Connecting to the past, fighting for the future

Jul. 02, 2013 @ 04:26 PM

Nearly 40 years ago, Joan Preiss stood outside the Kroger a few miles down the road from my house. A construction paper-pickle tiara was crowned upon her head, and as she shouted “hasta la victoria,” she raised a carefully crafted sign that bore the words, “Boycott Mount Olive Pickles.”

Around the same time, black civil rights activist Ann Atwater found herself co-chairing the Save-Our-Schools charrette with the exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, C.P Ellis. He had a gun in his back pocket, and she had a bible in her purse, but before long, they came together to improve Durham’s schools for all children and became lifelong friends.

Although I was not alive during these monumental moments, I know about these things because I am a student of history. The past inspires me. There is something so inexplicably beautiful about using history as a lens to understand the world around you. I treasure my Durham public school education, and have gained so much from being in a diverse learning environment. I could not help but smile last November as I cast my vote for the first time, overly cognizant that less than 100 years ago, this would not have been possible because of my gender. I recognize countless numbers of ordinary people have put their bodies on the line to create the world I live in today.

However, as I witness the extreme policies being enacted by our Republican-dominated state legislature, I am scared. It frightens me that I may soon live in a world where there is no remedy for the documented racism in our criminal justice system. Where public education is attacked and devalued, and where health care becomes a privilege for the privileged. Where the tax burden falls on the working poor, and over 70,000 North Carolinians will be cut off from unemployment benefits. Where my environment becomes a commodity to be exploited without regard for the consequences, and college students are disenfranchised because of deliberate measures to impede their ability to vote.

This is not the North Carolina that I have grown up in, and this is not the North Carolina I want to see for future generations.

I refuse to sit back and watch as years of civil rights history in this state become erased by the actions of a misguided minority. When I first learned about the civil rights movement back in elementary school, I never would have thought that I one day I would be fighting to defend legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Brown v. Board of Education.   

For all of these reasons, I have felt compelled to participate in the Moral Monday protests. I made a sign that reads “No New Jim Crow.” I wear the huge globe earrings that my mom wore when she was a public school teacher, with hope that there can be peace and justice in our world.

I wear my bright yellow, “Still Walking for Justice”, t-shirt, which I first wore last fall as a part of an event to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the “First Freedom Ride,” and nine extraordinary unsung local women. I wear the shirt to bring all of the women we walked for into this next part of the struggle. 

Not everyone has a pickle tiara or a yellow t-shirt that is special to them, but I hope that everyone can find their own connection to the past and reason to fight for our present and our future. Somewhere along the way, someone made sacrifices so that you can enjoy all the privileges in your everyday life. It’s time to fight for what they accomplished. 

Eliza Meredith is a graduate of Durham Public Schools, and is working this summer with Historic Stagville Plantation, Jewish Life at Duke, and the Museum of Durham History. She is rising sophomore at Duke University.