On a rainy evening in September 2011, historian Rhonda Y. Williams welcomed two elders of the civil rights movement to the stage of Ford Auditorium on the Case Western Reserve campus. The event marked the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, the campaign that ended segregation in interstate bus travel in the American South. Diane Nash and the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian, veterans of that campaign, had come to Cleveland to take part in a public dialogue and commemoration.
In planning the evening, Williams, founding director of the university’s Social Justice Institute, had worked closely with community partners. She often does. The event’s co-sponsors included Olivet Institutional Baptist Church; Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit that relates the teaching of history to lessons about tolerance, respect and civic participation; and WVIZ/PBS ideastream, which had recently broadcast a documentary about the Freedom Rides. An excerpt from the film was shown before Williams began interviewing her guests.
She wanted to know what motivated them to engage in civil rights activism, and what enabled them to persevere. At one point in the struggle, it had seemed that the Freedom Rides might come to nothing. In May 1961, an interracial group of students and ministers had boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., planning to seek service at terminals and restaurants along the way to New Orleans. But when they reached Anniston, Alabama, Ku Klux Klansmen firebombed the bus and assaulted the passengers. Riders on a second bus were attacked at a station in Birmingham.
There were calls to stop the campaign, including one from U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. But Nash, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, believed that a second wave of Freedom Rides must begin immediately. Fifty years later, Williams asked her why she pressed for a course of action that some people regarded as suicidal.
“It was a critical moment,” Nash explained. “If the message had been sent that nonviolent campaigns could be stopped by racist whites inflicting massive violence, we would not have been able to have a movement about anything after that—not about voting rights, public accommodations or anything—without getting many, many people killed.”
“So it went beyond the Freedom Rides for you,” Williams said. “It was much broader.”
“Yes,” Nash said. “When that critical moment came, it had to be done, and it had to be done right then. It’s like metal. When it’s white-hot, you can mold it and manipulate it. But once it cools off, you can’t move it. And that moment had to be responded to.”
Before opening the floor to questions from the audience, Williams invited Nash and Vivian to reflect on the present-day significance of the history they had been reliving. “What are we about now?” she asked. “How can we connect the legacies of the struggle that you have been engaged in all your lives to what we think is important now and what we must do?”
“I think each one of us has got a specialty,” said Vivian, who in recent years has dedicated himself to improving educational outcomes for African-American youth. “There are certain battles you’ve got to win, and every struggle makes other struggles necessary. And if you’re not willing to fight the other struggles, you might as well have not fought the earlier ones.”
“It is such a mistake to expect politicians and government officials to do what needs to be done,” Nash added, provoking a burst of applause. “They will never do it. Hasn’t your experience with them shown you by now? They are not going to do the things that need to be done. You and I are the only people that are going to.”
To Williams, this vision of ordinary citizens as agents of social change is one of the great lessons of the civil rights generation. And she has made it central to the Social Justice Institute’s work, both within and beyond the university.
“Whether on campus, in the community or in the broader society,” she says, “the institute’s message is that we all have the power, the agency, the responsibility and the potential to bring about a more just society.”
The institute was established in 2010 as a hub for research and scholarship, programs and events, curricular innovation and civic engagement. Williams proposed its creation two years earlier, during a strategic planning process initiated by President Barbara R. Snyder and led by Interim Provost Jerold S. Goldberg. Among several other initiatives, the university was seeking to identify key areas for interdisciplinary research and collaboration—areas in which it could benefit society at large while enhancing its own reputation for excellence. Williams successfully made the case that an emphasis on social justice would achieve both of these goals, and in the plan adopted in 2008, social justice and ethics was named as a strategic priority along with energy and environment; human health; and culture, creativity and design.
It was not difficult for Williams to find faculty members who were receptive to the institute’s mission and willing to join its leadership team. Issues related to social justice are of interest to scholars and researchers in such fields as philosophy and history, sociology, economics, law, nursing and social work. Williams believed that by building connections across these disciplines, the institute could help generate comprehensive approaches to understanding and addressing social problems.
She also wanted the institute to devise new ways for the university to engage with surrounding communities. “Injustices existed around us on- and off-campus,” she wrote in a recent essay. Local neighborhoods were struggling with “the legacies and contemporary manifestations of exclusion, marginalization, and disinvestment.” Yet they also had resources that outsiders often overlooked: “human and institutional assets, rich histories, grounded knowledge, and founts of promise and hope.” How could the university both learn from these communities and contribute to their revitalization?
Finally, Williams saw the institute as a means to educate and inspire a new generation of youth leaders and social justice advocates. Activism, she explains to her students, “is not simply showing up when something is organized. It takes intellectual, emotional, physical work to move people toward a more just society. It means figuring out what your social issues are and building consensus. What action will we take? What are our campaign tactics? How do we build a platform?”
Williams’ ambitions for the institute emerged from her own work as a scholar and teacher. Now an associate professor in the Department of History, she joined the faculty in 1997 while completing her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. In her dissertation, she explored the history of public housing in Baltimore, her hometown, from the New Deal era to the 1990s. Her research involved census reports, government documents and newspaper archives, but she relied mainly on interviews she conducted with residents of public housing. These interviews revealed a tradition of activism among African-American women, who campaigned for decent living conditions in a city where residential segregation and a lack of economic opportunity limited their options.
