the world, and get a good sense of what it was I believed in, I happened to be surrounded by a great group of inspiring women that I admired. These were my friends from college. They ended up doing widely different things, but they all had a deep sense of responsibility and social justice. It was through my relationships with them and being infected by their passion that I came into the world as a political being in college. My engagement was voting, electoral politics and Democratic Party politics. It wasn’t until 2016, when I had been working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, running her ground operation and volunteering in phone banks, that I would say I became an activist.”

What is your take on the recent work of the #metoo movement?

Ms. Evers-Williams: “I’m still dedicated to that equality thing, where women can do and be whatever their womanhood will allow them to do and be. This is the promise of America, plain and simple. I’m still fighting. I’m a little tired, a little weary, but I’m still fighting.

I see the progress that has been made, and I am so proud of where the country has come. I hope it hasn’t stopped at this point. [Medgar] said to me, ‘You’re stronger than you think you are.’ And I think that today women see that in themselves. They don’t have to be told. They know they’re strong, and they know what they can do, and they’ve moved out to do it. I don’t think I’ve ever been as moved as I was when I saw the Women’s March, and I’m sitting there and I’m saying ‘Yeah!’ [slams her hand down on the table]. ‘I wish I was out there with you, but I’m there in heart and there in spirit.’ To see women of your age [gestures to Ms. Hollis-Brusky] go forth on what we built, and the fact that you did not allow the momentum to die, is such a blessing.”

Does higher education have a role to play in pushing the #metoo discussion forward?

Ms. Hollis-Brusky: “It’s very difficult as an institution to take a pioneering role, because if you receive money from the federal government, you’re subject to federal processes and regulations around sexual assault and sexual harassment. Within higher education, most of us that occupy that space—faculty, administrators—have shown leadership around the issue. I’ve been encouraged to see women in academia sharing their stories, being brave, signing open letters, just so we get a sense of the magnitude of the problem. There is a lot of bad that’s come as a result of social media, but one of the great benefits is allowing people to share their stories in a way that makes them realize they’re not alone. You find people. You can mobilize. You can bring action, and start to initiate policy change, because you realize, ‘Oh, that’s not normal. It’s not just the way it has to be.’

As far as higher education, I think we’re looking inward right now. We’re thinking about the space we occupy in our own profession, and how we can make positive change for women that come up after us, so that they’re not subject to the same kinds of threats and assault and harassment that we were. I think modeling that kind of courage, being able to speak up about experiences, is important for the work we do as teachers and educators. If we’re silent, then we’re complicit, and the next generation of women that comes up thinks this is normal. This needs to be something where all across different industries, women feel empowered to push back against this type of behavior. And they know that they’re not alone.”

Are we going backwards in America with respect to racial justice?

Ms. Evers-Williams: “I feel that we are. I don’t think I have to explain it. All we have to do is look at it. In my life, one of the greatest honors that I have received was being asked by President Obama to deliver the prayer at his inauguration, the first woman to do so in American history. I have a photograph of the two of us in my little small room, which I adore, here at the Gardens. I have it out where I can see it, and he is embracing me with his eyes closed. It reminds me of a son embracing a beloved mother. And it’s one of my most precious possessions. I look at that photograph and I think back to my life. I come forward to the time we met in the White House, and the blessing that I had to be able to pray for my country, land of my birth, that we be able to move forward—I could not ask for more than that.

“Even with all of the pain and the agony and anger, I know how blessed I am to be an American. I love the country of my birth. I hope, I pray, I continue as best I can to work that we become a better people every day. I am personally frightened as to where we are in America today. I must believe that this too will pass.

But it’s not going to pass unless there are people of action who see the wrongs in our society today and who will commit themselves to do all they can to eradicate them. And I am ready, prepared and dedicated to fight until I take my last breath. That’s where I am.”

How does the groundwork laid by Ms. Evers-Williams and her generation inform what you do? Do you feel the connection?

Ms. Hollis-Brusky: “I wasn’t around in the sixties, but to me, the kind of energy I feel when I’m in the streets, the sense of urgency that people have, it feels like a time of great possibility, for better or for worse.

I’m an expert on the Supreme Court and constitutional law. Every year I teach the work of the NAACP to my students—desegregation, the Civil Rights movement and the Civil Rights Act. I teach about gender discrimination, and the long battle to get that incorporated into the Civil Rights Act. When we think about equal protection, these are the movements that we look to, not only as successful examples of social movements, as the political scientist looks at them, but as inspiration for what’s possible when people organize and mobilize.

One of the great stories I tell in my law and politics class is about opening the doors of law schools to women and people of color [in the 1940s]. Opening those doors, allowing those lawyers to get educated and trained, they then paid it back. But women, and women of color, were not allowed into law schools in any significant numbers until [after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision] the fifties and into the sixties. Now women make up over 51 percent of law students. The legal profession is just catching up, and that matters, because those people go out and become legislators and public interest lawyers. They go and work for the NAACP or the ACLU or the National Organization of Women. The first step is taking these kids, who haven’t had access to these opportunities, and saying ‘We’re going to open a door for you. Ram your way through, because I know you’ve got it in you.’”

—Mick Rhodes

To read the full transcript of the interview, click the link below:


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