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The life of civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell inspires persistence in the pursuit of change


The presentation summarized Terrell’s life from her birth in 1863 in Tennessee and her ceaseless fight for civil rights, particularly those related to race and gender, until her death in 1954. Terrell’s life encapsulates the notion of direct action, or fomenting progressive change through the most immediate and effective means, whether that was her anti-lynching campaign, her founding of the National Association of Colored Women [NACW], her position as co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] or her legal feats in desegregation across the nation.  

Terrell accomplished many things that still resonate with civil rights movements today, but her importance as a civil rights leader is no less evident today than it was in the past. According to Parker, understanding Terrell’s lifelong commitment to progress in civil rights is essential for contemporary civil rights movements.  

“Political organizing and social change in civil rights do not happen at one particular moment,” Parker said. “It’s a long process. It’s not like you go to one protest, or one summer’s worth of protest. I do think that persistence and a refusal to give up is actually really important, and I think if the current generation understands that you have to have that persistence, then that is going to be useful. It’s a long game.”  

Parker concluded her presentation with an open Q&A from the audience, where she was able to engage with attendants and answer questions on the topic of Terrell. Damita Davis, the new Chief of Diversity Officer [CDO], was among the audience, and expressed an admiration for the presentation. Davis concurred with Parker’s assertion of persistence in order to create change.  

“Some things are not going to happen immediately, and so using [Terrell] as an example of persistence in the work of social justice and antiracism is important,” Davis said. “For me, I would take that example and really try to make sure that students and faculty understand that some things we can definitely move quickly on and others are going to be a process because we’re looking at shifting systems and systems are more difficult to change than an individual person’s mind.” 

Davis’ priorities as the new CDO reflect this balance between short-term and long-term goals, such as the short-term goal of finding a Program Coordinator for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion before Davis and her administration can begin to implement her long-term goals, such as building relationships with members of the community.  

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