“Poor black women’s marginalized status, which has shaped their circumstances in life, has obscured their history, too,” Williams wrote in a book that grew out of her dissertation. The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality won the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize from the Association of Black Women Historians in 2005.
Williams’ commitment to tracing “the often hidden narratives of people’s everyday lives” is something she passes on to her students. In 2001, she created a course called City as Classroom that focused on the urban landscape and its inhabitants. Williams held class in community centers, not on campus. Students toured local neighborhoods, talked with civic activists and participated in social action projects. As a result, Williams wrote at the time, they became aware of the “real-life experiences” of urban residents—people “who often appear as ‘objects’ to be studied rather than ‘subjects’ with valuable information.”
Kim Foreman (CWR ’01), one of the original students in City as Classroom, has applied its lessons to her work as associate director of Environmental Health Watch, a local nonprofit. Foreman leads initiatives to prevent lead poisoning and reduce asthma triggers in low-income neighborhoods. She has also been involved in campaigns to reduce industrial pollution and create green jobs for urban residents.
Seven years after she graduated, Foreman sent Williams an email with an update about her career. “First of all,” she wrote, “I want to thank you for your wisdom and getting students to think more broadly about the community and our place in society.” Since then, Environmental Health Watch and the institute have collaborated with Rid-All Green Partnership, an urban farm and training center in Cleveland’s Kinsman neighborhood, on a series of public events. A 2013 conference on social justice and the urban food movement generated so much interest that the organizers held another one this past April.
Collaboration has also been key to the institute’s efforts to advance social justice research and education at the university. For example, in cooperation with academic departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, the institute has spearheaded two faculty searches. The first, for a scholar of Latino history, led to the appointment of John Flores, the Climo Junior Professor and assistant professor in the Department of History. The second, for a scholar of urban inequality, brought Timothy Black to the college as an associate professor in the Department of Sociology.
To design its first undergraduate course, Introduction to Social Justice, the institute convened a team of faculty members from across the university. In Spring 2012, when the course was initially offered, it had two lead instructors: Williams and Diana Lynn Morris, the Florence Cellar Associate Professor in Gerontological Nursing in the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing. But everyone on the curriculum team remained involved, visiting the class to facilitate discussions of social justice in relation to history, law, literature, policy and ethics.
Since then, faculty members associated with the institute have developed a proposal, now under review, for a social justice minor. Eventually, Williams hopes to offer an undergraduate major as well as graduate and professional courses. “We also want to give some thought to the potential of establishing graduate degrees in social justice in collaboration with existing programs of study,” she adds.
Beyond the university, the institute has partnered with the Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope, led by civic activist Trevelle Harp, on a community-based research and engagement project in East Cleveland, one of the university’s neighbors. The Voicing and Action Project encourages residents to share their life stories and their views about East Cleveland’s needs, assets and aspirations. The goal is to apply the knowledge gained in this way to stimulate dialogue and build support for concrete steps to move the city forward.
The Voicing and Action Project has recruited a corps of community researchers, including some from East Cleveland, to conduct and film interviews with residents. All have received training in interviewing techniques, videography and research ethics. By summer 2013, the project had compiled an oral history archive with more than 100 hours of footage, and Research Associate Misty Luminais had started assembling excerpts for public presentation.
In clips screened last July during a forum at the East Cleveland Public Library, residents spoke of their ties to the community, the businesses and civic associations that once thrived there, and their ongoing efforts to strengthen local institutions. But they also recalled the economic and social wounds the city has suffered in recent decades—the loss of manufacturing jobs, cuts in public services, the foreclosure crisis. A few offered ideas for revitalization, such as making East Cleveland a mecca for African-American entrepreneurs.
In the discussion that followed, audience members recounted their own experiences and mentioned other issues the city faces. They asked how they could unite different segments of the community—elders and young people, homeowners and renters. While emphasizing actions that residents could take to build up East Cleveland, they also insisted on the need to secure external resources.
As the forum drew to a close, Williams stepped to the podium. “I want to recruit you all,” she said to the people gathered in the library. “I want you all to be part of the work.” She called on them to conduct interviews and to be interviewed themselves. She encouraged them to participate in an original theater production based on the oral histories, to attend town halls and help figure out “what other kinds of events we need.”
She also emphasized the contributions that each member of the community could make to the city’s future. “We need to value every single person, because we don’t know their full story,” Williams said. “People don’t know the full story of East Cleveland.” That, she explained, was what made the oral histories so important. They had the power to challenge stereotypes and change “how we think about the least among us.” They would give residents the chance to craft new narratives about their community—narratives with “people’s human dignity and respect and fairness” at their center.
“We need to channel our outrage, we need to channel our despair, we need to channel our energy,” Williams concluded. “We need to be ready to move in concert. Not simply for ourselves—we need to move for the collective ‘We.’ And when we move, we have to be moved by social justice. Otherwise, we’re moving in vain.”
Freelance writer Anastasia Pantsios contributed reporting to this story.