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Everyday people essential to successful civil rights movements

March 28, 2013
Arrow Buff


Successful civil rights movements-both small and high profile-owe their outcomes not to a charismatic speaker who serves as the face of the movement, but to a well-orchestrated organization behind it that paves the way to victory.

Parallels between Deaf President Now (DPN) and other highly-publicized movements that have helped marginalized groups gain equal rights were explored at a March 13 panel discussion in Andrew Foster Auditorium. The event was one of many slated by the University on the 25th anniversary of DPN to examine and recognize the significance of this milestone for Gallaudet and the deaf community in the United States and around the world.

Serving on the “Comparative Civil Rights” panel were deaf community leaders Ruth Reed, a 33-year employee at the Clerc Center and a long-time member of the Washington, D.C. area Black Deaf Advocates; Dr. Isaac Agboola, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Sciences, and Technologies; and Dr. Angel Ramos, superintendent of the New Jersey School for the Deaf-Katzenbach Campus. Their discussion with moderator Edgar Palmer, associate dean of Diversity and Equity for Students, on the issue of diversity within social movements such as DPN followed a presentation by University of Maryland-College Park history professor Elsa Barkley Brown.

Dr. Brown’s research on American Civil Rights examines the roles of all people involved in the movement–women, children, youth, working class individuals-not just the leaders in the public eye. Successful protest movements are hard work, she stressed, and they require an incredible amount of organization. The very public events, such as rallies and marches, that gain media attention do not happen spontaneously, she said; they are the result of the diligence of a diverse mix of everyday people who organize these events and have the networking skills to ensure that they are well attended by supporters.

Using the historic bus boycott of 1955-56 against Montgomery, Ala.’s system of racial segregation on its public transportation as an example, Brown informed the audience that convincing thousands of people to stay off public buses-the main source of transportation for many at the time-took enormous effort. Not only did the boycott organizers need to arrange for alternative sources of transportation for protesters who couldn’t walk to their jobs and elsewhere, they needed to buoy the protesters’ spirits to carry on a boycott that lasted 381 days. This was particularly crucial in light of the fact that many people were fired by their employers when it was learned that they were taking part in the protest. Brown said that one of most important groups in the boycott was the city’s beauticians. Because they had access to a large number of people, beauticians were instrumental in sharing information, and beauty shops were often the place where car pools were dispatched, and where people who were out of work could pick up donated food and clothing.

Motivation by ministers and noted leaders such as Rev. Martin Luther King, not surprisingly, helped maintain the public’s will, said Brown, but it was the unification of a wide range of individuals and organizations behind the cause that ultimately helped the protesters persevere.

Turning to the panel discussion, each of the panelists said they were members of the campus community when DPN occurred, and the experience had a marked impact on their lives. Ramos, who was a fourth-year Ph.D. student at the time, thanked everyone who played a part in DPN, and said that without the movement, it would not have been possible for him to have had access to many of the professional jobs he has held during the course of his career. Reed, who was a teacher’s aide during DPN, agreed that the movement opened the door of opportunity for her. “It gave me the opportunity to be assertive and opened the possibility of building skills and experience,” she said. Agboola, who was in his fourth year of teaching in the Department of Business, said that DPN was a pivotal moment in his career, and influenced his decision to stay at the University. “I realized the importance of Gallaudet,” he said. “I truly value Gallaudet … This is a special place in the American educational system.”

When asked what most inspired them about DPN, Agboola, who is from Nigeria and marched to the Capitol as part of the Nigerian Association of the Deaf in support for DPN, said it was the realization by deaf people that they no longer had to accept the status quo. Reed said that seeing the power the Gallaudet students had was a source of inspiration for her. For Ramos, inspiration came from the multitude of groups, even the Washington, D.C. government, which had no direct connection to the deaf community that rallied behind the cause.

Brown’s observation that a successful civil rights movement is inherently tied to the diligence and hard work of everyday people, was a case in point for DPN, said Reed. “Parents, teachers, and staff all came together,” she said. “The day of the march was truly, truly heartening. Bystanders were cheering us on. It was amazing.” Ramos, who wrote a book about his experiences in DPN, reinforced the point by noting that alliances formed with groups outside the deaf community helped the movement succeed. “Deaf people were front and center, but without allies in the hearing community, we may have not succeeded,” he said. Not the least of these, he added, were the interpreters, many who traveled great distances provide interpreting services without financial compensation.

28 March 2013


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