34th Annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture
February 15, 2014
Tending the Light: Community Organizing & the Modern Civil Rights Movement
Opening Remarks by Chancellor Nancy Cantor
I want to begin my very brief remarks by saying what I know everyone in this room today feels – and that is the sense of history and moment that this represents; a civic ritual spanning 34 remarkable years, marking the courageous work of a pioneer, Marion Thompson Wright, who tragically didn’t see some of the victories of her time (the 1964 Civil Rights Act we also commemorate today) yet had a hand in so many (providing pivotal research to the NAACP for the Brown v. Board case). She, like the community organizers, scholars, and activists whom we will hear from shortly, put her prodigious talents to work for justice, despite the obstacles she personally faced as an African American woman – the first professionally trained as an historian. Just as today’s speakers organized Freedom Rides and persisted through the barricades and dangers of Freedom Summer, Marion Thompson Wright believed in the ubiquitous talent of all of our children and the inalienable rights of all of their parents. And if she were here today, she, like the historians who will grace us here, would likely remind us just how eerily history repeats itself, yes, in the clothes of the modern knowledge economy, but with the same threats to voting rights and the same discouraging gaps in educational access and economic opportunity that defined her times. So we are here today to take note of those times and of these times, and to honor the American spirit, of which the African-American narrative is so emblematic, to keep struggling toward lived democracy.
And we are here largely because another pioneering African-American humanist, scholar, historian, had courage and persistence, and vision too, 34 years ago and today -- Thank you, Clem –our extraordinary colleague and official City of Newark Historian, who had the foresight to begin this remarkable lecture, nurturing it for all of us and defining it as a landmark testament to the importance of memory.
The Marion Thompson Wright Lecture series is significant in so many ways, both tangible and intangible – as one of the nation’s longest running public lecture series, as a gathering place where the lines between citizen, scholar, public intellectual, and activist blur, and people with so many different histories and from all generations intersect, as a reminder that the call to action for democratic justice never stops, even as it must always be grounded in and informed by prior struggles on the same journey – a journey marked by long marches and many crossings, by resistance struggles and persistent community organizing, by Freedom Riders, Freedom Schools and Freedom Summer, all building to a new vision of justice – one that needs re-envisioning in each successive time and place.
I hope you will forgive me, one who is new here, if I say that this was the right and natural place for this lecture to be birthed, a place never shy about the necessity of speaking out and pushing long and hard for justice – one only need invoke the public memory of the takeover of Conklin Hall to see how much African American history and heroism is at the center of the Rutgers University - Newark story, the Newark story, and indeed the American story. And as we look across this campus and its metro region, at the narratives of the newest Americans, we recognize both the foundational steps laid by those freedom fighters and the long climb ahead in a time marked now by new barricades to social mobility and equality, new reasons to mobilize, organize, persist and join hands.
And when it gets difficult, as it does, we need only remember the words of Marion Thompson Wright, herself, who issued a clarion call for her time that continues to reverberate here with us today:
“Let us be vigilant in our efforts to eliminate still further the gaps between democratic ideals and practices. In so doing we shall not only strengthen our own nation but shall enhance her prestige as a world leader.”
It is a long journey to democracy—in America as it is everywhere. So as we engage with our speakers today and with friends, neighbors, and colleagues in this intervention in the building of the democratic spirit, let us commit ourselves to remain vigilant and to perpetuating this ritual that exemplifies the ways in which—as Dr. Wright saw so clearly—impact nationally and globally comes from the actions of each of us and all of us locally. Thank you.
 Marion Thompson Wright, “Extending Civil Rights in New Jersey Through the Division Against Discrimination,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Jan., 1953), pp. 91-107.