After Dr. C.T. Vivian’s extraordinary visit, the Ashland community was moved by his passion, stories, and testimonies to the cruelties of racism and segregated persecution. Those on both ends of the activist spectrum—those who criticized Vivian’s bias on racism as well as those inspired to change the presence of racism—spoke out. “Not all white people are racist.” True. “Racism doesn’t really exist anymore.” Doesn’t it? “I’m not privileged because I’m Caucasian.” Are you sure? His discussion clearly brought about a variety of opinions from all ethnic and race groups in the community and here on campus. A week later, a few faculty members and students came together with the Diversity Group and Student Affairs to drive through Sunday’s blizzard and into Selma.
I’d never been to Mansfield’s Cinemark, and I’d thoroughly enjoyed the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. event, so “why not?” I dragged my roommates out into the snow, bribing them with promises of popcorn and pizza and a free movie. They joined me, half-enthused by my desire to save the world by watching history unfold on the big screen. I’m glad they came. So, we hoarded into a van of people we didn’t know, bought some popcorn, and sat down for the always-exciting previews. Two minutes into the movie, the roommate to my left was in tears and she to my right was wide-eyed and watching intently as the camera zoomed in on the bodies of four little girls crushed and intertwined in a mound of church remains. Two hours later, we’d had the experience of witnessing MLK, C.T. Vivian, and LBJ make history. I’ve talked about history books and the distance they create—and they do. A factual, emotionless description of such events sometimes makes me question both the heart of the author and that of myself as an unmoved reader, but such is the way of a text book. A dramatic, emotionally-fueled account of America’s painful history, brought to life with real voices, untouchable filmography, and Oprah revokes all questions because a text book is a text book, but the history contained within holds such an incredible amount of pain, pride, failure, and triumph, any American History book editor would be brought to tears.
After the movie, we headed back to the chapel on campus for pizza and a discussion. I didn’t need the pizza to convince my roommates to come with me this time, but it was still a bonus. Who can resist Domino’s? The discussion bounced between professor, black student, white student, foreign student, and so on and back around. It became incredibly clear that the segregation and discrimination King fought so hard for during the civil rights movement in Selma, is still as present, if not as violent, in the world today and notably so on Ashland’s campus. Minority students recalled moments of sneers, blatant disrespect, eye-contact avoidance, and snide comments from white students—not all white students, but white students all the same. My roommate and I grew up in a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown: Murder Capital USA, #9 on the list of bleakest places not to live, prone to crime, racial violence, drug abuse and a blaring overuse of racial slurs. Austintown, where I grew up, isn’t Youngstown. A quiet suburb with a Wal-Mart, a few too many coffee shop chains—here’s looking at you, Dunkin’—and a public school system with an “Excellent” rating by the OBOE. When Austintown schools applied open enrollment policies, allowing students from other schools districts to voucher into the system, “Little Africa” developed in the cafeteria. Students from Youngstown’s inner city school system did not integrate into Austintown as expected; rather, these open enrollment kids, most of them minority students, stuck together in classes, athletics and social settings, such as lunch time. What ensued, therefore, was a section of the cafeteria of about 8 tables in the corner dominated by Hispanic and African-American students and the not-so-endearing term “Little Africa.”
What I now notice is the same thing occurring in Convo, Ashland University’s cafeteria. Students here know the swim team has their table, the art and drama students tend to sit in the Fishbowl, the exchange and foreign students all sit together in their respective country-of-origin groups, and the black kids sit together. This concept of normal and voluntary segregation was a topic of interest during the conversation following the “Selma” viewing, which leads to the question again: Does racism still exist, or does the fact that this is a “voluntary” form of social grouping make this a justifiable norm?
Emily Wirtz is a student intern with the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.