“This is 5/5 outrageous.” Students protest Emory’s SCLC exhibit opening

Commentary: In the midst of tumult, student activism has been heartening

As attendees made their way to last night’s opening reception for “And the Struggle Continues,” an exhibit showcasing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference papers housed at Emory University, they passed more than four dozen student and faculty protestors. Lining the circular foyer on the third-floor landing of the Woodruff Library, the demonstrators silently presented a thicket of placards—“We are Emory,” “We are sorry,” “I deserve 5/5 respect,” “Ethics is not a brand,” “This is 5/5 outrageous.” The SCLC artifacts provided an easy analogy: photos of Rev. Joseph Lowery with a bullhorn, Andrew Young walking a picket line, signs from 1968’s Resurrection City.

“Civil rights is not a photo op,” stated the poster held by one young Emory dissenter.

There was, of course, no better photo op than that protestor himself to cap off a week that started with social media outcry over Emory president James Wagner’s tin-eared (to put it charitably) column citing the Three-Fifths Compromise as an example of negotiation, peaked with faculty voting to censure him, and ended with this fraught-with-irony affair. (For a detailed account of the event, which included speeches by civil rights icons John Lewis, Dorothy Cotton, and Bernard Lafayette, read the Emory Wheel’s coverage here and see the New York Times slideshow here.)

It’s been a tumultuous year at the school, starting with broad program cuts announced right after the start of the fall semester and continuing through the current controversy. Granted, my perspective is hardly objective: I’m an adjunct instructor in Emory’s chopping-block-slated journalism program, and as a journalist and author my focus is civil rights and Southern history.

When I came to teach at this campus—with its reputation as blandly conservative bordering on apathetic—the last thing I expected was to witness protestors rallying in the quad and staging sit-ins in the administration buildng, professors leading demonstrations, and students adopting sixties protest tactics (along with the requisite millennial Facebook pages and Tumblrs).

While the events have been disheartening—in the latest case, downright distressing—it’s been encouraging to see that in this idyllic campus in the heart of Druid Hills, the spirit of protest has not been extinguished. And it’s been incredibly rewarding to see budding journalists, including a few of my former students, report on the proceedings with enterprise and integrity.

But what about a few years down the road? Many of the slashed programs are in the liberal arts. Will the faculty and students in the programs that remain have the same passion for advocacy and free speech? And speaking of that, without a journalism program, who will be trained to report on the changes that, inevitably, will happen?

P.S. The events of last night understandably overshadowed the opening of the exhibit itself, but you should do yourself a favor and go see it. The display runs through December 1 and provides a tantalizing sample of the riches contained in the almost 1,000 linear-foot SCLC collection—acquired in 2007 and opened to researchers last summer—which documents the many facets of the pivotal civil rights organization, particularly its post-MLK years.

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